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COVID-19 vaccine: Institutional racism, distrust will have some NBA players wary

Vincent Goodwill
·11-min read

Michele Roberts knows calls are coming about the COVID-19 vaccines, calls about the NBA players she represents, calls from those very players and even calls about herself, a 64-year-old Black woman who could very well have the option to take the vaccine.

Even if the questions are the same, the answers may not be. The National Basketball Players Association executive director has been doing her own research on the viability of the vaccines, weighing whether she will take it. But whether she takes it doesn’t give a definitive indication on what her recommendation to the players will be — a reasonable complication of a very layered, complex and downright scary situation.

“I got some very close friends. And really smart people have said to me, ‘Michele, it’s a no-brainer, of course, you’ll take the vaccine,’” Roberts said in a recent phone conversation with Yahoo Sports. “Unlike my players, I’m considerably older than they are and probably further up on the list.

“But I haven’t made up my mind. I’m eager to be convinced that these are safe. I’m hopeful I’ll be convinced that they’re safe. But I’m not a cheerleader … I’m not at a place yet where I would wholeheartedly and fulsomely say, absolutely, you have to take it.”

When would NBA players be able to take the vaccine?

The NBA, according to league sources, is very sensitive to being accused of taking advantage and giving its players the vaccine ahead of frontline workers, the vulnerable and the elderly.

“We won’t jump the line” is a familiar refrain stated by commissioner Adam Silver. But given the sporadic distribution and seemingly passive response by the current administration, there’s no rhyme or reason to “the line” after the obvious people who will receive it.

The CDC defines “Essential Workers” beyond it, with people in education, public transit and grocery store employees among those next. Because the rollout in some states has been slower than expected, it also complicates things further.

Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of National Basketball Players Association, is seen in offices in Harlem in Manhattan.
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts knows calls are coming about the COVID-19 vaccines. (Jennifer S. Altman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A general belief from team personnel was by April or May a vaccine would be available to NBA teams, but due to the inconsistencies, it’s far too early to project. The league hopes it would be available as the 72-game regular season comes to an end on May 16. Again, any projection feels like an educated guess given the number of frontline workers yet to be vaccinated.

Any mandate of a vaccine would have to be collectively bargained, and the league and players haven’t engaged on that discussion just yet. But Roberts has had numerous discussions with her constituency, ranging from “Hell no, I’m not taking it” to “Why can’t we take it sooner?” — which is to be expected.

The COVID-19 catastrophe has been political from the beginning. Wearing masks, or rather, the refusal to wear them, has been a statement about personal politics rather than health or safety. And it’s sure to take another turn, given the disparate treatment Black Americans routinely receive from the health care system and the historic distrust of vaccines that goes back several decades.

But those fears aren’t the same as the pure defiance that comes from the anti-vaxxers.

“This isn’t the flu. I think it was [President] Trump who believed it was. This wasn’t the flu,” Roberts said. “I hope that our community doesn’t say, ‘screw it,’ and forget it. We’re not doing this. This is a damn pandemic. Right? Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of our members of our community to this thing.”

Why NBA players might think twice before getting vaccinated

The most obvious is the Tuskegee Experiment, which started in 1932 but operated until 1972. Years before this generation of players were born but close enough for family members to recall the deception and long-term effects on Black men.

The experiment aimed to study untreated syphilis in African American males while telling the participants they were receiving free health care — a clearly unethical, criminal practice, sanctioned by the United States government.

Of the 399 people in the study with syphilis, 28 men died from the disease, 100 died from complications, 40 wives had been infected and 19 children were born with it.

President Bill Clinton issued an apology in 1997, but it’s a stain that hasn’t been forgotten. The history and even current trend of institutional racism doesn’t inspire confidence among Black people or Black athletes.

“The sad fact, health care in our communities has never been anything other than subpar,” Roberts said, mentioning Tuskegee. “Our community’s suspicions about the bona fide ease of treatment that’s offered to us as well, let’s face it, Black pregnant women have an exponentially greater possibility of dying in childbirth, than their white counterparts, solely because of the quality of care that they receive. So you know, the African American players in the NBA are members of the African American community, that to the extent our community has certain sensitivities, not surprisingly, our players are going to have those sensitivities.”

Those stories have been passed down to where the distrust is not only accepted but encouraged and confirmed given the way Black Americans are still disproportionately treated, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have on many, many occasions been the scientific Guinea pigs,” Roberts said.

Roberts pointed to the rollout of the vaccine, with a Black nurse taking it in New York on national TV and the reaction to it from a white former senator.

Nurse Sandra Lindsay receives the second dose of a Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center
Nurse Sandra Lindsay receives the second dose of a Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center on Jan. 4, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images)

“She said, ‘I think we’re going to be fine. I mean, the first person to get the vaccine in New York was a Black nurse. And, you know, the Black community will see that and understand,’” Roberts quipped. “And I said, ‘You know, girlfriend, are you serious? Honestly, you resolve that problem with that image?’”

