The NBA is a few weeks from starting its 2021-22 season. It’s an 82-game slog, matched by the NHL and surpassed only by baseball’s 162 regular-season games. The NBA claims that 90% of its players are vaccinated against Covid-19, and it requires referees and team support staff to be 100% compliant.
As part of a union, the players have their agreement regarding healthcare and vaccinations. However, this freedom to not vaccinate goes up against local laws that require proof of vaccination for everyone (unless they have a medical or religious exception) for those 12 and over who eat in restaurants or attend indoor events. This includes New York City’s Knicks and Nets and the Golden State Warriors in the Bay Area. Home team players need to be fully vaccinated, but visiting ones do not. Religious exceptions are not freely issued — the NBA rejected Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins request for a religious exception.
The case of Kyrie Irving
Nets star Kyrie Irving has been vocal about his skepticism and cagey about whether he’s vaccinated. As with other teams in 2021 that position themselves as contenders, Nets fans and local press are generally critical about their star’s life choices. And he’s facing protocol issues as well – he virtually attended a local media day in Brooklyn because of the NBA’s health protocols for the unvaccinated. Not vaccinating means not playing half the teams’ games. Irving is in the third year of a four-year $134 million contract, and he faces a substantial financial hit if he does not play those 41 games.
Why is this an issue?
There is long and complex history regarding healthcare in minority communities, but we will not unpack that today. Nevertheless, there are no publicly known examples of players missing time on the court because of the vaccine, where severe side effects are extremely rare. On the other hand, more than 75 players tested positive for Covid during the 2020-21 season, and there are reports of players having respiratory problems and muscle pain after contracting Covid-19.
The Nets GM Sean Marks told the media that he is confident that Irving will play on the Oct. 19 start of the NBA season. With training camps now in full swing, it would be interesting to hear what Marks says behind closed doors as the team preps for its run.