In an interview with Sportico on Tuesday, Silver said vaccinating players was “something we’re particularly focused on” as the league attempts to complete a condensed 72-game season during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, noting that vaccinating high-profile Black players when “public health officials ultimately determine on balance that it was the right time” could help address “enormous resistance” to vaccination among Black Americans. A Pew study from mid-November found that only 42 percent of Black adults said they would get the vaccine.
Coronavirus vaccines were first distributed in the United States in December, with health-care workers, senior citizens and other at-risk groups getting first priority. While more than 2.4 million people have been fully vaccinated and President Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office, the initial phase of the rollout was plagued by delays and complications. Even so, TNT commentator Charles Barkley argued that NBA players and other professional athletes “deserve some preferential treatment” because of how “much taxes these players pay.”
Reed Tuckson, the co-founder of the Black Coalition against COVID-19 and the former commissioner of public health for D.C., said vaccinating players now would be “definitely too early and inappropriate” and that the NBA should wait until Biden’s goal is reached.
“As a country, we need to be galvanized around a common, shared sense of purpose and goals,” Tuckson said. “One hundred million in 100 days is a very important unifying mechanism. We’re seeing examples of privileged people attempting to use their power and influence to jump the line over those who are in categories of most need. This would be a terrible signal to send: that wealthy, privileged athletes were getting a special dispensation to get access to relatively scarce supplies of the vaccine.”
In March, when dozens of NBA players received coronavirus tests early in the pandemic, Uché Blackstock, an emergency physician, recalled being limited to two tests per day despite having hundreds of patients in need. Such disparities in testing access prompted a harsh public outcry, leading Silver to insist during a preseason news conference in December that the NBA would not “jump the line” to vaccinate players. NBA players, Blackstock argued, should wait until at least April or May to be vaccinated along with the general public because they are “young, healthy individuals and they are not at the highest risk” of infection or death.
“The vaccine rollout has not been successful by any means,” said Blackstock, the founder of Advancing Health Equity and a medical contributor for Yahoo. “In New York, we had to cancel 22,000 appointments because the vaccines that were supposed to arrive from the federal reserve have not arrived yet. We’re having challenges vaccinating early priority groups.”
Kenneth Alleyne, an orthopedic surgeon and the chair of the Connecticut Health Foundation, said he would have a “very difficult time” arguing that NBA players should be vaccinated before essential workers such as takeout food delivery drivers or warehouse workers. Exceptions could be made for players at higher risk because of diabetes or cardiac issues or if the NBA was part of a wider strategy designed by a trusted leader such as Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Silver has yet to indicate a timeline for player vaccination, but the clock is ticking. Because coronavirus vaccines require multiple shots over the course of a month, waiting 100 days to begin vaccinating players would make it difficult to complete a widespread program before May 18, the scheduled start to the 2021 playoffs.
As a first step, Alleyne encouraged the league to educate its players and build trust in the science. While Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 73-year-old Hall of Famer, became the first prominent figure in the NBA community to appear in a public service announcement after he received the coronavirus vaccine, several current players have privately expressed their reluctance. Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, shared that sentiment, telling Yahoo Sports earlier this month that she was “eager to be convinced that these [vaccines] are safe” but that she remained undecided and was “not a cheerleader.”
Experts attribute vaccine reluctance within the Black community to a host of factors: traumatizing historical episodes such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, disjointed federal leadership throughout the pandemic, widespread misinformation about the vaccine distributed online and systematic disparities in health-care treatment for minorities.
Alleyne argued that these issues should not discourage players from taking the vaccine and championing it in public.
“The guys at Tuskegee didn’t take the syphilis [themselves] and then give it you,” he said. “They just gave it to you. I tell my patients: I took this [vaccine]. I studied this vaccine. I’m a surgeon. My hands are my profession, just like the NBA players’ hands are their profession. Taking this vaccine was a no-brainer.”
More than 100 NBA players have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, and the NBA has had to postpone at least 20 games this season because of positive tests and contact tracing efforts. The Washington Wizards have had seven players test positive, and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who lost his mother to covid-19 in April, tested positive himself this month. The NBA and NBPA agreed this month to tighten health protocols, banning hotel guests and limiting postgame hugs in an effort to reduce spread and schedule disruption. Multiple experts said that NBA players should consider taking the vaccine because their careers could be impacted by covid-19′s unknown long-term side effects if they were infected.
“The vaccine is 95 percent effective at keeping you, once exposed to the virus, from becoming significantly ill or dying,” Tuckson said. “Are you more afraid of the vaccine or the virus? The tragedy of 400,000 deaths without having a vaccine ought to tell everybody all the information they need to know. We’ve had millions of people who have had the vaccine, and we’re not seeing deaths as a result.”
Assuming players agree to vaccination, the experts hoped that superstars like LeBron James could join former president Barack Obama, faith leaders, health care professionals and other leaders in the Black community as “trusted messengers” capable of conveying the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Players could get creative in spreading the word by using Instagram Live and virtual town halls to connect health care providers directly with fans, and they would be encouraged to acknowledge their own fears publicly to reassure fans and to position the vaccine as the bridge back to normalcy.
“Call it health patriotism,” Alleyne said. “We’re part of a community. We’re only as strong as the weakest or least informed members of the community. Life will return, but that can only happen with any strength and conviction if we all participate.”
Tuckson, meanwhile, proposed an immediate alternative to skipping the line: Players should signal their support of vaccination by turning vaccination into a family affair.
“I would urge athletes to be filmed taking their grandmother or grandfather to get vaccinated,” he said. “Showing that they have an interest in this effort while showing that people over 65 and particularly those with other preexisting conditions [are the priority]. These athletes showing a real concern for their loved ones would be very helpful. If it’s good enough for my grandmother, it’s good enough for you.”