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A Few NBA Players Aren't Ready To Take The (COVID-19) Shot

Fans sit practice social distancing during a game between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers on April 15 in Los Angeles. With a new season set to begin soon, some players are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ringo H.W. Chiu
Fans sit practice social distancing during a game between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers on April 15 in Los Angeles. With a new season set to begin soon, some players are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Updated September 30, 2021 at 12:25 PM ET

The NBA has returned and back with it are COVID-19 worries.

For a third season the association is navigating operating games while trying to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

This time around they have a new move: Vaccines — but not all players say they're ready to take them. The vast majority of players in the league are vaccinated, but some high-profile athletes have said they won't disclose if they're vaccinated or not.

Also notable, the WNBA said in June that 99% of its players were fully vaccinated.

The penalties for not proving vaccination

As training camp started this week, some players brushed off questions about the vaccine. The Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving and Golden State Warriors player Andrew Wiggins told reporters they wanted to keep their vaccination status private.

But their statuses may not remain private for long: Both Wiggins and Irving play in cities with regulations barring unvaccinated players from playing in indoor arenas, and it's presumed they're both unvaccinated. It's unknown what will happen to players who remain unvaccinated and play in areas with such ordinances.

Rolling Stone reports some unvaccinated players are considering "skipping home games to dodge the New York City ordinance ... or at least threatening to protest them."

And since the NBA has announced unvaccinated players won't be paid for games they miss due to local ordinances requiring vaccines, some players could risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for each game they sit out.

High-profile calls for consequences

Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards told reporters he wasn't vaccinated because of personal reasons, then went on to question what might happen if a player couldn't play because of complications from the vaccine. Irving has allegedly liked Instagram posts that include vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing death and serious illness. And scientists aren't the only ones saying so, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also joined in.

In an article published in Rolling Stone Saturday, Abdul-Jabbar said the NBA should require all players and staff be vaccinated — or cut them from the teams.

"There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research," Abdul-Jabbar said.

LA Lakers star LeBron James announced Tuesday that he'd been vaccinated. "I know that I was very skeptical about it all, but after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends, and that's why I decided to do it," James said during media availability with the team.

Precautions beyond the vaccine

ESPN reports added tension is bubbling up around unvaccinated players' statuses, as some NBA staff worry the players might spread COVID-19 and fuel breakthrough infections. The league required all personnel around players, including coaches and referees, be vaccinated, according to several media outlets.

The NBA doesn't have a vaccine mandate for players because the league says the players' union rejected the idea. The league reports it will implement a slew of other precautions. They include testing unvaccinated players often and barring them from visiting what the NBA called "higher-risk settings," such as restaurants, bars and clubs, the Associated Press reports.

Most players did roll up their sleeves, even without a league mandate. The New York Knicks report that their team's entire roster is vaccinated.

Michele Roberts of the National Basketball Players Association said the real story is how many players are vaccinated. "Over ninety percent (90%) of our Players are fully vaccinated. Nationally, on average only fifty-five (55%) of Americans are ... The real story for proponents of vaccination is how can we emulate the Players in the NBA."

Regular season play starts Oct. 19.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
Nell Clark
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.