About 90% of NBA players are reportedly vaccinated against COVID-19. Those who aren't run the risk of being isolated from teammates, and not being allowed to play in some cities with strict rules.



The NBA is back. Training camps open this week. And for a third straight season, the league will work around the pandemic. The NBA set a standard last year when it played its games in a protective bubble in Florida. And now several high-profile players have weighed in on the national debate over coronavirus vaccinations. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: NBA training camps began this week with media day interviews, a chance for reporters to ask players lots of questions, including, since we're still in a pandemic, whether they're vaccinated. It wasn't an easy yes or no answer for star players like Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving...


KYRIE IRVING: Yeah, please respect my privacy. Next question.

GOLDMAN: ...And Andrew Wiggins, a forward for the Golden State Warriors.


ANDREW WIGGINS: Anything that has to do with my status, vaccination, I'm just going to keep that private.

GOLDMAN: Wiggins and Irving each compete in cities where new regulations prevent unvaccinated players from playing in indoor arenas. While they want to keep their status private, it's presumed both are not vaccinated. The NBA recently denied Wiggins' request for a religious exemption. Irving spoke on a video link during his media day interview. The New York mandate would not have allowed an unvaccinated person to attend the event. So the players now could miss home games unless they get vaccinated and not get paid for those games.

This week, another star player, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, was open about his situation.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And, sorry, I do not want to ask this question. Are you vaccinated?

BRADLEY BEAL: Oh, I am not vaccinated, no.

GOLDMAN: Beal, who had a recent bout with COVID-19, said his decision was based on personal reasons, but he didn't elaborate. Then he kind of did, saying people who get vaccinated still can get sick and that some can have adverse reactions to vaccines.


BEAL: What happens if one of our players gets the vaccine and they can't play after that or they have complications after that? I feel like we don't talk about those as heavily because they're so minute, maybe.

GOLDMAN: And the science is clear. Vaccinations are safe and highly effective at keeping people from getting really sick and dying. The next day, Beal was back in front of reporters, this time wearing a mask, stressing he wasn't advocating for others not to get vaccinated and that his decision isn't final.


BEAL: I'm not sitting here saying that I won't get it. Let's just get that out there.

GOLDMAN: That's good news to a long-ago NBA star. Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been speaking out against nonvaccinated players this week on CNN.


KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: I don't think they are behaving like good teammates or good citizens. Masks and vaccines - they are the weapons that we use to fight this war. And when you're not going to be cooperative with that, you're working against the effort to make everybody safe.

GOLDMAN: The NBA will do what it can, short of mandating vaccinations, which the league says the players union didn't want. There will be significant restrictions on nonvaccinated players.

In response to mounting criticism of those players, union head Michele Roberts said this week over 90% of NBA players are fully vaccinated, while only 55% of Americans are. The real story for proponents of vaccination, she said in a statement, is how can we emulate the players in the NBA? But that's not the story this week, a story that's rapidly becoming political. Yesterday, conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted his support for Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and other unvaccinated players, using the hashtag #YourBodyYourChoice.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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