So it’ll be very easy to draw the line between everyday Black Americans and a subset of the most influential Black Americans around the United States — NBA players who could be tapped as public spokespeople, trustworthy figures who theoretically vouch for the safety of the vaccine if people are rightfully wary.

“The one thing that I assume will be the case is that they may be hearing for the first time about how deep-rooted the suspicions are in our community about vaccinations at all,” Roberts said. “I allow that they may not have been aware of it. But once we have the discussion, I expect that they will respect it, you would disagree with whether or not there should be any continued suspicion but respect the fact that it’s real. There’s a basis for it.

“This is not something that was just made up out of whole cloth. There was a history of abuse of our community in the space and has not been lost or forgotten. And so whatever we try to do going forward has to respect that.”

The league has certainly become aware of these generational issues and rightful distrust in recent time. The hope is with its own independent infectious disease specialists — along with those in the union — would build on the existing trust between the two sides that has been forged through the pandemic.

Several Black executives reached by Yahoo Sports expressed confidence in the vaccine, citing discussions with the respective team doctors and their own experiences and personal beliefs. They all acknowledge the complexities of it, but they’re also in different age groups than the players and feel the rewards outweigh the risk. One executive believes it’ll become commonplace like the flu shot, something that will have to be taken annually.

“I’ve taken all my vaccinations over the years. Taken the flu vaccine every year,” a senior executive told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve had trust in doctors. For me, if there was any doubt in this vaccine, for all I’ve read and heard, it’s no dead vaccine. It’s synthetic. Helped your body generate the antibodies to fight off the virus.”

Will the NBA require players to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The league has answered questions on myriad topics with the players, ranging from players who’ve caught the virus already and are unsure of taking the vaccine, to the function of the antibodies with the vaccine. It can suggest but not demand players take it — which may or may not be reflective of what’s to come nationally.

“So ... if I don’t see a national requirement, a federal requirement — [President-elect] Biden’s often said that he’s not prepared to go down that road,” Roberts said. “But I think that there are going to be enough pockets of industry, where you will see [pseudo]-requirements. I think that some private employers might be able to do it.”

Since the start of last season’s campus bubble in Orlando, Black players have carried a larger segment of civic responsibility than in recent time. For some, that’s earned them extra currency with the public, and of course, blowback with another audience.

Having them as the faces of a vaccine could be both unfair and pragmatic.

Anthony Davis and LeBron James wear masks on the sideline as they watch a preseason game.
Anthony Davis and LeBron James are some of the most recognizable players in the current NBA landscape, and some have already called on them and other prominent NBA players to take a COVID-19 vaccine as a way to instill confidence in the vaccination process. (Harry How/Getty Images)

“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.”

Perhaps overtly, the NBA positioned itself as a league with morals. And on the back end of that carries an inherent responsibility to recognize the complexities of its on-floor employees and approach such a delicate issue with care.

When it comes to universal popularity, names like LeBron James and Stephen Curry are among the most recognizable and trusted Black Americans, thus making them prime targets for public campaigns.

“You hear all the time, ‘[President] Obama’s gonna take it.’ You know, we love Obama. But I don’t know that that’s going to move the needle,” Roberts said. “It may move the needle as far as more African American influencers. If that is the case, come out and say, ‘Yes, do take it.’ But you know, I think the flip side of that, it’s going to have a lot of African American influence, who’s going to say, ‘I ain’t taking it.’”

The NBA has begun to explore the possibility of having players as public spokespeople, but is also aware it is a two-pronged issue, similar to Roberts’ personal opinion on the vaccine and her feelings as executive director to the players.

“But I really do make a clear distinction between what I may personally like to do and what I would be negotiating on behalf of the players,” Roberts said. “So even if someone were to say, well, ‘Michelle’s taking it; it must be safe,’ the answer is ‘No, Michele’s taking it. She’s decided that for her.’”

Picking the right player as a representative would have to be one who accepts it both for himself and the signal it sends to the masses — a risk of sorts considering the league can only be but so comfortable with the information it has at the moment. Only the passage of time can increase the confidence surrounding the potential side effects and unforeseen developments.

“You know what happens when some people, if you get the virus, you die, it’s a cost-benefit analysis,” Roberts said. “Some of us can afford to say, well, I will wait. Because if I do get it, I will likely not die from it. Some of us don’t have that luxury.

“Our players are not in that group of people who are likely to be seriously adversely affected, as far as we know that they’re infected with the virus. So it may be that they can make the reasonable decision that ‘Look, I’m 25. Obviously, in great physical health, I’m going to wait a year to see how this thing plays out.

“But there are others that don’t have the same luxury, and they may just be crossing their fingers as they take the needle.”

And given all the players have learned over the past year or so, it’s hard to blame them for being reticent.

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