One by one, the basketball players — non-vaccinated star here, fully-inoculated veteran on mute down there, a full-on anti-vaxxer front-and-center — logged into the video conference. The annual summer meeting of the powerful NBA union had gone virtual again on August 7, and high on the agenda for the season ahead was a proposed mandate from the league office that 100 percent of players get vaccinated against Covid-19.
One response echoed from squares across the screen, according to players and an executive on the call: “Non-starter. Non-starter.”
The NBA had relied on science above all to lead the sports world through the Covid nightmare, from the league’s outbreak-driven shutdown to a pandemic-proof playoff bubble in Disney World to game after game with fans back in the stands. But after two plagued seasons of non-stop nasal swabbing, quarantining and distrust, unvaccinated players were pushing back. They made their case to the union summit: There should be testing this year, of course, just not during off-days. They’d mask up on the court and on the road, if they must. But no way would they agree to a mandatory jab. The vaccine deniers had set the agenda; the players agreed to take their demands for personal freedom to the NBA’s negotiating table.
This month, league officials caught a break: Two of America’s most progressive cities, New York and San Francisco, would require pro athletes to show proof of one Covid-19 vaccination dose to play indoors, except with an approved medical or religious exemption. Which meant that one of the NBA’s biggest stars — one known for being receptive to conspiratorial beliefs — would be under heavy pressure to get a shot. And if Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving could be convinced to take the vaccine, then maybe, just maybe, the whole league could create a new kind of bubble together.
When asked directly about Irving’s vaccination status — or his plans to change it — multiple people familiar with his thinking declined to answer directly. But one confidant and family member floated to Rolling Stone the idea of anti-vaxx players skipping home games to dodge the New York City ordinance… or at least threatening to protest them, until the NBA changes its ways.
“There are so many other players outside of him who are opting out, I would like to think they would make a way,” says Kyrie’s aunt, Tyki Irving, who runs the seven-time All-Star’s family foundation and is one of the few people in his regular circle of advisors. “It could be like every third game. So it still gives you a full season of being interactive and being on the court, but with the limitations that they’re, of course, oppressing upon you. There can be some sort of formula where the NBA and the players can come to some sort of agreement.”
A spokeswoman for Irving declined to respond to a list of questions regarding his vaccination and playing status, and Irving did not immediately respond to a message from Rolling Stone. But as teams return to pre-season training camps next week, fifty to sixty NBA players have yet to receive a single vaccine dose, league sources tell RS. Most are considered merely reluctant skeptics. Some of the holdouts, however, amount to their own shadow roster of anti-vaxxers mounting a behind-the-scenes resistance to Covid protocols — and the truth.
Irving, who serves as a vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union, recently started following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that “secret societies” are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.” This Moderna microchip misinformation campaign has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats, according to several of the dozen-plus current players, Hall-of-Famers, league executives, arena workers and virologists interviewed for this story over the past week.
The league’s virus-hunters denied a religious-exemption request from a vaccine-denying player in San Francisco this weekend, lighting a powder keg on a combustible mix of race, religion, class and clubbing in a time of Covid, aimed at some of the most influential role models in America. General managers remain confident they can get superstars vaxxed by opening night. And in a concession to the Delta variant, all courtside players and personnel will be required to wear masks on arena benches and around practice facilities for the foreseeable future, Rolling Stone can reveal. According to near-final medical guidance outlined to RS on Saturday, however, unvaccinated players have forced the league to cave on nearly every other demand.
“The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team,” NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells Rolling Stone. “There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research. What I find especially disingenuous about the vaccine deniers is their arrogance at disbelieving immunology and other medical experts. Yet, if their child was sick or they themselves needed emergency medical treatment, how quickly would they do exactly what those same experts told them to do?”
Jonathan Isaac is known less by the average basketball fan for his play than for being that guy who stood up with his jersey on during the national anthem in the NBA bubble, while every other player on the court took a knee in a t-shirt declaring BLACK LIVES MATTER, amid a global reckoning on race and police killings. “I’m not going to sit here and point my fingers at one group of people,” Isaac, who is Black, tells RS. “I would do it again.”
The Orlando Magic’s 23-year-old starting forward is deeply religious — and proudly unvaccinated. When NBA players started lining up for shots in March, Isaac started studying Black history and watching Donald Trump’s press conferences. He learned about antibody resistance and came to distrust Dr. Anthony Fauci. He looked out for people who might die from the vaccine, and he put faith in God.
“At the end of the day, it’s people,” Isaac says of the scientists developing vaccines, “and you can’t always put your trust completely in people.”
Isaac considers un-vaxxed players to be vilified and bullied, and he thinks “it’s an injustice” to automatically make heroes out of vaccinated celebrities. He rejects the NBA’s proposal for a vaccine mandate and social distancing for players like him during team travel: “You can play on the same court. We can touch the same ball. We can bump chests. We can do all those things on the court. And then when it comes to being on the bus, we have to be in different parts of the bus? To me, it doesn’t seem logically consistent.
“If you are vaccinated, in other places you still have to wear the mask regardless. It’s like, ‘OK, then what is the mask necessarily for?’” Isaac continues. “And if Kyrie says that from his position of his executive power in the NBPA, then kudos to him.”
Enes Kanter — the veteran center, devout Muslim and outspoken liberal — senses a creep of the religious right upon his workplace, which just happens to involve players like Isaac sweating all over him and yelling in his face: “If a guy’s not getting vaccinated because of his religion, I feel like we are in a time where the religion and science has to go to together,” he tells RS. “I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys — I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’”
Kanter’s current franchise, the Boston Celtics, had multiple players unvaccinated as of Thursday, he and a teammate say. The NBA claims that 90 percent of its more than 450 players — star veterans and players trying to make rosters alike — have received at least one shot, a rate lower than the conservative NFL. League officials provide weekly data and studies to teams with un-vaxxed players, many of whom they hope will be inoculated before the regular season begins on October 19. Inside practice facilities next week, vaccinated players expect to spend time convincing skeptical players to avoid a competitive disadvantage. “If you’re a player and you’re not vaccinated and you miss a week or two weeks,” Kanter says, “it could…
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