Beyond the Scoreboard: The NBA’s Vaccine Problem

A majority of the NBA may be vaccinated, but the few outliers are becoming a loud minority, none bigger than Kyrie Irving.


Irving is the leading name behind those yet to receive the vaccine in the NBA. (Courtesy of Twitter)

One of the most surprising things about sports’ evolution amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been its acceptance of the vaccine. There were serious concerns about whether athletes would get vaccinated, what the requirements for fans would be, and everything in between.

Instead, things have been largely a success. A significant majority of NFL organizations have over 90% of their personnel vaccinated, a number that will only continue to increase considering the league’s strict protocol differences. Major League Baseball, which was criticized for its handling of the pandemic a year ago and still faced its fair share of controversy surrounding events like the All-Star Game, brought 23 of its teams above the 85% benchmark to create more lenient COVID-19 protocols. Even schools in the NCAA have set an example for vaccination rates, with the entirety of their programs vaccinated to create as seamless a playing experience as possible.

All of that in mind, it is a surprise that the NBA, widely viewed as the country’s most progressive, forward-thinking sports league, is facing the biggest vaccination hurdles yet. Yes, the league’s numbers are essentially the same as others, with 95% of players vaccinated, and those leagues have their outspoken opponents, none bigger than the Buffalo Bills’ Cole Beasley. But something feels different about the NBA, contrary to the league’s stance itself.

Much of that is because the NBA is centered around personalities, with players’ lives off the court tracked as closely as those on it. So when people like Andrew Wiggins, Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving are revealed to be unvaccinated, it is not just a side note; it is the story. That is especially the case in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco, where their ability to play is put in jeopardy.

Those states require all individuals to be vaccinated when entering indoor venues. Sports arenas are no exception, and neither are players. So, when a player like Kyrie Irving is unvaccinated, the issue is not a matter of politics or personal decision but of playing time and availability. Were Irving to stay unvaccinated, he would miss 41 of the season’s 82 games. And he does not seem to have a problem with that.

As a result, like the NFL, the NBA too has begun instituting much stricter rules, or more accurately, consequences, for the unvaccinated. Now, those like Irving will face fines for each game they miss equivalent to 1/96th of a player’s salary, in addition to not being paid for those absences. So, throughout an entire season, an unvaccinated player would lose 42.6% of their salary. For Irving, that is $14.9 million. And he does not seem to care about that either.

There are those like Andrew Wiggins who have become vaccinated because of this. Simply put, Wiggins said, “The only options were to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA.” He chose the former, hoping that decision does not hurt him in the long run. He continued, “If you want to work in society today, then I guess they made the rules of what goes in your body and what you do. Hopefully, there’s a lot of people out there that are stronger than me and keep fighting, stand for what they believe, and hopefully, it works out for them.” Others who are vaccinated, like LeBron James, the face of the NBA, have also hesitated to endorse it.

See, the issue plaguing the NBA stems from the very politics it embraces. In some cases, such as discrimination or social injustice, that can be a positive attribute. But, in this scenario, it turns out to be the opposite, as those like Irving and Wiggins turn the COVID-19 vaccine into a political statement.

Ultimately, that should not be the case. For the NBA, like other sports, it is merely a matter of doing what an employer, or more specifically a state, requires and what gives one’s team the best chance to win. Were Irving to stay unvaccinated, he would place his team at a severe disadvantage at a time when winning an NBA Finals should be their only priority. 

But, for Irving, that Finals may not be the priority. As talented a basketball player as he is, in recent years, it has not seemed his primary focus. Whether in press conferences or in practices, Irving’s mind has strayed away from the court and into matters of much more import to him. That is not necessarily an issue, as sports have become much bigger than the game on the court, and in some cases, it has even been very beneficial to his community. Irving’s contributions there cannot be ignored. But, he must understand the consequences here.

At this point, one has to think that he does, meaning that a trade or perhaps even retirement are not unreasonable conclusions. Wiggins did not want to reach those; maybe Irving does. Because if he stays unvaccinated, he has no place with his team.

Time will tell which direction he ultimately goes, but basketball has already begun, and Irving is not a part of it. The NBA has enough names, though, that they will not lose sleep over it. It seems neither will Irving. And there is nothing wrong with that either way.