The NBA’s Covid Problem

Photo Via: The Guardian

New York City vaccination mandate restricts Kyrie Irving; others unvaccinated can still play in NYC.

The National Basketball Association is widely considered as a ‘player friendly league.’ NBA athletes often have the autonomy to act and speak as they wish and are championed for doing so.

The NBA, staying on brand, has not enforced a mandatory player Covid-19 vaccination. Other professional leagues, such as the National Football League, National Hockey League, and the Women’s National Basketball Association, do not have mandatory vaccination requirements.

The NBA requires all team personnel who will be near both players and referees to be vaccinated. Further, all NBA referees must be vaccinated.  

However, for there to be a mandatory player vaccination, the NBA would need an agreement with the NBA Players Association. Instead, the NBA strongly recommends all players receive the vaccination.  The NBA has released a protocol for the league and the players.

The protocol covers both players who do and do not receive the vaccination — with stringent rules and regulations for players who choose not to receive the vaccination. Some important aspects of the protocol are as follows[1]:  

  • Unvaccinated players will be tested far more than vaccinated players.
  • Unvaccinated players will not be able to eat in the same room with vaccinated teammates or staff.
  • Unvaccinated players must have lockers that are as far away from vaccinated players as possible.
  • Unvaccinated plyers must stay masked and at least six feet apart from all other attendees in any team meeting.
  • Unvaccinated players will be required to remain at their residence when in their home market. Limited exceptions include grocery shopping, childcare, and similar necessary activities.
  • When traveling, unvaccinated platers must stay on their team hotel properties. Limited exceptions include grocery shopping, childcare, and similar necessary activities.
  • Unvaccinated players cannot visit high-risk settings such as restaurants, bars, clubs, entertainment venues, and large indoor gatherings.

At this juncture, the NBA reports approximately 97% of players have received the vaccination. Recently, the NBA released a memo urging NBA players and coaches to receive booster shots as soon as possible. This memo comes in the wake of numerous NBA players being placed in health and safety protocol after contracting Covid-19 and/or close contact with an individual who has been infected by Covid-19.

Although the NBA has a high vaccination rate, a few standout players are not vaccinated, including Brooklyn Nets All-Star Kyrie Irving, Washington Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal and two young players, Orlando Magic  Jonathan Isaac and Denver Nuggets Michael Porter, Jr.  What makes this grouping interesting is three of the four players are currently playing in all NBA games, in every city, unaffected. One who is not: Irving. All four players have cited personal reasons and/or skepticism about the vaccination and do not feel comfortable receiving it. Nonetheless, the only player not playing or receiving paychecks is Irving because of NYC’s local vaccination mandates. Beal, Isaac, and Porter play for teams that do not have local vaccination mandates and thus can play both home games and away games — even if those away games are in NYC. That means an unvaccinated player can play in Brooklyn, while Irving cannot.

This seems odd. However, if you look at the local city mandates for New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto, all the mandates have a carve-out for out-of-town teams and their players — deeming them exempt from the vaccination mandates. The local mandates reason that out-of-town teams and their players are not employees of a company that is under the city’s limits, thus the rules do not apply to them.[2]

Toronto has additional city mandates — stricter than those in the United States. Unvaccinated players traveling to Canada to play the Toronto Raptors are subject to Canadian mandates. Unvaccinated players can only leave the team hotel for team activities. Unvaccinated players who breach Canada’s Quarantine Act face criminal charges that can lead up to six months in prison and/or $750,000.00 in fines.[3]

It may seem extreme, but some things go beyond sports. The health of a country depends on everyone being subject to its rules; the NBA and its players are no exception.

Interestingly, Irving could play in road games. However, the Nets released a statement saying Irving will not play until he is a full participant. In other words, until Irving can play both home and away games, he will not be playing for the Nets. Essentially, the Nets are sending a message to Irving that unless he receives the vaccination, he will not collect paychecks or be playing any games.

Fair or not, city laws are city laws and even millionaire, super-star athletes are subject to those laws. The Golden State Warriors Andrew Wiggins attempted to circumvent the San Francisco city mandate, citing a religious exemption. Wiggins was denied the exemption and shortly thereafter received the vaccination.

Protestors attempted to aid Irving in his denial of receiving the vaccination, protesting outside of the Barclay Center in late October. The protestors caused a stir, chanting, “let Kyrie Play” and holding up signs. The protestors broke through barricades and caused the Barclay Center to be placed on lockdown. The protest was short lived.

Irving is a polarizing athlete who often finds himself in the news for being outspoken on social and scientific issues (No Kyrie, the world is not flat.)  Irving has a legal right and the choice to be vaccinated. The cost? Millions of dollars and the inability to play NBA level basketball. It may seem unfair that Beal and other unvaccinated players can play in every city, however, Irving can ask for a trade, a buyout, or to choose not to play at all.  He is choosing the last, and it does not seem to be affecting him. 


[1] https://www.nba.com/news/nba-releases-protocols-to-teams-for-virus-safety-this-season

[2] https://ca.nba.com/news/faq-how-nba-teams-are-impacted-by-city-imposed-covid-19-vaccine-mandates/qzzx843c5ncs1jqdv718s2zi8

[3] Id.

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Rising 3L & Co-President of the Buffalo Sports ands Entertainment Law Society. I enjoy writing and learning more about the intersection of business, sports, entertainment and law.

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