Why LeBron James Shouldn’t Cover for Vaccine Refusers

NBA players who are vaccinated against COVID-19 can help their sport by calling out Andrew Wiggins, Kyrie Irving, and other unvaccinated stars.

A black-and-white photo of Andrew Wiggins in profile
Andrew Wiggins, of the Golden State Warriors, is one of a small number of NBA players refusing to get vaccinated. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez / San Francisco Chronicle / Getty)

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

In most years, NBA Media Day is pretty uneventful—just an opportunity for players and teams to gather before the press and discuss their goals for the upcoming season. But unfortunately for pro basketball, the headlines after this week’s interviews weren’t about how likely the Milwaukee Bucks are to repeat as NBA champions, or whether LeBron James and his veteran Los Angeles Lakers team can add another title to James’s legendary résumé. The big story out of Media Day was the misguided opinions of players who have refused vaccination against COVID-19.

Ninety percent of NBA players are vaccinated, the league has reported, but the unvaccinated status of the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal, the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins, and the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac took center stage. Each player made troubling, uninformed statements when asked why he hadn’t been vaccinated.

Beal, for example, tried to turn questions about vaccination back on reporters. “I would like an explanation to, you know, people with vaccines,” he said Monday. “Why are they still getting COVID? If that’s something that we are supposed to highly be protected from, like, it’s funny that it only reduces your chances of going to the hospital. It doesn’t eliminate anybody from getting COVID, right? So is everybody in here vaxxed, I would assume? Right. So you all can still get COVID, right?” Never mind that health experts have repeatedly said that the COVID-19 vaccines offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death but not necessarily against contracting the coronavirus itself.

The attention that a modest number of players are drawing is disheartening for the NBA, which for most of the past year and a half has shown strong leadership in battling the pandemic. But the continuing refusal of some stars to get vaccinated is a worrisome sign for a league that, because of the small size of each team’s roster, has little margin for error.

The current situation has also put the NBA’s vaccinated players in the awkward position of feeling obligated to provide cover for their unvaccinated peers—a courtesy that these peers don’t exactly deserve.

James, who is both the NBA’s biggest star and its most influential player behind the scenes, revealed on Tuesday that he was fully vaccinated, despite some initial skepticism. James said he made the decision to get vaccinated in order to protect not only himself but also his family and friends.

Yet James added that he would not use his influence to push other players to get vaccinated. “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies,” James said at the Lakers’ Media Day. “We’re not talking about something that’s, you know, political or racism or police brutality. So I don’t feel like, for me personally, I should get involved in what other people should do with their bodies and their livelihoods.”

But to some degree, James already has gotten involved. Full disclosure: Shortly after the COVID-19 vaccines became available, I collaborated with James’s More Than a Vote organization on a podcast that addressed vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. My mother is immunocompromised, and the podcast episode focused on her concerns about how the shots would affect her. To ease her mind, I interviewed prominent Black public-health experts, including the virologist A. Oveta Fuller, who was on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, and Harriet A. Washington, who detailed the racist medical practices Black Americans have been subjected to for centuries in her groundbreaking book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present. By supporting that project, James recognized that the Black community, which has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus, needs good information about the vaccines.

On Tuesday, though, James said “it’s not my job” to persuade other NBA players to get vaccinated. Asking James to shoulder more responsibility than he already does as the league’s strongest voice feels unfair, but the reality is that he and other vaccinated players are in the best position to combat the remaining reluctance and misinformation—both among NBA players and in the Black community.

I understand why pro athletes like James are extremely reluctant to get into other players’ medical affairs. And one key reason players have more power in the NBA than in any other major American sports league is they have generally stuck together on important issues. Last year, after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back, the Milwaukee Bucks opted out of playing a scheduled game—and other teams joined the Bucks’ protest by calling off their own games.

Pro basketball has stopped short of issuing a vaccine mandate. But like the NFL, the NBA is trying to essentially force vaccinations by making life more difficult for unvaccinated players, who must comply with strict, demanding safety protocols.

