Chris Paul Bears the Brunt of Pro Sports’ Vaccination Problem

Leagues are seeing the downside of treating vaccines as simply a matter of personal choice.

Chris Paul
Aaron Ontiveroz / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

When the NBA announced Wednesday that Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul was being sidelined indefinitely under the league’s coronavirus-safety protocols, the next question was obvious: Had Paul been vaccinated?

For COVID-19 concerns to interrupt Paul’s brilliant playoff run seemed particularly cruel—not only because the widespread availability of vaccines has made transmission of the virus largely preventable, but also because the Suns had just secured a spot in the Western Conference finals. Even though Paul is one of the best NBA point guards ever, this week’s development was another unfortunate entry in his long history of medical problems during the playoffs.

The television analysts Matt Barnes and Jalen Rose, both of whom are former NBA players, soon reported that Paul had indeed been vaccinated. But all the discussion of his status raised another important question: Do fans even have the right to know, and do journalists have the right to ask, if a player has been vaccinated against COVID-19?

The short answer is yes. If a player’s availability to his team could be compromised because of exposure to the virus, that’s crucial information. It shouldn’t be treated any differently from when a player suffers an injury such as a concussion, an ankle sprain, or a torn ACL. But players have shown mixed feelings about answering questions about their COVID-19 vaccination status. In December, Paul, who is the president of the National Basketball Players Association, seemed to suggest that players had a right to privacy in this regard. “When it comes to all different types of vaccines,” he said, “a lot of that stuff is personal.”

That Paul has become the focus of the privacy debate is ironic because, by being vaccinated, he’s done the right thing. But as leagues try to institute separate protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated players, they’re also revealing the pitfalls of treating vaccination as simply a personal choice.

Athletes who are not vaccinated are not automatically bad people, but they have made a conscious decision to jeopardize themselves, their teammates and coaches, their family and community, and also their own career. Professional athletes are among the fittest, healthiest members of society and might not see themselves as vulnerable, but several athletes who contracted COVID-19—most notably the Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum, the former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, and the international soccer star Paulo Dybala—have openly discussed how difficult and disruptive the experience was.

Neither the Suns organization nor the NBA has confirmed whether Paul was sidelined because he’d tested positive or simply was in contact with someone else who had. But if he indeed has been vaccinated, his time away from the court likely will be shorter, under the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, than if he hadn’t received a shot. (Paul’s return date is also up in the air because the Suns will play the winner of the still-ongoing series between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers.) According to the CDC, a small percentage of vaccinated people still contract COVID-19. But even if Paul has tested positive, being vaccinated greatly reduces the chances that he will suffer serious symptoms or transmit the virus to others, and NBA protocols reflect those realities.

However, in the sports world—much like in the rest of society—a gulf has opened up between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The vaccination status of individual athletes has become a source of tension and polarization.

Recently, several NFL players made news because they’ve declined to share whether they’ve received a shot, or because they expressed ambivalence about or outright aversion to COVID-19 vaccination. Sam Darnold, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, disclosed Wednesday that he wasn’t vaccinated. His explanation to reporters was vague:

I still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it. Again, it’s everyone’s choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t want to go too into detail ... I’m just staying by myself right now. I don’t have a family or anything like that ... I’m gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel like, again, is the best for myself.

On social media, Darnold was utterly roasted. Sports fans were quick to remind Darnold that he’d once missed three games in 2019 because he had mononucleosis; of all people, he should understand the importance of avoiding infectious diseases when possible. Detractors said he was selfish and linked his vaccination status to his sometimes lackluster on-field performance. “I’ve seen Sam Darnold throw back across the field into traffic enough to know that decision-making isn’t his strong suit,” the sportswriter Adam Fromal quipped on Twitter.

Professional athletes have access to some of the best medical experts in the world, so the refusal of Darnold and others to get vaccinated isn’t a matter of inadequate information. Earlier this month, Ron Rivera, the coach of the Washington Football Team, brought in the immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the country’s top coronavirus experts, to answer his players’ concerns about vaccination. How many people who aren’t professional athletes get to question a scientist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine?

Montez Sweat, a Washington defensive end, was unpersuaded. “I’m not a fan of it,” Sweat said of vaccination. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff. I’m not a fan of it at all.”

You would think, after the NFL and the NFL Players Association established looser safety protocols for vaccinated players than for unvaccinated ones, that this new incentive would prove compelling. But just three football teams have more than 70 of their 90 players vaccinated, The Washington Post has reported. (Despite Paul’s curious case, vaccination rates are better in the NBA; the league confirmed in May that nearly 80 percent of players had been vaccinated).

According to the NFL protocols, players who are unvaccinated must be tested daily for COVID-19, aren’t permitted to eat meals with teammates, aren’t allowed to use the sauna or steam room, and have to travel on a separate plane, among other restrictions. A player who violates any of these rules is subject to a $50,000 fine. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley expressed his outrage about the differing rules on Twitter, calling the NFL players’ union “a joke” for agreeing to them. Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon echoed similar sentiments.

Unless they have a medical reason not to be vaccinated, the players who aren’t getting a shot will undergo more and more scrutiny and criticism. And they should. As much as those who are against vaccination might insist that this is an individual decision, it isn’t. Players who choose not to get vaccinated are making a decision for not just themselves, but everyone they come in contact with.

Some players—the Buffalo Bills, for example—have bristled at what they view as intrusive questions about their vaccination status. But nosy journalists aren’t the source of this controversy. Rather, the vaccine hesitancy that remains in American pro sports, despite the overwhelming evidence of the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, is merely an outgrowth of the nation’s generally incompetent and unnecessarily politicized handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

If vaccination rates were higher among the general public as well as in pro sports, the NBA might not have needed to sideline Chris Paul. Once a public-health problem turned into a divisive issue, the ability to appeal to common sense, common facts, and common spirit was lost. In this age of rampant misinformation, too many people—including pro athletes—are prone to stay rooted in whatever viewpoint validates their fears, however unfounded and unlikely. At this point, athletes who won’t get vaccinated don’t need more information. Ignorance is just far too alluring.