NBA player: Why should I be forced to get the vaccine when I've already had COVID?

A leftover from yesterday featuring one of the league’s most interesting, although low-key, personalities. Jonathan Isaac is devoutly religious, to the point where he once invited his teammates to watch him deliver a sermon in church. He also declined to take a knee last year when other NBA players protested before games in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. He goes his own way.

On vaccine mandates too, it turns out. He’s the only unvaccinated player on the Orlando Magic, reportedly — although not the only unvaccinated player within the league. Rolling Stone published a story a few days ago claiming that anti-vaxxism has gained some disciples inside the NBA, most notably Nets star Kyrie Irving. Irving once confessed to being undecided on whether the Earth is round rather than flat so go figure that he’d be open to exotic theories about what the COVID vaccines are all about:

Irving, who serves as a vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union, recently started following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that “secret societies” are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.” This Moderna microchip misinformation campaign has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats, according to several of the dozen-plus current players, Hall-of-Famers, league executives, arena workers and virologists interviewed for this story over the past week.

Isaac was accused in the same story of having turned against vaccination after “studying Black history and watching Donald Trump’s press conferences,” which he denied in a press conference yesterday. But he did complain in the Rolling Stone piece about having to follow special protocols due to his unvaxxed status. “You can play on the same court. We can touch the same ball. We can bump chests. We can do all those things on the court. And then when it comes to being on the bus, we have to be in different parts of the bus?” he wondered. “To me, it doesn’t seem logically consistent.”

Which is fair enough. Even though a bus is a much smaller enclosed space than a court in the middle of a 20,000-seat arena is.

Isaac’s case for being exempt from vaccine rules is straightforward. He says he’s had COVID and recovered, in which case why should he be required to get the shots? I asked that question last night as well. It’s immunity that we care about, not vaccination per se. So what’s the argument for demanding that someone with natural immunity acquire vaccine immunity as well?

The most outspoken critic of the league’s anti-vaxxers quoted in the Rolling Stone piece was also one of its all-time greatest players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was unsparing:

“The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team,” NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells Rolling Stone. “There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research. What I find especially disingenuous about the vaccine deniers is their arrogance at disbelieving immunology and other medical experts. Yet, if their child was sick or they themselves needed emergency medical treatment, how quickly would they do exactly what those same experts told them to do?”…

“They are failing to live up to the responsibilities that come with celebrity. Athletes are under no obligation to be spokespersons for the government, but this is a matter of public health,” the Hall-of-Famer writes Rolling Stone in an e-mail. Abdul-Jabbar is especially disappointed in athletes of color: “By not encouraging their people to get the vaccine, they’re contributing to these deaths. I’m also concerned about how this perpetuates the stereotype of dumb jocks who are unable to look at verified scientific evidence and reach a rational conclusion.”

That’s a righteous argument to lay on the conspiracy cranks who are mumbling about a great Moderna microchip conspiracy. But is it a matter of “disbelieving immunology” to say that someone with antibodies generated by infection shouldn’t need to be vaccinated?

There are good reasons that people, especially prominent people, with natural immunity might consider getting vaccinated anyway. They gain hybrid immunity from it, the most effective protection against COVID that science knows of. They also set a good example for the unvaccinated, as Abdul-Jabbar notes. (How many unvaxxed Americans wrongly believe they have natural immunity because they were sick for a few days last year and just assume that it was COVID?) And they make it somewhat easier for an employer who has a mandate in place to ascertain that they’re immune. But none of those reasons speaks directly to why players are being pressured to get their shots, namely, to reduce the risk of transmission to others. If it’s true that people who have recovered from COVID have at least as much immunity as the vaccinated do, shouldn’t we be confident that Isaac isn’t a threat to his teammates? Why insist that he get the shots if he can prove via a blood test that he has antibodies?

I’ll leave you with this guy, who’s a little better known than Isaac, admitting today that he got vaccinated — but stressing that he doesn’t want to advise anyone else what to do.