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A different kind of vaccine hesitancy

With a vaccination rate approaching 100%, why have players been so quiet on the subject of vaccine mandates?

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

On September 27, teams around the NBA held their media days. And from coast to coast, not a single player asked about the COVID-19 vaccine supported the idea that vaccination should be mandatory for NBA players. Players like Marcus Smart, who had one of the league’s first COVID-19 infections, didn’t speak in favor of mass vaccinations. Karl-Anthony Towns, who has lost seven family members including his mom to COVID-19, has seemingly softened a stance he expressed two weeks ago in a sarcastic tweet, saying at the Timberwolves’ Media Day that “everyone has their own beliefs,” before adding, “I’m okay with you not wanting to do it.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, players like Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal—who missed the Olympics due to COVID-19—were openly dismissive of the vaccine’s merits.

An article that Rolling Stone published on September 26th highlighted a number of vaccine skeptics in the NBA. And although NBA alums like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley have come out strongly in favor of the vaccine, endorsements from well-known players come off as lukewarm, at best.

An obliquely sarcastic reference to the controversy from Robin Lopez was the closest any player came to advocating a strong vaccination policy.

What is unusual about this is that player comments do not reflect the wide spectrum of opinions on the vaccine held by the public at large.

It should be no surprise to see people with unconventional takes on the vaccine in the NBA; after all, each of us likely knows individuals with a similar viewpoint. But where we also almost certainly know people who are strongly supportive of a vaccine mandate, not a single NBA player has expressed that opinion.

Around the same time Karl-Anthony Towns was expressing frustration with unvaccinated individuals, ESPN published a report describing a player vaccine mandate as a “non-starter” from the union’s perspective.

That so many player responses included the caveat that they respected other players’ right to make their own choices could be part of the NBPA’s negotiating strategy with the league, since their individual responses seem to mirror what is likely the NBPA’s official stance as they negotiate the upcoming season’s COVID-19 protocols.

Unions do not normally provide talking points to employees or guidelines for interacting with the media during contract negotiations, according to Bob Fetter, a partner with Miller Cohen P.L.C., a union side labor law firm based in Detroit. “The press doesn’t talk to steelworkers when they get off their shift,” he notes, before adding that professional athletes are in a very different situation. “These guys are talking to the media every day.”

In such a situation, if a number of players voiced opinions that differed from the negotiating stance of the union, the league could use this to undermine the union’s position. “Management is typically not allowed to poll employees during negotiations,” says Fetter, “but if enough players are asked the same question, that could effectively function as a poll.”

“You don’t want a situation where management can come to the union and say, ‘look, your own members disagree with this.’”

Even as player vaccination rates creep up toward 100%, players’ responses to questions over vaccination mandates remain solidly in step with the union’s apparent official objection to a blanket mandate.

On October 1, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Herring took players to task for failing to strongly endorse vaccine mandates, and there is some validity to the idea that players should speak their conscience regardless of the consequences.

The problem is that negotiations between the league and the union over this season’s COVID-19 protocols are not taking place in a vacuum. The NBPA has to maintain an ongoing relationship with players and with the NBA, one in which both the league and its players have confidence in the ability of the NBPA to act as a legitimate representative of player interests during collective bargaining.

If one of the strengths of collective bargaining is that it provides individual employees access to a more level negotiating platform with their employer, it also carries with it the fact that it is a collective undertaking, which means that some employees will likely disagree with some points in the union’s official position.

Toward that end, if players undermine the work being done by the NBPA’s negotiating committee on COVID-19 policies by publicly disagreeing with it, that doesn’t just weaken the NBPA during these negotiations. Public disagreements could harm the NBPA’s credibility, impacting future contract negotiations as well.

It is also fair to observe that the health benefits of COVID-19 vaccination are, if not as great as originally hoped, still such that negative outcomes from exposure to the virus are orders of magnitude less likely. In this light, it seems reasonable to ask why the opinions of NBA players should be expected to be persuasive in any context, either in favor of or against the vaccine. The statistics alone should suffice.

Regardless of whether the league or the planet gets fully vaccinated, we’re going to have to figure out a way to live together. As Grant Williams told Rolling Stone, “...no matter someone’s vaccination status, that won’t determine relationships. You’re not going to agree with someone on the same political issue, the same financial issue. Just like in life, you learn to adapt, you learn to talk to those around you.”

That might be a lesson learned here. As divisive as this topic has become, the NBPA, at least internally, has avoided conflict while approaching a 100% vaccination rate. That could be framed as a model of how the rest of us should be.