The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bradley Beal opened a window into our uncomfortable vaccine divide

Bradley Beal talks with teammate Cassius Winston on the opening day of Wizards training camp. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
4 min

The face of the Washington Wizards walked into work Monday morning and stepped straight into the national debate over vaccination. Wearing the team’s blue shooting shirt and a crisp white headband, he looked picture ready. But then he spoke, and he sounded nothing like the young man we thought we knew.

Bradley Beal said plenty on the topic of basketball during his 32-minute Q&A with reporters — about the team’s defensive reset under a new head coach, his role as a leader for a young squad — and none of it mattered.

Beal said he is not vaccinated against the coronavirus. He owned not being vaccinated. He challenged the reporters in the room on the efficacy of being vaccinated — while sitting in front of a MedStar Health backdrop. And on a day when vaccination rates dominated the NBA news cycle, Beal became a jarring voice and face for the hesitancy.

Jarring because this was unexpected. Not at all the way in which we have previously heard and seen Beal.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal says he is not vaccinated against coronavirus

For the Wizards fans who have cheered him since he was a 19-year-old kid with visions of athletic brilliance, it was surprising. For the reporters who have found him to be one of the most thoughtful and candid interviews in the NBA, it was conflicting. For Washingtonians who admired his outspokenness on issues of social justice, the boldness in which he shared misinformation was puzzling. For me, it was the most uncomfortable I have felt listening to Beal.

Beal isn’t some crazy person in the comments section. He’s an athlete and a person I had grown to respect while covering the Wizards from 2016 to 2020. We come from the same hometown, and though I’m older, we have some shared experiences. I have family that worked in the same factory where his father worked nights. I know the park where he got into his first fistfight — and lost. When he was a sophomore in high school, he won a Missouri Class 5 state championship with my cousin.

But as Beal opened up about his views, some of which float around social media courtesy of anti-vaccine activists, I realized that in some ways I never knew him at all.

Maybe it’s the same feeling you have when you notice an anti-Fauci meme on a co-worker’s Facebook feed. Or when the public figure you follow on Twitter likes a post about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Though we may feel a connection to these people we think we know, even a loose one, it’s jarring to think they share the views of people we have dismissed and mocked.

Through moments of candor and awkward silence, Beal left many of us confronting the discord we have tried to avoid throughout the pandemic and the difficult balance between giving an audience to someone with opposing views — someone we may like as a human being — and the disappointment that comes with listening.

This happened often during Beal’s news conference as he presented arguments against getting the shots, arguments that made me sigh deeply underneath my mask. The tension peaked during this exchange between Beal and the reporters he knows by first name:

“You all can still get covid, right?” Beal said, his eyes wide while scanning the room of vaccinated people.

Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington responded, “We’re less likely to die or go to the hospital.”

Beal shrugged his left shoulder: “Okay, but you can still get covid.”

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And what if, Beal theorized without evidence, a vaccinated teammate experiences severe side effects that would force him to miss time? A day later, Beal tried to clarify some of his comments and wanted everyone to know he was not advocating against the vaccine.

“So one thing I want to get clear is that I’m not sitting up here advocating or campaigning that, ‘No, you should not get that vaccine.’ I’m not doing that,” Beal said Tuesday. “I’m not sitting up here doing that — I want to get that straight. I am not sitting up here saying vaccines are bad.”

But we had paid attention a day earlier. Saw Beal defiantly shake his head no. Listened closely as he was not squirrelly about his opinions — unlike Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving or other NBA, NFL and MLB athletes who recycle the words “privacy” and “personal reasons” when asked about their vaccination status during the middle of a public health crisis. Beal initially offered up that cliche but went on to talk at length about his beliefs. He wanted to express his concerns out loud. His fears.

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And for this transparency, we now see Beal in a new light, one that cast him into national notoriety. On Monday, his name was trending third on Twitter — just below R. Kelly and ahead of Irving — and his portrait topped an online Associated Press story. He appeared on the ESPN ticker during “Monday Night Football.” At least one headline described Beal as “anti-vaccine.”

This is a limiting role for Beal, who exudes confidence, intellectual curiosity and social responsibility. Yet by this well-known athlete answering a simple question (“Are you vaccinated?”) with honesty, then expounding on the beliefs he once kept private — and now apparently wants to walk back — he opened the curtain on the debates happening between colleagues and acquaintances, family members and loved ones. The Washington sports fans who disagree with Beal must now reconcile their appreciation for him with their dismay over his words.

We can still respect Beal the basketball player and Beal the community activist. But we know him a little bit better now, and maybe we wish we didn’t.