Op-Ed: The NBA’s Recent Capitulation to COVID Skepticism and its Distortment of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo Credit: Paxton Holley

By Andrew Campos
Director of Operations

1992 was a simpler time. “The Dream Team” —  the outstanding 1992 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team that heralded the legendary likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird — collectively sought to earn a Gold Medal after the American team had lost to the Soviet Union in the 1988 Summer Olympics. The “Dream Team”  went for gold and inevitably succeeded, and in doing so demonstrated the tenacity and formidable athleticism of American basketball players. The 1992 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team enshrined themselves as cultural leaders in the realm of basketball, inspiring basketball fans abroad. More importantly, at this time, a global pandemic had yet to dramatically alter the lives of billions of individuals across the world.

Today, with COVID-19 cases reaching record-breaking numbers due to the highly-infectious Omicron variant’s winter debut, the 2021-2022 NBA season shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. With 14 NBA players on the National Basketball Association’s health and safety protocols as of January 19, NBA executives and team general managers alike are proceeding with business as usual. This laissez-faire approach to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases among NBA personnel stands in stark contrast to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s unilateral decision to suspend the 2019-2020 season indefinitely on March 11, 2020, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.. Today, Silver defers the potential of a vaccine mandate for NBA players, affirming “that it should be an individual choice among the players.” Instead of encouraging a responsible COVID-19 response that could have beneficial social effects for fans and international audiences, Silver is emboldening members of his association that question the validity of COVID-19 vaccines — particularly, Kyrie Irving. 

For some time, especially at the start of the 2021-2022 season, Brooklyn Nets point guard, Kyrie Irving has been the talk of the league — not for his phenomenal prowess on the court — but for his avowed acclamation of conspiracy theories unfounded in reality. Irving, for instance, was exposed for liking Instagram posts of a page that falsely affirmed COVID-19 vaccines contained microchips that intended to connect Black people to a computer as part of a Satanic plot. Former basketball stars including John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assists and steals leader as well as a member of the 1992 “Dream Team,” praised Irving for his hesitancy. Stockton has also declared that COVID-19 is “not very dangerous compared to other viruses.” Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Marks declared that Irving would not participate in practices or games until he was deemed a “full participant,” which included the capacity to play in home games at Barclays Center. Marks intended to dissuade Irving from promoting such misinformation and incentivize him to comply with New York City’s vaccination mandate. However, the Nets’ decision to bench Irving for the season was short-lived, as an increasing number of Nets players entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols obliged them to ultimately repeal their decision regarding Irving’s participation. Rather than formally penalize him for his flagrant promotion of COVID-19 skepticism, Irving is now a part-time player of the organization, partaking only in practices and road games. The NBA is setting a malicious precedent by allowing its players, especially cultural icons like Kyrie Irving, to influence their fans on and off the court through such anti-vaccination rhetoric with impunity. 

Unlike Irving’s stubborn refusal to be vaccinated, Los Angeles Lakers superstar, Lebron James has fully participated in the 2021-2022 season as a result of his vaccination status, despite his initial hesitancy. Like Irving, James is one of the NBA’s preeminent present-day talents and has fostered skepticism towards COVID-19. On December 24, 2021, the Laker’s star posted a meme on his Instagram page that crudely compared COVID-19 to the common cold and flu for his 107 million global followers to witness. Some NBA players commented in support of James’ post, particularly Atlanta Hawks rising star Trae Young, who wrote a “100” emoji in response. A few days earlier, Young had entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols due to testing positive for COVID-19. Nonetheless, James’ permissive attitude towards the coronavirus encourages many of his fans and future NBA All-Stars like Young to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing more than a laughing matter. In response, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rightfully scrutinized James for his post, proclaiming that James has “given support to those not getting vaccinated, which makes the situation worse by postponing our health and economic recovery.” On the court, Abdul-Jabbar distinguished himself as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a record James is ironically pursuing himself. Yet, off the court, Abdul-Jabbar has used his cultural clout to speak on issues regarding race and religion as a Black Muslim American. 

COVID-19 has disproportionately killed Black Americans, and Abdul-Jabar is an enthusiastic advocate for vaccinations, an energetic critic of misinformation surrounding the virus, and most importantly, an eloquent example of how the NBA and its player-ambassadors should respond to an international pandemic. While James has contributed a great deal of time and resources to social causes — speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. in the face of critics that affirmed he should “shut up and dribble” — he is currently using his platform to the detriment of global communities to remain safe and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis once likened NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem to the heroic protests against Jim Crow laws, conveying that professional athletes are the new cultural ambassadors of the current era. As one of the NBA’s most prominent athletes, James is, by default, a cultural ambassador of the United States. With his level of influence through social media, James is capable of downplaying COVID-19 and stoking the flames of international anti-vaccination groups that his former teammate Kyrie Irving appeals to. 

Contrary to Irving’s and James’ indifferent approach, Washington Wizards superstar Bradley Beal recently received his COVID-19 vaccine after entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols. After waiving his vaccination status for months, Beal acquiesced and received his vaccine, stating he did so for his family. Although Beal is not necessarily regarded in the same limelight as Irving or James, his story is one that the NBA should promote if it seeks to encourage vaccination and a conscious approach towards COVID-19 in the United States and abroad, as the organization proclaims it does. Above all, more NBA players should emulate Beal in their treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic out of concern for their families, fellow teammates, and millions of fans. 

When professional NBA players were first permitted to participate in the 1992 Summer Olympics, international audiences were astonished by the Herculean abilities of the American players on the “Greatest Team Ever Assembled.” The 1992 “Dream Team” inspired future stars from countless countries to pick up a basketball and imitate those players who had just won gold. Notably, the 2021-2022 NBA season commenced with rosters starring 109 international players from 39 countries, with preeminent athletes like Nigerian-Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo, Slovenian Luka Dončić, and Cameroonian Joel Embiid. Like many professional sports, basketball transcends sovereign borders and connects individuals from all walks of life through a common love and passion for the sport.

In basketball, each player has a role to play, and it is only through collective teamwork that victory is achieved. An effective national response to a global pandemic requires nothing short of unified teamwork, and though athletics may be but only a minor player in this larger societal game, it indeed has an important role to play. Up until now, the NBA has missed the mark. As COVID-19 ravages across the world and disrupts the international order, the NBA and its players must use their popularity to promote COVID-19 vaccinations and discourage misinformation across the globe.

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