While the NBA makes its way through its truncated regular season, weathering the storm of coronavirus-related postponed games and injuries to superstar players, there’s been a simmering issue among at least a few of its players that will have real-world consequences if not addressed immediately: vaccines.
It started over the summer when Dwight Howard and Michael Porter Jr. expressed concern about vaccines, even before Moderna’s and Pfizer’s formulas were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In the last week, Golden State Warriors teammates Andrew Wiggins and Kent Bazemore both said they will not take the COVID-19 vaccine, or at least not “soon” in the case of Wiggins. But the main culprit has been Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who, when asked if he’d take the vaccine, said in early March, “That’s a conversation that my family and I will have. Pretty much keep that to a private thing.”
Medical decisions are, in fact, family matters. Not everyone should get the vaccine: Those with severe allergic reactions to other vaccines should avoid it, according to Yale Health. But in the case of James and the rest of the NBA, it’s dangerous, and borderline malfeasance, for them to publicly question the efficacy of vaccines or decline to endorse getting them. Ever more so when it comes to African Americans and the ongoing health crisis.
Black people are hospitalized and die at higher, disproportionate rates from COVID-19 than white people. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) shows that African Americans are now being shut out of the vaccine rollout as well. This creates a cocktail that places Black people in dire circumstances that don’t even include the normal racism and systemic oppression they face. (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that Black farmers received just 0.1% of coronavirus relief funds under the previous administration.)
Saying the vaccine is a “private thing” is like saying the shooting of Trayvon Martin is a “private thing” or that the systematic disenfranchisement of Black people is a “private thing.” Minimizing or not talking about taking the vaccine is just as dangerous as not taking it.
“A time comes,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “when silence is betrayal.”
It’s unfair to place the responsibility of vaccine education on the players. The previous administration, Congress and even the NBA itself have failed in their roles as societal arbiters. But when NBA players rightfully took up the mantle of speaking for all Black people this past summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they, unknowingly or not, agreed to be the face of all Black issues going forward. Black lives cannot truly matter to a person if they refuse to support vaccines for a disease that has killed nearly 80,000 Black people in a year’s time.
(This isn’t all on the Black players either: Gordon Hayward, J.J. Redick and Pat Connaughton need to be out here imploring their communities to get the vaccine as well.)
For James in particular, outwardly stating that he received a vaccine, or planned to, would be the greatest thing he has ever done. Greater than any made basket, any championship won, any school opened or voting rights campaign spearheaded.
“I think the opinions and actions of trusted sports icons could make a difference in encouraging their fans to get the vaccine,” Cheryl B. Prince, a retired epidemiologist who worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1980 to 2019, told .
Declining the vaccine, or not outwardly supporting it, puts NBA players in the same camp as anti-vaxxers and those who question clear and factual science. How absurd would it be if Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, rather than donating 3,000 meals to Houston families last month when cold temperatures shut down the Texas power grid, instead questioned the presence of climate change?
While NBA players waver on publicly backing the vaccines, let alone taking them, people are burning masks, intentionally sabotaging vaccine vials, and impeding National Guardsmen attempting to transport doses. Almost every night, Fox News tells its millions of viewers to be skeptical of a vaccine they were cheering on up until Nov. 3.
Who knows how much influence famous Black people actually have on the rest of the public? Former president Barack Obama has been championing the vaccine since December, yet still, according to a recent KFF survey, 23% of Black Americans have said they wouldn’t get the vaccine or would only if required, the highest rate compared with white people and Hispanics. How much higher would those numbers be if the 44th president said his vaccine decision was a “private thing”?
Without a show of force, NBA players cede this space to the wild conspiracies that have sprouted up over the last year.
The vaccine will not steal your DNA. It won’t, no matter what the internet tells you, give you COVID-19. It wasn’t designed to kill or harm Black people.
How do I know? Because I took the vaccine last week. I took it in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, one of the whitest (92.5%) counties you can ever visit, which went for Donald Trump by 21 points in November’s presidential election (up from 18 points in 2016). I was in full-on MAGAland, counting five total Black people the entire time I was at the distribution center: two were my wife and me, two others were health care workers administering the shot. Unless the government is intentionally trying to kill white people, then we’re good.
I took the shot for selfish reasons: I’ve been cooped up in my home for more than 12 months, the last eight of which have been with a newborn baby. The shot was my lone chance to finally get outside and back to a somewhat normal life. That being said, as a Black man who people close to me tend to listen to, I also felt it my personal responsibility to show concerned Black people that when choosing between contracting COVID-19 or taking the vaccine, one is clearly more dangerous than the other. (If there were different vaccines for just the blacker Milwaukee County, then maybe Porter has some points.)
And I am just a little-known journalist. James has more than 155 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. One could argue that’s more influence than all American politicians combined.
In the good times, we praise players for their outsize influence on society: whether it be athletic, cultural, political or in fashion. The pressure isn’t suddenly unreasonable now that they have to put some hands in some dirt. The players are being asked the bare minimum of just publicly supporting the vaccine rollout. While it would be beneficial, they don’t actually have to take it. But the country goes back to normal if the spectators take the vaccine.
The inconvenient truth is that famous athletes (and celebrities and politicians and social media influencers and … ) have a responsibility to use their heightened platforms – the same platforms they fought so hard for over the summer to bring attention to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and the shooting of Jacob Blake – to do what is morally right.
Fighting for Black lives doesn’t stop at the entrance to the vaccine center. If NBA players are the role models they’ve made themselves out to be and want America to continue to listen to them when they kneel for the national anthem or refuse to play a game, then it starts here, with the vaccine.