Scattered across international time zones Tuesday, several WNBA players gathered on Zoom not to discuss basketball but their next mission as activists: learning as much as possible about coronavirus vaccines and then sharing that knowledge with fans.
The 2020 WNBA season was defined by the players’ off-the-court actions: a Say Her Name campaign to bring attention to the police killing of Breonna Taylor and a crusade to oust a team owner, Kelly Loeffler, from the U.S. Senate and then the league.
After that, “we weren’t really sure what the next step was,” Williams, the franchise player for the Atlanta Dream, said in a recent interview from Ankara, Turkey, where she plays for Botas Spor.
With many of the league’s stars playing overseas during the WNBA offseason, Terri Jackson, the players’ association executive director, advised them to take time to catch their breath after a weighty season inside their Florida bubble.
Instead of a break, Williams suggested the players take on public health.
“With covid still being the major driving force … the conversation shifted more about educating people about vaccines,” she said. “When we talk about Black lives matter, it also includes Black health matters.”
When sports returned last summer, while nurses and others complained they couldn’t get tested for the coronavirus, professional and college sports leagues contracted private labs to routinely and proactively test players for the coronavirus, raising questions about equity in America’s testing system. As vaccines became available late last year, a debate arose whether athletes would jump the vaccine line.
But as a new Major League Baseball season nears and the NBA struggles with outbreaks, many male athletes may not even want the vaccine. A “significant” percentage of players are hesitant to get vaccinated, the Wall Street Journal reported, and many are reluctant to appear in public service announcements to promote the vaccines’ efficacy, according to ESPN.
“It’s a real shame,” Gary Bennett, a Duke professor of medicine and global health who spoke to the players by Zoom, said in an interview. “The athletes in our country hold a very prized position and have a great opportunity to influence large segments of populations who are most at risk.”
“The WNBA can lead the charge,” Bennett continued, “and frankly, we need the men to follow.”
But first, players needed to educate themselves. Since January, on three Zooms organized by the union, nearly half of the WNBA players have listened to medical experts explain how the vaccines work, dispel myths and recount the history of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community.
Black Americans are 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized by covid-19 and 1.9 times more likely to die of it than Whites, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. But 41 percent of Black women and 45 percent of Black men say they will take a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, according to analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Surveys that account for political affiliation have shown that White Republicans, at 56 percent, are most likely to be uncertain about being vaccinated.)
Williams understood the trepidation among her peers in the WNBA, in which 70 percent of players are Black. Her parents are in the medical field, and Williams took Bennett’s “Health and Psychology and Behavior Change” class at Duke; she still envisions attending med school after retiring from basketball. And yet even she was hesitant about the vaccine at first as misinformation flooded her social media timeline: that the developers of the vaccines had placed a tracking microchip in the drug, that the mRNA vaccine would change the DNA of a fetus, that the shot could cause infertility in women.
“That’s when my brain was like: ‘Okay, there’s obviously truth in [the vaccine], and I have to find it,” Williams said, “and I have to dig into it.”
Williams began reading the work of experts such as Kizzmekia S. Corbett, the head of Coronavirus Vaccines at the National Institutes of Health, who helped design the Moderna vaccine. Last fall, Williams hosted her Instagram Live show, “E Talks With Docs.” Then, on Jan. 22, the union launched the first Zoom with a panel featuring Black and Brown women in the medical field.
“This particular sports league, unlike most of the others, has always been on the side of: ‘I do things for community,’" Altha Stewart, who has served as the WNBA medical director since the league’s inception, said during that session. “I have never seen the amount of outpouring of community service that happens in the WNBA ranks.”
On Zoom, players learned that a history of mistrust — dating from 1845, when James Marion Sims, the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” experimented on enslaved women without the use of anesthesia — factored into a lack of confidence in the Black community.
“I certainly understand … the historical fear of the medical institution that people in the Black community [have],” Corbett said in an email response to The Washington Post. “That is why I feel it is so important for influential voices, like WNBA players, to be invested in helping our community to progress beyond that history and beyond that fear.”
For starters, the goal of the sessions was to make players feel comfortable getting shots themselves when their turns come up. Some who are playing overseas already have: The Indiana Fever’s Tiffany Mitchell, who is playing in Israel, recently posted a photo of herself in a WNBA hoodie while getting the shot.
But the panels were also designed to help players share their newfound knowledge with their fans, especially Black and Brown women, and to encourage them to seek reliable information about the vaccine. According to the WNBPA, an informal survey identified 40 players willing to help vaccine-education campaigns, including Williams, 2016 MVP Nneka Ogumike and four-time champion and Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird.
“I met these educational sessions [with] skepticism, and through them the ignorance has peeled back,” Ogumike said. “I not only feel comfortable taking the vaccine, but I also feel comfortable advocating for people to be educated on it.”
The union is exploring collaborations with the Ad Council, Walgreens, Black Women’s Health Imperative and the National Council of Negro Women.
During Tuesday’s Zoom, several more of the league’s stars logged in for a presentation from the vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group. Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion now playing in Russia, asked about the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Kelsey Plum, a former No. 1 pick, asked whether any of the vaccine trials included the effects the drug may have on elite athletes. And Williams wanted to know how vaccines are distributed in impoverished countries.
Most of the players on the Zoom, some lounging in bed and wearing sweatpants, shied away from the camera. But they were clearly engaged.
“We realize how powerful our voices have been,” Ogumike said. “We really just want to meet the moment in a way that obviously continues to align with our engagement with the communities.”—