The NBA has a COVID-19 problem.
Of the 24 games postponed in the NBA this season, 23 postponements have come since Jan. 10. Of the league’s 500 or so players, there have been 145 cases of positive tests or placement into the league’s protocol over coming into contact with someone who has been exposed. The NBA even considered pausing for a few weeks in late February to figure out how to get through the season.
The Washington Wizards, expected to be playoff contenders in the East, went 13 days between games at one point. The Philadelphia 76ers had to play one game with just seven players. The Dallas Mavericks lost five crucial players for more than two weeks over positive tests. Boston Celtics’ star Jayson Tatum missed five games due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Assuming the NBA doesn’t plan on returning to the bubble, there is another solution: vaccinate every player. Not only will it save the league a headache, it’ll serve a social purpose by demonstrating to vulnerable communities hesitant to accept the vaccine that there’s nothing to fear.
“There have been discussions. It’s something we’re particularly focused on,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at a recent virtual conference. “In the African-American community, there’s been enormously disparate impact from COVID … but now, somewhat perversely, there’s been enormous resistance [to vaccinations] in the African American community for understandable historical reasons. … If that resistance continues, it would be very much a double whammy to the black community, because the only way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated.”
Some disagree. Reed Tuckson, the cofounder of the Black Coalition against COVID-19 and the former commissioner of public health for D.C., said vaccinating players now would be “too early and inappropriate” and that the NBA should wait until Biden’s goal of 100 million vaccinated in 100 days is reached.
“As a country, we need to be galvanized around a common, shared sense of purpose and goals,” Tuckson said. “One hundred million in 100 days is a very important unifying mechanism. We’re seeing examples of privileged people attempting to use their power and influence to jump the line over those who are in categories of most need. This would be a terrible signal to send: that wealthy, privileged athletes were getting a special dispensation to get access to relatively scarce supplies of the vaccine.”
But giving the vaccine to NBA stars would serve a purpose beyond merely keeping the games on schedule. There is a “vaccine hesitancy” among certain groups, highest being the 18-29 age group (43 percent) and black adults (43 percent), according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll.
That same survey found that a majority of Americans expressed concern about the safety of the new COVID-19 vaccines: 68 percent say the long-term effects of the vaccines are unknown, 59 percent worry about serious side effects, 55 percent believe the vaccines are not as safe as they are said to be, and 31 percent think they might get COVID-19 from the vaccine itself.
One time-tested way to combat this uncertainty is by having famous and respected celebrities—including pro athletes—help educate the public about the vaccination process better.
It is hard to see how vaccinating about 500 NBA players publicly—and having the masses hear LeBron James, Steph Curry, Bradley Beal, Gordon Hayward, and others extol the virtues of vaccination—would have any negatives. Add in players like Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic and you get some international purpose.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and who has been vaccinated, recently wrote of the value such an effort would have.
“Of course, I would like to see the NBA season in full swing, with all the players safely inoculated, but not at the expense of those whose lives are in immediate danger,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “The exception: those receiving the shots as part of a sustained campaign to bring vaccination awareness to communities most in need of persuasion. Public celebrity inoculation is a proven and reasonable step in moving the nation toward herd immunity, opening businesses, and finally hugging our loved ones.
Dr. Anthony Fauci agrees.
“One of the things that is a concern to me, and the reason why we are putting a considerable amount of effort into it, is to get over the vaccine hesitancy that we see in some segments of the population,” Fauci said recently. “Particularly and understandably, the minority population who have some hesitancy and skepticism based on some historical mistreatments. We need to vaccinate, we need to implement it, but we also have to overcome the hesitancy associated with it.”
During these times, practical solutions are more useful than playing the blame game. The Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal seems to get that.
“We test twice a day at least for the last week,” Beal said. “That’s very overwhelming at times. But I feel like if we’re able to be safe and control the virus and just control the spread of it; I’m all in favor of it.”
“I just want to hoop. Hoopers hoop.”