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Why LeBron James' Covid vaccine cop-out is bad for the NBA

It matters what the NBA's superstars say, and the media attention they're getting for opposing a vaccination mandate is justified.
Photo illustration: A syringe divides the image of basketball players into two, left side is red and the right side is blue and shows the NBA logo.
Only a small number of NBA players remain unvaccinated against Covid-19.MSNBC / Getty Images

Ninety-five percent of NBA players are vaccinated, according to the league, a higher rate than even front-line health care workers. The NBA’s numbers are good. Amidst a tsunami of media coverage and scrutiny focused on the very wrong 5 percent, the truth about the NBA’s high vaccination should be shouted from the mountaintops. But we shouldn’t ignore the significance of star players such as Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal who are arguing for the“right” to not be vaccinated and to endanger their teammates, family members of teammates and all the front office workers who make pro sports run. Their position has also been supported by vaccinated superstars such as LeBron James.

Even though we are talking about a small minority of NBA players who are unvaxxed, what they say matters.

I think they are terribly wrongheaded about this. But the point here is not to point out the renunciation of public health and community solidarity that NBA anti-vaxxers and their defenders represent. It’s not even to point out that the same people — hello, Ted Cruz — who excoriated them or told them to “shut up and dribble” when they stood up to racist police violence last year are now singing their praises. The point is that even though we are talking about a small minority of NBA players who are unvaxxed, what they say matters, and the glare of media attention is justified.

These star athletes have put themselves out in front as leaders. They have built up cultural —and media — capital in the cities where they play and across the country. Beal led demonstrations through the streets of Washington after a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. Irving has been a walking solidarity machine for those affected by racism and for Indigenous peoples. Because they are leaders, their voices carry. We can bemoan the fact that in our celebrity-soaked culture, they have such a platform. But denying its existence doesn’t make it go away. You can choose to say that they aren’t “role models,” a la Charles Barkley 30 years ago, but that’s like choosing (as Irving once did, perhaps in jest) to not believe that the Earth is round. You can believe it all you want; it doesn’t make it so.

Athletes deserve absolute freedom of speech. They don’t sign away their freedom of expression when they sign sports contracts. If this is the way that Beal, Irving and James feel, then they shouldn’t feel stymied from saying so. But freedom of speech should never mean freedom from debate about what you are saying. This small minority of NBA anti-vaxxers and their much larger group of hooping comrades are not exempt from people pushing back.

They cannot say that their desire to remain vaccine free is “none of [our] business” because a communicable virus is everyone’s business. If they are going to equate “freedom” with a hyper individualized liberty to impinge on the freedom of others to not get sick, then they shouldn’t be surprised when people respond with criticism.

The most disappointing comment came from the vaccinated James who said, “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies. We’re not talking about something that’s political or racism or police brutality, things of that nature. We’re talking about people’s bodies and well being. So I don’t feel like, for me personally, that I should get involved in what other people do for their bodies and their livelihoods.”

First of all, thanks to people such as Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, this absolutely and tragically has become a political issue. It is even connected to racism and police power. Look at the race and class disparities in Covid-19 cases and deaths. That’s not just about vaccines, but air quality in schools, nutrition and access to health care.

As for police power, James should look at the police unions and their wildly irresponsible bullying to keep their members unvaccinated and ask why he’s supporting the aims of the very people who have spent the last decade attacking him and his politics. Second, James is abdicating from the very leadership that he has sought to claim over the last decade. That’s the thing about leadership: When crisis hits, people will actually expect you to lead. As Jemele Hill wrote, last week was a banner week for being “loud and wrong.” Players have the right to use their new social justice platform however they choose. But when they advocate positions against the public who built that platform, the public can also respond however it chooses.