We are over a year and a half into the pandemic and efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 are intensifying as the nation tries to return to a “normal” way of life. In addition to encouraging the continued use of masks, government officials – federal and state – are amping up their vaccination campaigns. Many cities and states are requiring proof of vaccination for entry to indoor spaces. But make no mistake, your favorite professional athletes don’t get a pass. Some NBA players risk losing part of their salaries due to their refusal to get vaccinated. Money aside, the issue has sparked the debate over players having agency over their own bodies.
One of the most vocal players in the dilemma is Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving. In addition to having arguably some of the best handles in the game, the socially conscious guard has a strong grip on his stances and opinions – even when they are viewed as controversial. The Nets play home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and New York is one of the cities that is enforcing a vaccine mandate. Their order requires that players in the New York market have at least one shot to play or practice. That’s right – the former World Champion stands to lose at least half his salary due to his inability to play home games. According to Spotrac, Irving is set to earn a base salary of $34,916,200 and an incentive bonus of $412,500 for the 2021-2022 season. Although not being available for games is a big deal, not being able to practice is an even bigger issue. After attending training camp with the Nets in San Diego, the star guard was absent from practice when the team returned to New York. He also had to participate in media day via video call where he told reporters, “I’m a human being first. Obviously living in this public sphere, it’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie.”
As far as whether his vaccination status will change, Irving says that he prefers to keep the matter private and handle it internally with the Nets. Head coach Steve Nash is remaining tight lipped and would only say that the team supports their starting point guard. He told ESPN, “We support him. We are here for him. Things change. When there’s a resolution, we’re here for him.” At this time, there are no plans to relocate practice to accommodate the Duke-educated star and he is adamant that he doesn’t want to create any distractions. “This is the last thing I wanted to create...more distractions and more hoopla and more drama around this. I’m doing my best to maintain this with good intentions and a good heart.” The organization is still unclear on the seven-time All-Star’s intentions.
In addition to Irving, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards and Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic have also been vocal about their anti-vaccination stances. Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins was adamant that he wasn’t getting the shot and even applied for a religious exemption, which was denied. With the denial, he would not be able to play in games in San Francisco due to the local mandate. Like Irving, Wiggins would lose a substantial portion of his salary – a realization that likely led to him ultimately deciding to proceed with the vaccine. After receiving the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the 26-year-old Canadian, who had previously contracted COVID-19, stated that he felt forced. Although his family is unvaccinated, they are what influenced his decision.
“It’s not really something we believe in as a family,” Wiggins told CNN. “They know that I had to. It came down to get the vaccination or don’t play basketball. I’m 26. I have two kids. I want more kids. I’m trying to do something that will generate as much money as I can for my kids and my future kids, trying to make generational wealth. So, I took the gamble, took the risk, and hopefully, like I said, I’m good.”
Wiggins’ comments on the matter on team media day show his true feelings and the thought process behind his perspective. After stating that what may be good for one person may not be the best thing for someone else, he turned his focus to the media – who he blamed for making the topic “bigger than it needs to be.” Further, he questioned, “Who are you guys that I have explain what I believe, or you know, what’s right or what’s wrong in my mind?” While he did what he had to do to secure his family financially, don’t expect the former No. 1 draft pick to go on a pro-vax campaign.
“But I guess to do certain stuff, to work, I guess you don’t own your body. That’s what it comes down to. If you want to work in society today, then I guess they made the rules of what goes in your body and what you do. Hopefully, there’s a lot of people out there that are stronger than me and keep fighting, stand for what they believe, and hopefully, it works out for them,” he said.
Whether you’re for or against the vaccine, it’s hard to discount the opinion of the former Kansas Jayhawk. When it comes to “my body, my choice,” recent legislation has displayed conflicting opinions. The state of Texas has all but banned abortion; yet their governor, Greg Abbott, has been staunchly anti-vaccination and anti-mask. To take it a step further, he has banned government mandates on COVID-19 vaccines. From a league standpoint, the NBA cannot force its players to get vaccinated – they would need an agreement with the Players Association. Seeing as how Irving serves as vice president of the union’s executive committee, we don’t see that happening anytime soon. The next best option to get everyone on the same page: Hit them in the pockets.
Less than three weeks away from the start of the regular season, Mike Bass, the NBA’s executive vice president of communications, issued the following statement: “Any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses.” So far, New York and San Francisco are the only NBA markets in which players are affected. The Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors, only allows those that are fully vaccinated to enter. Players on visiting teams are exempt from the orders.
Although 95% of players are vaccinated, the issue has still drawn a line in the sand in a league that has been heralded for respecting the freedom of speech and expression of its players. Warriors star Draymond Green spoke in defense of his teammate Wiggins. “”Why are you pressing this so hard? You have to honor people’s feelings and their own personal beliefs.” Arguably the face of the league, LeBron James, is vaccinated but agreed with Green’s comments. ”We’re not talking about something that’s, you know, political or racism or police brutality. So, I don’t feel like, for me personally, I should get involved in what other people should do with their bodies and their livelihoods,” said James. On the flip side, legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took to his website to blast James and Green for repurposing the idea of freedom of choice saying that they “offer no arguments in support of it, nor do they define the limits of when one person’s choice is harmful to the community.”
In times of uncertainty, exacerbated by the pandemic, no one is trying to lose any coins. However, the cost being paid by players choosing not to be vaccinated is not limited to their bank accounts. They have, and still are, being publicly criticized and derided about something that would normally be a private health matter. With new information coming out daily, the debate will continue to rage on picking up casualties – socially, physically, and financially.