But if the league’s unvaccinated players are going to use their proverbial microphone to showcase their own lack of information—and potentially threaten their team’s ability to compete—then high-profile players should use their own platform to call out their teammates. The players have a responsibility to protect the product, because they’re in a financial partnership with the NBA. By protecting one another, the players are also protecting the league that they’ve built. A little bit of public peer pressure wouldn’t hurt.

As long as the NBA and its players characterize getting vaccinated as a purely personal matter, they will be giving a pass to those who are making what is ultimately a selfish decision not to get their shots.

If Irving and Wiggins remain unvaccinated, they will each be unable to play in 41 home games because of vaccine mandates in New York and San Francisco. On top of costing their respective teams a shot at this season’s NBA championship—oddsmakers give both the Nets and the Warriors a decent chance of winning it—these two players could also potentially lose half of their NBA salary for the season. The NBA announced Wednesday that players who miss home games because of local vaccine mandates won’t be compensated. Irving is expected to make $33 million this season, Wiggins $31.6 million.

That’s a hefty price to pay for stubbornness. When Wiggins was asked at Golden State’s Media Day event about the financial ramifications of not being vaccinated, the 26-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick responded defiantly, “It’s my problem, not yours.”

He’s not the only unvaccinated NBA player who has struggled—or not even bothered—to explain why he’s chosen not to get vaccinated. As an eye-opening Rolling Stone report about the small but loud contingent of anti-vaxxers in the NBA recently noted, Irving has liked Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who has accused “secret societies” of implanting vaccines in Black people in order to connect us to a satanic master computer.

When Irving spoke with the media via Zoom about his vaccination status—he was prohibited from appearing in person, because he isn’t vaccinated—he didn’t provide any real answers for his skepticism. “Please, just respect my privacy,” Irving urged, insisting that “I’ll be there every day no matter what and just be present for my teammates as one of the leaders on the team.”

Pressed about what his reservations were, Wiggins, whom the league refused to grant a religious exemption from vaccination, admitted that his “back is definitely against the wall” but said he remains determined to stick to his beliefs. When a reporter asked him to clarify what those beliefs were, he declined. “It’s none of your business—that’s what it comes down to,” Wiggins said.

In trying to abate Wiggins’s reluctance, the Warriors arranged for him to meet with an Oakland doctor who could answer any questions he might have. Wiggins, however, has still refused to get vaccinated.

The Warriors star Steph Curry was diplomatic when asked about Wiggins’s anti-vaccination stance. “At the end of the day, it is up to him,” Curry said. “It’s no secret to that point. We obviously hope that he has all the right information, the access to the right resources, to ask all the questions he has on making that decision. We hope he’s available. We hope he moves in the right direction.” But especially since Wiggins’s absence could undermine Curry’s chances of winning a fourth NBA championship, Wiggins doesn’t deserve Curry’s patience.

Some players—including Beal, who missed this year’s Olympics because he contracted COVID-19—seem to believe that a previous brush with the virus should spare them from the vaccine push. But being an exceptional athlete and surviving a past exposure doesn’t make Beal or anyone else invincible. Beal is simply fortunate that he didn’t face what some of his NBA peers did. The Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns recently told Sports Illustrated that he lost 50 pounds after contracting COVID-19 in January. Nine months before his own bout with the coronavirus, Towns lost his mother to the virus. Ultimately, six more of Towns’s family members died from COVID-19.

If the NBA’s vaccination holdouts still insist that they need to do more research, perhaps they should start by contacting Towns—or the Boston Celtics guard Jayson Tatum, who suffered from lingering impairment for months after contracting COVID-19 last season. Tatum, 23, needed to use an inhaler before games to help his breathing even after he recovered.

Though the percentage of unvaccinated people in the NBA is much smaller than in the United States as a whole, the league is a microcosm of what’s happening in society. When a virus has caused so much pain and cost nearly 700,000 Americans their life, the polite acquiescence of vaccinated peers seems like too much for unvaccinated players to ask.