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No, the Vaccine Isn’t Really a Personal Choice for NBA Players

The COVID-19 vaccine greatly reduces the likelihood of contracting and spreading the disease. It's not a personal issue; it's a public-health issue.

The frustrating thing about a handful of Kyrie Irving’s polarizing views—about Earth being flat, for instance—is that they overshadow the fact that he’s been spot-on about other important points.

In May, before playing in front of a Boston crowd for the first time since leaving the Celtics, he told writers he hoped fans wouldn’t behave in a racist or belligerent manner. But then on that trip, a fan launched a water bottle at Irving’s head as the guard walked off the court following the contest.

Irving drew criticism from some corners during the height of the pandemic, too, when the NBPA's vice president reportedly supported the notion of punting on the rest of the suspended NBA season—and the idea of the bubble—after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. His concerns included the idea that simply returning to business as usual, even in a bubble, might undercut the players’ ability to draw increased attention to the issues of systemic racism and police brutality against Black Americans.

Months later, after the bubble was up and running, that sentiment seemed to gain validation. Players were beside themselves after an officer shot Jacob Blake in suburban Milwaukee, prompting the Bucks to first boycott, then postpone their playoff game that evening as a result of the incident. In a memorable comment surrounding the situation, Milwaukee guard George Hill said, “We shouldn’t have even come into this damn [bubble], to be honest,” a remark that lent credence to Irving’s initial objection.

So we’ve seen instances of his concerns being on the money before. Which is why this most recent story, relating to Irving’s vaccine hesitancy, is so frustrating.

The decision to not get vaccinated, when the science overwhelmingly suggests it leaves individuals and the population as a whole far safer that way, would be more comparable to the flat-Earth conspiracy theory that Irving fed into six years ago if not for the broader, more serious risks involved here. For as much as some people—and unfortunately a handful of NBA players—repeat that a person’s vaccination status is a personal issue, it’s also a public-health issue.

“I think there’s something to be said for people’s concern about something that’s being pressed so hard. Like, why are you pressing this so hard?” Draymond Green asked rhetorically Thursday, adding that he saw teammate Andrew Wiggins’s choice to remain unvaccinated—potentially leaving him unable to play in home games, due to San Francisco’s vaccine mandate for large indoor events—as a personal one.

The obvious answer, of course, is that we’ll soon surpass the 700,000-lives-lost mark in America due to COVID-19. There’s no such thing as it being a merely personal choice when being vaccinated greatly reduces the likelihood of contracting and spreading the disease. Getting the shot helps the cause, and potentially saves lives. Sure, good-faith requests for a religious exemption fall under more of a gray area. But generally speaking, not getting the shot allows for an increased probability of others getting sick. The shot is the unselfish move at a time when many people are making vaccinations about themselves.

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This isn’t to suggest Irving doesn’t ever think about people other than himself. When he eventually apologized over his flat-Earth comments, Irving said he’d heard from scores of science teachers whose jobs were made more difficult due to the questions he’d raised. (He also said the fallout showed him how much weight his words carry as an NBA star.) In the wake of Floyd being killed, Irving bought Floyd’s family a home. A little over a year ago, he committed $1.5 million to help supplement the income of WNBA players who chose to sit out last season—both for those who sat out due to coronavirus concerns, and social-justice ones. Three years ago, Irving embraced his Native American heritage during an emotional trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The year before that, in 2017, he gave the tribe—which his late mother was born into—a donation in excess of $100,000.

Irving also donated pallets of food and masks to the tribe last year in the midst of the pandemic—something that was sorely needed in the Native American community, which had a COVID-19 mortality rate nearly twice that of white Americans and got hit harder than perhaps any other demographic in the country last year due to inequities in infrastructure and access to health care.

Just as Irving has embraced the Native American community, the NBA beats us over the head with messaging that it's a “brotherhood.” Yet at times it’s hard to feel as if we’re talking about the same league. On the one side you’re hearing about how Karl-Anthony Towns’s life has been utterly shattered by COVID-19, not only claiming the life of his mother and six other relatives but also draining Towns of 50 or so pounds upon contracting the coronavirus himself. On the other side, you hear others expressing doubt and calling the vaccination a personal choice, as if no one else has the potential to be impacted by that call.

It sounds somewhat ludicrous to fully assert that viewpoint in light of the fact that players like Irving and Wiggins could miss more than half of their games due to local vaccination mandates in New York and San Francisco. It becomes a team issue at that point, as it impacts their teams’ chances without them on the floor. That’s a wildly consequential thing for a club like the Nets, who look like the favorite on paper, but just months ago saw their championship hopes extinguished by a lack of availability.

The issue of vaccinations has come under an enormous microscope lately in the NBA, with some calling into question Lakers superstar LeBron James, who earlier this week said he’d gotten the shot, but only after some hesitation about it. (He’s also gotten some social-media criticism for trotting out the same “It’s a personal decision for each person” line that Green and so many others have said recently.) Yet there should probably be more grace shown to those who take the time—even if it’s more than we’d like them to take—to ask the right questions and talk to the right specialists to feel more comfortable. Something that’s lost in the primarily white, male-dominated media world is the fact that Black athletes—Black people—have historical reasons not to inherently trust medical practices as much as everyone else.

At least James eventually came around to making a decision that’s backed by thorough levels of research, much like a number of other NBA players likely did. The league currently sits at a 95% vaccination rate, despite how vocal the increasingly thin minority has been of late. Between the threat of missed game checks in New York and San Francisco, and NBA rules making it increasingly challenging to take part in activities alongside teammates without the shot, the league is knowingly tightening the screws on those who haven’t gotten their shots yet. It’s something the unvaccinated won’t enjoy, but it’s also not all that different from what airlines, schools and hospitals around the country are mandating. And those employees aren’t being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per performance.

Regardless of what some cable networks say, or what some YouTube videos will have you believe, the reality is that there have almost always been some vaccinations required in this country to keep the population safe. To join the military. To send children to school, or to college. To work in health care.

And whether Irving, Wiggins, Bradley Beal and others see that as keeping themselves safe is somewhat irrelevant, harsh as it sounds. It’s just as much about keeping everyone else around them protected, too. And that’s what makes the vaccine more than just a personal choice, despite the way so many people keep labeling it.

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