It matters what the NBA’s superstars say, and the media attention they’re getting for opposing a vaccination mandate is justified.
Ninety-five percent of NBA players are vaccinated, according to the league, a higher rate than even front-line health care workers. The NBA’s numbers are good. Amidst a tsunami of media coverage and scrutiny focused on the very wrong 5 percent, the truth about the NBA’s high vaccination should be shouted from the mountaintops. But we shouldn’t ignore the significance of star players such as Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal who are arguing for the“right” to not be vaccinated and to endanger their teammates, family members of teammates and all the front office workers who make pro sports run. Their position has also been supported by vaccinated superstars such as LeBron James.
Even though we are talking about a small minority of NBA players who are unvaxxed, what they say matters.
I think they are terribly wrongheaded about this. But the point here is not to point out the renunciation of public health and community solidarity that NBA anti-vaxxers and their defenders represent. It’s not even to point out that the same people — hello, Ted Cruz — who excoriated them or told them to “shut up and dribble” when they stood up to racist police violence last year are now singing their praises. The point is that even though we are talking about a small minority of NBA players who are unvaxxed, what they say matters, and the glare of media attention is justified.
These star athletes have put themselves out in front as leaders. They have built up cultural —and media — capital in the cities where they play and across the country. Beal led demonstrations through the streets of Washington after a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. Irving has been a walking solidarity machine for those affected by racism and for Indigenous peoples. Because they are leaders, their voices carry. We can bemoan the fact that in our celebrity-soaked culture, they have such a platform. But denying its existence doesn’t make it go away. You can choose to say that they aren’t “role models,” a la Charles Barkley 30 years ago, but that’s like choosing (as Irving once did, perhaps in jest) to not believe that the Earth is round. You can believe it all you want; it doesn’t make it so.