Thursday, May 30, 2024

How should sports leagues handle unvaccinated players?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The question of how to deal with employees who won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine is something that every business in the U.S. has had to answer. Professional sports leagues are no different.

The issue came to a head this week during the NBA’s preseason media day, when a handful of prominent players spoke out in opposition to the vaccines, or at minimum refused to disclose their vaccination status. “I would love to just keep that private,” said Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who was interviewed over Zoom because New York City requires proof of vaccination for large group activities. All-NBA shooting guard Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards was more direct, challenging reporters with specious claims about the effectiveness of the vaccines.

The scenes echoed circumstances that other major sports leagues, like the NFL, NHL and MLB, have had to confront. Each of those leagues has said that 90 percent or more of its players are fully vaccinated, well above the rate for eligible Americans. The WNBA leads the way with a reported 99 percent vaccination rate. But the power that individual athletes have, over both outcomes of games and the revenue they generate, raises the stakes of having even a small minority of players unvaccinated.

That reality has led to a mishmash of rules across the sports world. Most leagues have required staff like coaches, trainers and referees to get vaccinated, but none of those mandates have applied to players. Canada recently issued a “national interest exemption” to allow unvaccinated NBA players to play in Toronto without having to comply with travel restrictions that apply to the general public. NHL players, on the other hand, will not receive a similar exemption. Local rules in New York and San Francisco could mean unvaccinated players on local teams, including Irving, will have to sit out all home games — but those rules do not apply to visiting players.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of some commentators, the solution to the problem is simple: Require all players to get the COVID vaccine. They argue that too much is at stake — the success of their teams, the health of teammates and staff, billions in revenue — for a small number of holdouts to put the stability of their seasons in jeopardy.

Others say mandates are too strong may be impossible to implement due to players’ union opposition. A more effective path, they say, is to make life more difficult for unvaccinated players. That could include more stringent requirements on masking, testing and social distancing that vaccinated players are exempt from — a strategy currently being employed by most leagues. Some have also called for players to forfeit their salaries for any games they miss because of their vaccination status.

There is also debate about how the media should approach the issue. Some have urged reporters to be persistent in making players defend, or at minimum clarify, their vaccine stances. Others say it is dangerous to give such influential figures a platform to broadcast their doubts when vaccine hesitancy is leading to so many unnecessary deaths across the country.

What’s next

It remains to be seen whether renewed pressure or the prospect of missing games will convince Irving, Beal or any other unvaccinated players in the NBA or other leagues to get the shot. The NHL begins its regular season Oct. 12. The NBA season tips off Oct. 19.


A respectful discussion about players’ concerns is better than condemnation

“It is not right to ignore the concerns of people of color when they talk about trusting a government, which for generations has established a pattern of abhorrent behavior designed to put their needs last. However, there has to be an intelligent way to broach this topic that doesn’t involve outwardly rejecting any vaccine mandate, while siding with beyond ludicrous conspiracy theories.” — James Dator, SB Nation

Anti-vaccine players should not be given a platform

“We’ve been taught whenever a public person yells to a crowd, it must be documented and persevered for consumption, even if it’s to be mocked. But as times change and people become more gullible to bad information, the volume should be turned down on those yelling into the mic. Even if minds can’t be changed, damage can be mitigated.” — Vincent Goodwill, Yahoo Sports

Extra steps need to be taken to prevent coronavirus outbreaks

“If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to be tested if you’re not feeling sick. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re going to be tested all the time because you could be at significantly more risk of getting sick yourself or spreading the virus. That’s the deal we’re going to have to make to get back to normal.” — Dan Wolken, USA Today

Teammates, not the leagues or media, are the most effective messengers

“Perhaps peer pressure in the locker room will increase the number of vaccinated players. … Whatever vaccinated NBA players can do to convince their anti-vax teammates should be done. It’s worth a shot.” — Cecil Harris, NBC News

Being unvaccinated should carry significant financial risk

“You need to make it very clear that you don’t care if players get vaccinated or not. But if they’re not vaccinated and can’t play games, they don’t get paid. If they’re not vaccinated but are allowed to play, they have to wear masks, follow all the COVID-19 rules, and if they don’t, they get suspended.” — David Samson, CBS Sports

Leagues should mandate COVID vaccines for all players

“Many professionals across the country simply can’t return to work without being vaccinated. … It’s time for pro sports leagues to demand the same from players. Get vaccinated or don’t play.” — La Velle E. Neal III, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Athletes must be forced to defend their anti-vaccine stances

“It would be better for everyone — and this is public health, everyone is involved — if the unvaccinated players had the courage to be honest about their so-called research.” — Dennis Young, New York Daily News

Vaccine mandates aren’t the solution

“In reality, any mandate assuredly would be contested by the unions. Worse, a mandate would compel non-vaxxers to dig in their heels. It’s not as if they’re acting rationally to begin with.” — Marcus Hayes, Philadelphia Inquirer

Vaccination status should be considered when teams build their rosters

“If you’re an NFL hopeful, teams need to know you can play, in that you can run, catch, and execute assignments. And they need to know you can play, in that you won’t spend weeks in COVID-19 protocol, or the hospital, and that you won’t start the outbreak that costs them a game. A vaccine is the simplest way to ease that concern.” — Morgan Campbell, CBC

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images, Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images, Rob Carr/Getty Images, Getty Images

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