The NBA is often considered the country’s most progressive sports league. The league has historically, and even more so recently, endorsed their superstars using their voice to advocate on a variety of societal issues. Usually, the two go hand-in-hand – The modern-day NBA superstar often speaks a message that resonates with the league’s fanbase, and the league is satisfied with the connection this creates between their players and fans.
But recently, the COVID-19 vaccination has thrown a wrench into this equation. The progressive ideology of the league is currently in a crisis with empowered players who strongly refute getting the shot. Currently, the two sides are at a stand-still.
It was less than 12 months ago when the NBA was applauded for their efforts for finishing the 2020 season during the peak of the pandemic. The league sent a message to on the importance of combatting COVID-19 when they created a bubble in Orlando, Florida and required strict isolation from the rest of the world. Seemingly, everyone was aligned on the importance of player safety. Now as the 2021/2022 season rapidly approaches, the players and the league don’t seem to be seeing eye-to-eye.
League officials have encouraged players to get vaccinated before the preseason starts on October 3rd, but there has been no vaccination requirement set by the league. Reportedly, there was a strong faction of players opposed to a vaccination requirement at the NBA Players Union meeting on August 7th, and the union decided to take this stance with the league. The league took the message loud and clear and has backed off these talks.
The NBA claims that 90% of their players are already vaccinated, with more joining soon. While the 90% rate may seem high, it’s surprisingly lower than the NFL player vaccination rate. This is true even with the NFL having a more conservative leaning fanbase and player pool.
While improvements to this 90% rate is a priority, the biggest headache for the league may be who falls into the 10% unvaccinated.
Kyrie Irving, a Vice President of the NBA Players Union, is reportedly one of the biggest objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine. Irving is a polarizing figure. On the court, he performs in ways that can’t even be replicated in video games. His Nike shoe line is staggeringly popular on a global basis, and he’s starred in his own box-office picture Uncle Drew. But the current Brooklyn Nets point guard has repeatedly made decisions and comments that leave his supporters and the league scratching their head.
In 2017, Irving claimed he believed the earth was flat. After severe backlash, he has since backpedaled on these remarks. During the middle of the 2020 NBA season, Irving took a two-week absence from the Brooklyn Nets and never provided a concrete explanation as to why. He also was forced to enter NBA COVID-19 protocols and take another leave from the team after he was filmed at a family birthday party without a mask in violation of league rules. That same season he was fined by the league for failing to hold sessions with media members while referring to them as “pawns”.
If we keep with Irving’s chess analogy – while the media serves as pawns, Irving represents a queen who is shifting unpredictably all over the board.
Irving hasn’t officially voiced his anti-vax opinion, but if you scour his social media feeds you can start to paint a clear picture.
Irving later posted a follow-up tweet clarifying that “mask off” wasn’t COVID-19 related. Although, his Instagram activity begs to differ. The Rolling Stone reported that Irving has spent time following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist that claims the COVID-19 vaccination was created by “secret societies” to connect Black Americans to a master computer for “a plan of Satan”. Apparently, Irving has spread this micro-chip misinformation to people he is close with across the league. The NBA and Brooklyn Nets officials have yet to comment.
The Brooklyn Nets had their opening media day scheduled for September 27th. Irving was likely going to be peppered with vaccine-related questions in an attempt to get some clarity. Just hours before the start of media day, the Nets announced that Irving would not be in attendance due to health and safety protocols. Irving joined Nets media day via Zoom and dismissed questions about his vaccination status stating, “Please respect my privacy. Next question.”
The drama continues.
Irving isn’t the only NBA player who stands firm on anti-vax beliefs. Johnathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic was formerly most known for refusing to kneel for the national anthem alongside his teammates in the Orlando Bubble as a protest against police brutality. Isaac, who is an ordained minister and lives his life in lockstep with his religious beliefs, has now shared his views on a league-wide vaccination requirement.
While the league has not taken steps to force players like Isaac to receive the shot, they may be assisted by local regulations. New York City and San Francisco have both enacted vaccination requirements for anyone over 12 years old entering indoor venues such as NBA arenas. This means unvaccinated players on the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and Golden State Warriors would be unable to play in home games. I know the phrase “he shot that one from the parking lot” is synonymous with sharpshooters like Steph Curry, but it’s not a realistic viable option for anti-vax NBA players who wouldn’t be allowed in the arena.
Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins previously stated he would only get vaccinated if he was forced to. Wiggins was recently denied a religious exemption request by the league so if he intends on playing home games for the Warriors this season, he will have to get the shot.
Kyrie Irving may also attempt to obtain a religious exemption and hope for better luck than Wiggins. Irving’s mother was part of the Standing Rock Sioux Native American tribe and Irving has been making an effort to acclimate with the tribe in recent years. This past month, Irving took a trip South Dakota to connect with his roots. It remains unclear the criteria the league is using when analyzing religious exemption requests and whether Irving would qualify.
The NBA has yet to take the route many colleges have adopted throughout the country and forced their athletes to get vaccinated. According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, employers can require employees to be vaccinated if they are to physically enter the workplace. The league has not taken this step to enact a vaccination requirement, but players may be forced to get the shot through local mandates. The league’s stance is clear – they want their players vaccinated. But they are treading lightly because they also don’t want to start a vaccine war with the Players Union and some of their biggest names.
In league that is built on their superstars, many of them have been uncharacteristically quiet about the vaccine. LeBron James willingly shares his views on everything from Hip-Hop to political candidate endorsements, but he has cautiously danced around his feelings on the vaccine.
The NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is unsatisfied with the superstar silence, “They are failing to live up to the responsibilities that come with celebrity. Athletes are under no obligation to be spokespersons for the government, but this is a matter of public health”. He continued, “There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research.”
So where does that leave us? Currently, the players and the league are staring at each other and hoping for the other to budge. Players in cities that are requiring vaccines, such as Kyrie Irving, will have to get the shot or risk not being able to play in home games. The league will conduct daily COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated players and hold their breath that the season will operate without major setbacks. This story will be ongoing throughout the season.
Matthew Netti is a 2021 graduate from Northeastern University School of Law. He currently works as an attorney fellow at the Office of the General Counsel for Northeastern University. You can follow him on twitter and instagram @MattNettiMN.
 Matt Sullivan, The NBA Anti-Vaxxers Are Trying To Push Around the League – And It’s Working, The Rolling Stone, (Sept. 25, 2021) https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/nba-anti-vaxxers-covid-1231988/.  NBA.com staff, Kyrie Irving on Flat-Earth Comments, “I’m Sorry”, NBA, (last visited Sept. 27, 2021) https://www.nba.com/news/kyrie-irving-regrets-flat-earth-comments.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Brian Windhorst, Kyrie Irving Finds New Name and New Family on North Dakota Reservation, ESPN, (last visited Sept. 27, 2021) https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/24444427/kyrie-irving-embraces-native-american-heritage-sioux-naming-ceremony-nba.  Matt Sullivan, The NBA Anti-Vaxxers Are Trying To Push Around the League – And It’s Working, The Rolling Stone, (Sept. 25, 2021) https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/nba-anti-vaxxers-covid-1231988/.