Conspiracy theories, religious reasons, personal freedom: Digihunt Explains why convincing some NBA players to take vaccines is proving to be tricky

Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving refused to reveal whether he is vaccinated, or plans to get inoculated against COVID-19 by the time the NBA season commences in a few days. Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal said he was not vaccinated due to “personal reasons.” Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins tried to get an exemption from the strict vaccine mandate for the upcoming season based on religious grounds. Labelling himself ‘pro-choice’, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac made his reluctance to be vaccinated clear with a tweet which read: “I believe it is your God given right to decide if taking the vaccine is right for you! Period!”

LeBron James admitted — but only grudgingly — that he had been vaccinated against the virus after repeatedly saying in the past that his vaccination status was “his private matter”.

After the past two seasons of the NBA were held under the shadow of the coronavirus , the question of players’ vaccination status is likely to be the biggest talking point in the upcoming season. Digihunt Explains why vaccination against the coronavirus is proving to be a thorny issue in the league for a minority of the players, and how it could affect the league:

What’s the current status of vaccination in the NBA?

In July this year, Michele Roberts, outgoing Executive Director of NBPA (the players’ association), told Yahoo Sports that around 90 percent of players had already taken the vaccine.

This figure includes some of the biggest names in the league like LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard.

Teams like San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, and Charlotte Hornets will have fully vaccinated rosters when the season starts in October.

While the 90 percent rate is heartening, it pales in comparison to the WNBA — the women’s basketball league — where 99 percent of players were already vaccinated three months ago.

What is the NBA’s policy about vaccination?

So far, the league has not made it mandatory for players to get vaccinated. For the NBA to enforce such a mandate, it would need to come to an agreement with the NBPA (the players’ association).

Meanwhile, the league has incentivised getting vaccinated. Players who are fully vaccinated would not be subjected to regular testing this season. Meanwhile, players who are not fully vaccinated will be tested on all days involving practice or travel. It is likely that they will be tested twice on game days. These players will also have to wear masks at team facilities and during travel.

Players who are vaccinated will be able to sit together in the locker room, and during travel. They also will not be needed to quarantine if a close contact tests positive for the coronavirus (unless the fully vaccinated player starts to show symptoms of COVID-19 ). These exemptions will not be in place for un-vaccinated players.

Besides league rules, cities like New York and San Francisco have mandated that a player should have had at least one vaccine dose to enter a sports arena or practice facility (unless they have been exempted on medical or religious grounds). This means that should a player from New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets (both based in NY) or Golden State Warriors (based in San Francisco) refused to get inoculated against the coronavirus , they will not be able to play in home games. Should that city’s policy stay firm, players could also miss nearly half of the Playoff action.

What about referees and other staff members of teams?

The NBA has informed all 30 teams that anyone “working within 15 feet of players, coaches and referees this season must be fully vaccinated”. Referees, who officiate games will also be fully vaccinated.

What is Kyrie’s stance? And why does it matter if he’s in a minority among players?

Kyrie Irving was elected to NBPA’s Executive Committee as a vice president in February last year, and thus has a big say in what the players association does.

As one of the biggest superstars in the NBA, Irving is also a role model, who has used to stature to rally against racial injustice over the past few years. But his stance assumes more importance when you consider that as per demographic vaccination trends published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are currently getting vaccinated at a slower rate than any other race or ethnicity.

He has remained tight-lipped so far regarding his vaccination status. But many media reports, including one in Fox Sports, have said that the mercurial guard is un-vaccinated.

On Tuesday, during the NBA’s media day, he was asked multiple times, directly or indirectly, whether he was vaccinated, or planned to get inoculated. He was the only Brooklyn Nets to not be at the venue physically, needing to attend the media day press conference virtually.

“There’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie and I think I’d love to just keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan,” Irving told journalists. “So obviously I’m not able to be present there today, but that doesn’t mean that I’m putting any limits on the future of me being able to join the team.”

However, an article in Rolling Stone stated that “Irving had recently started following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that secret societies are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for a plan of Satan.”

What do other players, who are yet to take the vaccine, say?

Orlando’s Isaac has beaten COVID-19 already. So has Wizards’ Beal, who missed out on going to the Tokyo Olympics due to the virus.

While the Rolling Stone article claimed that Isaac had been “watching Donald Trump’s press conferences” other videos “where he learned about antibody resistance and came to distrust Dr Anthony Fauci”, the player insisted on Tuesday that he isn’t anti-vaccine, or anti-science, revealing that mother works as a health care professional.

“I thank God, I’m grateful, that I live in a society where vaccines are possible and we can protect ourselves and have the means to protect ourselves in the first place,” Isaac said at a media day press conference. “That being said, it is my belief that the vaccine status of every person should be their own choice. … I’m not ashamed to say that I’m uncomfortable with taking the vaccine at this time.”

Beal, meanwhile, used Tuesday’s press conference to question why fully vaccinated people were still getting the virus. “I don’t think you can pressure anybody into doing things, or putting things in their body. I would ask the question to those who are getting vaccinated, ‘why are you still getting COVID?’ … You can still get COVID and still pass it along it vaccinated.”

At the Warriors’ press conference, Wiggins said: “My back is definitely against the wall. But I’m just going to keep fighting for what I believe… keep fighting for what I believe is right. What’s right to one person isn’t right to the other and vice versa.”

If vaccine sceptics don’t take the shot, how does it affect the season?

The Brooklyn Nets are a title contender this season with superstars like Kevin Durant and James Harden in their ranks besides Irving. But New York’s vaccination mandate will mean that superstar will not be able to train at the franchise’s home arena this season, besides not taking the floor for any of the 41 regular-season home games, which could have an effect on how the Nets play. With the Irving situation threatening to become a pesky and permanent sideshow for this entire season, it could act as a mental diversion for his teammates.

Beal and Wiggins too are important figures for the success of their respective franchises’ ambitions. The latter, just like Irving, could miss out on 41 of Warriors home games.


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