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Michele Roberts and the NBA players’ union are right: COVID-19 vaccine mandates won’t work | Mike Sielski

It would be wonderful if every NBA player rolled up his sleeve and got his shot. But in reality, there's only so much the league can do.

Lakers forward LeBron James during a game against the Sixers in January. James may or may not be vaccinated and has been cagey about answering the question every time he has been asked it.
Lakers forward LeBron James during a game against the Sixers in January. James may or may not be vaccinated and has been cagey about answering the question every time he has been asked it.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Say this for Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association: She understands her constituency. The league will not enact a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its players this season, according to an ESPN report this week, in large part because the union regards any such proposal as a “non-starter.”

Non-starter is a nicer, tighter way for Roberts to tell commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s owners, Don’t even think about it, and Silver and the owners will acquiesce. They don’t have much of a choice. They can only muddle the situation, can only make it worse for themselves and everyone else, and if they’re not careful, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Let’s start with the necessary, and what should be self-evident, disclaimer that every vaccine-eligible person should get the vaccine. You should get it to protect yourself and the people around you. You should get it to allow yourself and everyone else to return to normal life or something close to it. In a perfect world, everyone would have already rolled up his or her sleeve, and we’d all be better off.

Now, to the imperfect reality. At this stage of the pandemic, trying to strong-arm a professional athlete or anyone else who isn’t already vaccinated into sitting down for a shot — and we’re looking at you, President Biden, and your national vaccine mandate — isn’t likely to work. According to a CNBC poll from last week, of the 29% of American voters who are unvaccinated, 83% do not plan to get vaccinated.

You can call such people mouth-breathing science deniers if you like. You can tweet at them in ALL CAPS and with bursts of !!!!s, and you can rant about them on Facebook or during get-togethers with friends and family. You might even rant at them during those get-togethers, and you might feel quite self-satisfied afterward. What you won’t do, with all your fury and mocking, is persuade many of them, if any of them, to get the shot, which is supposed to be the goal.

» READ MORE: The Phillies’ COVID-19 limbo is a helpful reminder that athletes aren’t any smarter than the general population | David Murphy

That broader context is relevant here. For all the stereotyping about who isn’t getting vaccinated and why, the results, revelations, and ramifications of such analyses often defy the easiest of presumptions. Consider a new CNN/SSRS poll, for example, which showed that 54% of young voters, 54% of white people, and 43% of Black people regard a vaccine mandate as an infringement on their individual rights. Those are significant percentages among demographics that align closely with the people whose interests Roberts represents: NBA players.

As it is, 85% of those players, according to the league, are already vaccinated, and they didn’t need a mandate to do it. If we take the NBA at its word on that figure, each of its 30 teams has, on average, two players on its roster who are unvaccinated, and the league reportedly wants to put protocols in place to keep those unvaccinated players away from their vaccinated teammates. Those protocols would include isolated lockers and separate sections on team buses and planes, and one has to wonder whether Silver and his fellow decision-makers have thought through all the potential consequences of such measures.

If the league wants those stragglers to get their shots, to acknowledge at last that the vaccines are safe and will protect them from COVID-19, why isolate them at all? Why treat them like lepers in settings and environments where they are in such a small minority? As we’ve seen from some of the misguided public-policy decisions since the vaccines became available, it doesn’t take much for a skeptic to find a reason not to get the shot. Segregating unvaccinated players from their teammates undermines confidence in the vaccines’ efficacy — at least in the minds of some players and members of the general public. It sends the implicit message that vaccinated players are still in danger, that the shots don’t work. If they work, a vaccine doubter might say, why are you acting like I’m putting my teammates at so great a risk? You keep telling me to trust the science. Well, do you trust it or not?

From the league’s perspective, the more meaningful information might be not how many players are unvaccinated, but who those players are. Having a couple of unvaccinated players on a team might not sound like much of a problem … until that team’s ownership, its executives, its coaches, its fans, and the league’s sponsors and media partners learn that one of those players is, say, LeBron James, who may or may not be vaccinated and has been cagey about answering the question every time he has been asked it.

» READ MORE: Unvaccinated people account for 94% of the new coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania this year, state health officials say

There is no protocol or policy that the NBA could implement that would compel James or any player approximating his power and popularity to get vaccinated if he didn’t want to, and everyone with even a cursory familiarity with the NBA knows it — or should. There’s a reason that the league instituted a vaccine mandate for all of its referees and most of its staff members. Those people and their jobs are dispensable. Its stars aren’t. This isn’t about public health. This is about money. It always is. Act and react accordingly.