Yes, LeBron, vaccination is a social justice issue — The Undefeated

The NBA regular season starts in a few weeks, which means we should be absorbed with as many captivating preseason storylines as possible: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo continue to assert himself as the league’s most terrorizing player? Will the new-look Los Angeles Lakers bring LeBron James his fifth ring? Can the Brooklyn Nets stars dominate? But much of the NBA discussion has revolved around vaccines, mandates and a few vocal holdouts such as Nets superstar Kyrie Irving and, until Sunday, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins.

The players’ anti-vaccine stances have prompted some of the more vocal in the league to speak about the possibility of vaccination mandates. Most notably, James and the Warriors’ Draymond Green each stressed the importance of allowing players to make their own choices. Their comments struck a common chord of separating COVID-19 vaccines from the social justice work that both men and so many other athletes have pursued.

When James spoke about his decision to be silent about encouraging vaccinations, he said, “We’re not talking about something that’s, you know, political or racism or police brutality. So I don’t feel like, for me personally, I should get involved in what other people should do with their bodies and their livelihoods.”

The problem with this logic is that it misses the fact that fighting COVID-19 is an act of social justice work and a fight for equality tantamount to fighting police brutality or any other act of anti-Black violence. What James fails to realize here is that the way COVID-19 is impacting the Black community is an offshoot of the same racism that renders Black folks victims of extrajudicial killings.

In June, when overall COVID-19 deaths had just surpassed 600,000 people, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated “Native Americans, Latinos and Blacks are two to three times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19.” A study by the Boston University School of Public Health revealed that Black folks are more likely to die from COVID-19 depending on how much a state’s policies reflect structural racism. The Brookings Institution found that if Black folks had the same death rate as white Americans in 2020, 25,000 fewer Black people would have died from the virus. I could go on and on.

Why the disparities? Black Americans are more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions due to lack of adequate health care, economic barriers that create a lack of access to healthy food options, environmental racism and a bevy of other reasons. James has addressed many of these issues himself through his social justice efforts. And we haven’t even gotten to the pitiful vaccine rollout across the diaspora.

When Green, who is Wiggins’ teammate, gave a speech about not pressuring his fellow players to get vaccinated — a speech that was widely celebrated on social media by the anti-vaccine community — he said, “You say we live in the land of the free? Well you’re not giving anyone freedom because you’re making people do something, essentially. Without necessarily making them, you’re making them do something.”

What Green was missing is that many Black folks didn’t have a choice when it came to catching the coronavirus in the first place. Black people are more likely to work the types of low-wage jobs that force them to be close to one another and less protected from the virus. Also, the pandemic is raging in jails across the country where, obviously, many Black people’s liberties and freedom of choice have been taken away.

The irony in all of this is that much of the athletes’ hesitancy comes from concern over medical racism and its history of victimizing African Americans — such as the 20th century Tuskegee experiment that left syphilis untreated in Black communities. The arguments for not encouraging vaccines, however, simply don’t have legs under even the most rudimentary interrogation. A true understanding of medical racism would result in more urgency to spread the message of vaccinations as they are the most effective way to minimize the chances we are susceptible to racialized medical malpractice while suffering from a COVID-19 hospitalization.

I also wonder if supremely competitive NBA players such as Green and James would have the same nonchalance about their teammates’ bodies if they were to refuse, say, MCL surgery that could help them make a speedier return to the court. After all, a major topic of conversation coming out of last year’s The Last Dance documentary about the 1998 Chicago Bulls centered on Scottie Pippen’s hesitancy to get the surgery needed to return to play and how many of his teammates frowned upon that decision.

In 2016, James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade took the stage at The ESPYS to talk about respecting and fighting for Black lives in the wake of gun violence and police brutality. They called on athletes and those with influence to speak up: “Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence,” James said. “And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.” If more people understood that protecting ourselves and those around us from the coronavirus is just as dire an issue for Black folks, then maybe it can help them understand that encouraging vaccination is a continuation of the work that they asked of us five years ago.

It’s important to note that, as of this writing, the NBA is reportedly 95% vaccinated. Superstars such as Damian Lillard and Antetokounmpo have discussed the importance of being vaccinated. Last month, Karl-Anthony Towns, whose family was heavily impacted by the coronavirus last year, tweeted criticism of those refusing to get vaccinated. Last year, Warriors guard Stephen Curry hosted an Instagram Live with Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, to combat misinformation about the virus, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has minced no words in saying vaccinations are essential, stating that “lives are at stake.”

As for the Irvings of the world who are refusing vaccination — and going unmasked at high schools in communities most gravely impacted by the virus — perpetuating the possible spread of an epidemic ravaging Black folks contradicts every statement they’ve ever made about standing for Black folks in America. In short, it’s hard to take any statement about the betterment of Black America seriously from anyone who won’t listen to the experts and perform the most basic tasks necessary to protect the Black lives they proclaim to believe actually matter.

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.

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