The National Basketball Association will not pay players who miss games for refusing to comply with local vaccine mandates, escalating tensions with a small but vocal minority of players who remain holdouts from taking Covid-19 jabs.
The new policy from the US professional basketball league will primarily affect players on teams based in big American cities — including New York and San Francisco — that now require proof of inoculation for large-scale indoor activities.
The move underscores the challenge facing the NBA, which had once led the world in pandemic public health compliance with all teams playing in a Florida “bubble” last season. It is now trying to quell resistance among a few of its influential players, including Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving.
More than 90 per cent of NBA players are fully vaccinated, its players association executive director said earlier this week, compared with about 56 per cent of the US population.
LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers star widely considered the face of the league, told reporters this week he had been vaccinated after some initial “scepticism”, though he regarded the choice as personal and not something he felt comfortable advising other players or the public to do.
Most US professional leagues cannot impose vaccine mandates on its players due to resistance from strong players’ unions. Some prominent stars including Irving and the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins have publicly resisted vaccination or questions about their status.
Local laws in New York City and San Francisco require that all participants in indoor entertainment events be fully vaccinated, policies which affect players from three NBA teams: the Nets, Warriors and the New York Knicks. The Knicks general manager said on Friday that all members of the organisation have received their jabs.
On Wednesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio urged Irving, a seven-time pick for the NBA all-star team, to take the jab. “I’m a fan of Kyrie. I would just appeal to him — get vaccinated,” he told CNN. Irving declined to disclose his vaccination status during a Nets media appearance earlier this week.
“As of right now, please just respect my privacy regarding anything — home games, what’s happening with vaccination,” he said.
A request by Wiggins for a religious exemption from the San Francisco vaccine ordinance was denied by the NBA, the league said on Friday.
US Senator Ted Cruz tweeted on Wednesday that he supports Irving, Wiggins, and other players resisting vaccines, with the hashtag #YourBodyYourChoice.
Cruz, a Republican, added his support for LeBron James’ unwillingness to campaign for vaccines: “With his box-office power, he could be even more courageous — he could SOLVE the problem — by saying . . . [he] won’t play in any arena that bans another NBA player because they make a personal healthcare choice”.
Of the major American sports leagues, the NBA is the most vulnerable to the increasing number of vaccine mandates because it plays all games indoors.
Over the summer, the National Football League, which plays many contests in outdoor stadiums, circulated a memo to its teams stating that any club experiencing an outbreak among unvaccinated players will forfeit the game and be assigned a loss.