Players’ union Michele Roberts: Focus should be on NBA 90% vaccination rate


The best thing written this week on coronavirus vaccination in the NBA was not the Rolling Stone story on the push from anti-vaxxers among players, nor the countless stories about whether Kyrie Irving will get vaccinated and be able to play home games in Brooklyn, or the same for Andrew Wiggins in Golden State, or the “logic” of Bradley Beal in Washington.

No, the best thing was the argument we should stop giving headlines to a loud and very wrong minority of players, made by Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports. “The ballplayers who claim ‘the bloggers who’ve never picked up a basketball’ are out of line for criticizing them are now doing the same tactic with science, except it truly is life or death.”

Players union president Michele Roberts echoed that same sentiment — the focus should be on the 90% of players who are vaccinated.

“Over 90% of our players are fully vaccinated. Nationally, on average only 55% of Americans are,” Roberts said. “The real story is not why vaccination isn’t mandated in the NBA. The real story for proponents of vaccination is how can we emulate the players in the NBA.”

She’s right.

But what happens in sports is a mirror on society, and that is certainly the case with vaccines. The percentages may be different — and that is good for the NBA and its players — but the arguments and attempts to change minds by logic or by changing the calculus of players mirrors what we have seen in society at large.

Maybe a WNBA-style player-to-player education campaign would have worked better in the NBA — and been better in society as well — but that ship has sailed. The studies and verified proof that vaccinated people are less likely to get sick or be hospitalized from COVID-19 or that they are far less likely to pass it on to others (such as family members or loved ones) will not change minds at this point. A handful of players at media day echoed what anti-vaxxers have said across the nation: they are doing “their own research” (are they scientists working in a lab suddenly, because YouTube isn’t research), and it should be about personal choice (instead of looking out for others around them).

So, the league changed tactics. It mandated vaccination where it could, with coaches and team staff who deal with players and referees who work games (similar to businesses that have required vaccinations for workers). The NBA cannot mandate player vaccination — that has to be negotiated with the players union, who called it a “non-starter” — but it did try to make just doing their job more difficult for the non-vaccinated, such as game-day testing and other restrictions.

As Goodwill noted at Yahoo Sports noted, it’s not a coincidence that the three most prominent names of anti-vax players (Irving, Wiggins, and Beal) all make more than $30 million a year and have the financial wherewithal to make this decision.

Goodwill and Roberts are right on the key point, too — 90% vaccination rates (and climbing) is a good number, and if society at large were at that percentage we would be in a much better place as a nation. We should talk more about the players who did get the jab for all the right reasons. Here are just three of many examples: