Editor’s Update: Adam Silver spoke about the NBA’s vaccine policy today (1/19/21) on Sportico’s NBA Valuations Panel. Silver highlighted the role that players might have in promoting vaccine efficacy to skeptical populations. Specifically, members of the African American community may understandably mistrust the vaccine given the racist history of vaccination in this country. Silver also reiterated that the league would wait until public health officials agree it’s the right time to vaccinate players.
It is not uncommon for a team’s roster to fluctuate in size as a result of players’ injuries or other personal reasons. However, nowadays rosters seem to be thinning faster due to contact tracing and other COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Last Sunday’s game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat was postponed after Miami fell short of the eight-player minimum due to COVID-19 contact-tracing concerns. Per ESPN, Miami guard Avery Bradley was out due to health and safety protocols. Forward Kelly Olynyk, guard Goran Dragic, and center Meyers Leonard were also among the players potentially unable to play due to injury. The Celtics, however, do not have a brimming roster to boast of as of now either. Last week, seven players on the Boston team were out due to health and safety protocols. In fact, Jason Tatum has recently tested positive and is undergoing a 10-14 day quarantine. The Philadelphia 76ers are also currently missing players as Seth Curry tested positive earlier last week, which meant that four of his teammates had to also go into quarantine per the league’s health and safety protocol.
Teams appear to be short-handed at this point in the season; however, according to ESPN’s Wojnarowski, the NBA has no plans to pause the season. The 2020-21 NBA Health and Safety protocol is reported to be extensive at 158 pages; however, it does not list criteria for the season to be suspended. Monitoring the virus and preventing outbreaks is significantly more challenging outside of last season’s Orlando bubble; however, teams have avoided a single large outbreak. Since last week, twelve more games have been postponed, bringing the total to fourteen. The thing that seems to be counteracting the considerable inconveniences, such as precarious competitive balance across teams and continually disrupted chemistry, is the collective sense of hope for a vaccine and a less volatile latter half of the season. The league’s health safety protocol states, “Once a vaccine is available, the league and the National Basketball Players Association will negotiate whether players, coaches, and staff will be required to receive it. If it is not required, adjustments to the safety provisions — such as requiring more masking or testing of those who choose not to receive the vaccination — might be implemented.”
Decisions surrounding the distribution of the vaccine will be interesting to observe across professional sports leagues given that considerable skepticism already seems to exist. For example, Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors told USA Today, “I’m a guy that don’t really take any vaccines. I try to stay away from a lot of medicine.” Moreover, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. raised some eyebrows over the summer when he suggested that coronavirus was “being used for a bigger agenda” and revealed that he had never been vaccinated. Porter contracted the virus earlier in January and is currently on the list of players sidelined for the duration of their quarantine. Undoubtedly, a mandatory vaccine (assuming it’s ethical, safe, and effective) of all players, coaches, and staff could very much ease the season’s flow and ensure a quicker return to normal. So, can the NBA mandate a vaccine? Take the flu vaccine, for example. The league “strongly recommends” it, and all players and their households receive the option to take the vaccine. In the case of denial, the respective team has the right to provide the player with an educational course on the vaccine’s benefits. However, in 2021, the world is dealing with much more than just the annual flu, so how will the process be handled?
While the NBA has avoided comment on how it will handle the issue so far, history may provide insight on the legality of a potential mandate. A most relevant landmark case is Jacobson v. Massachusetts; a 7-2 decision held that Cambridge, Massachusetts could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections during the 1905 epidemic. Jacobson’s side argued that introducing smallpox to a healthy functioning immune system is a violation of the 14th Amendment, specifically of life and liberty. In response, the court reasoned that under the 10th Amendment, states have the authority to enact reasonable legislative action to protect public health. While this decision is over one hundred years old, there is little precedent on vaccine mandates and the NBA may look to this holding as a means to justify enforcement. However, this determination seemed to grant power to respective states and it is uncertain how it can be applied in the context of an organization. Interestingly, although personal and ethical views are usually insufficient, “sincerely held religious belief” may qualify an exemption from a mandatory vaccination policy under Title VII. However, the current pandemic is largely uncharted territory. The consequences of a player or a coach denying the vaccine may be significant. In light of this, the conversation surrounding risk-management is likely to develop further, and shift legal determinations. Additional federal and state guidelines will likely also inform league decisions surrounding vaccination protocols. For now, Adam Silver has commented that the NBA will not “jump the line in any form whatsoever” in terms of receiving the vaccine.