In December, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was unequivocal when speaking to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith: The league would not jump the line to get COVID-19 vaccines.
After all, NBA players are as young and as healthy — generally speaking — as the American workplace gets. Without a comorbidity (such as asthma), players would presumably be near the back of the line for vaccines, and Silver said he had no intention of moving them up.
“We will very likely be part of some public service campaigns, we already talked to the CDC and other federal agencies about that, encouraging people to get vaccinated when it is appropriate,” Silver said. “But up until then, we will just be watching and waiting.”
On Tuesday, however, Silver suggested the league has begun examining the possibility of vaccinating its players. Speaking to Sportico, Silver noted the importance of having public figures vaccinated to build trust, especially in the Black community.
“In the African American community, there’s been enormously disparate impact from COVID … but now, somewhat perversely, there’s been enormous resistance [to vaccinations] in the African American community for understandable historical reasons,” Silver said. “… If that resistance continues, it would be very much a double whammy to the Black community, because the only way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated.”
Silver is likely, in part, referencing the Tuskegee experiments — a 40-year trial that spanned 1932-72. The study, entitled “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” aimed to record the natural history of syphilis. However, researchers did not inform or gather consent from the 600 participants, and they offered no care to the participants who were infected. Participants later won a class-action lawsuit filed by the NAACP worth $10 million.
A recent study conducted by the NAACP and others — which collected responses from 1,050 Black adults and 250 Latinx adults — showed widespread distrust of a potential vaccine. Per the study’s findings, only 18 percent of Black adults and 40 percent of Latinx adults have faith in the vaccine’s effectiveness.
That distrust includes NBA players, and important members of the NBA community. Earlier this month, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told Yahoo! Sports she won’t be a “cheerleader” for the vaccine, although she hopes to be convinced of its efficacy.
“I’ve heard they want Black influencers to step up, convince the Black community to do this,” Roberts said. “I’m just waiting on the tap on the shoulder to say, ‘Michele, will the players do this?’ I know it’s coming.”
Silver, meanwhile, has reason to be concerned about optics. The league began its 2020-21 season as the pandemic raged at unprecedented levels across the country, and acquiring coveted vaccines for players considered “low-risk” would look questionable at best.
Still, players have an argument to receive vaccinations early beyond just messaging. While not as crucial to day-to-day life as nurses and grocery store workers, players are exposed to the virus as part of their job. The virus has the opportunity to spread easily through the NBA community as well — players are unmasked when on the court and interact in practice and transit. When a team enters a new city, players could bring the virus with them. Infected players are also a risk to their families, many of whom could be more at-risk.
Silver, however, emphasized the messaging aspect on Tuesday, saying that public health authorities will have the final word on whether players are vaccinated.
“Anything we will do will be fully transparent and in conjunction with public health authorities, so there’s no sense whatsoever that there’s some favoritism going on here,” Silver said. “Only be done if public health officials determine on balance it was the right time to vaccinate our players.”
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