On the eve of what would be the raging ardor of the 2020 George Floyd summer, Bradley Beal grabbed a megaphone and led a march from the basketball arena in the District of Columbia, where his Wizards practice, to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It was June 19, or Juneteenth, as so many learned since. It was the day marking the symbolic end to slavery in this country, which a year later was elevated to a national holiday.
Beal was joined by other athletes, such as his then-teammate John Wall and Mystics star Natasha Cloud, in leading a throng of demonstrators to honor the liberation of enslaved Africans and to support the Black Lives Matter campaign against police lethality.
At the memorial, they read the names of Black people summarily executed by police.
Sadly, if they protested today, they could add to their recitation the names. Since then, more people of color have been killed unnecessarily, and disproportionately — not just by police, but instead by the coronavirus. Because they shunned the idea of getting a vaccine.
Getting a coronavirus vaccine isn’t a personal issue, as a few athletes such as Beal, who said he isn’t vaccinated, and LeBron James, who said he is, have asserted, parroting intellectually dishonest reasoning from the anti-vaxxing fringe. Vaccinations, rather, are a public concern, which is why the NBA announced Wednesday that any player shirking vaccination mandates in cities the league plays in will not be paid for missing those games.
As for Beal and James, and for the people for whom they stood up so fearlessly, publicly and admirably since Floyd’s death — and in James’ case, since Trayvon Martin’s murder — they should understand that getting a vaccine is even something more. It is a response to another life-or-death problem on the platform of social justice they climbed upon and where they vowed to stay.
As Dr. David Baker of the Joint Commission, the U.S.’s largest health care accrediting agency, observed succinctly on the JAMA Network in June: “The burden of COVID-19 in the United States has fallen disproportionately on Black and Hispanic/Latino individuals. The rate of COVID-19 infections is approximately 10%higher among Black individuals and 30% higher among Hispanic/Latino individuals compared with White non-Hispanic individuals. The higher incidences may be substantially underestimated because these same communities often lacked access to coronavirus testing, leaving many cases uncounted. The differences in hospitalization are even more substantial, with Black and Hispanic/Latino individuals being approximately threefold more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than White non-Hispanic individuals. Finally, mortality risk is 1.9-fold higher for Black individuals and 2.3-fold higher for Hispanic/Latino individuals compared with White non-Hispanic individuals.”
Yet, just two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported that “ . . . of people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine . . . [just] 10 percent were Black, 17 percent were Hispanic.” And the vast majority of deaths and hospitalizations from COVID in the country now are of the unvaccinated, just as they are here in the greater District area, where Beal plies his trade.
In short, people of color are leaving themselves at danger. The best way they can protect themselves is through a vaccine. Not doing so is to be complicit in getting sick and maintaining another racial disparity in a country with too many.
The NBA stopped short of mandating vaccines for its athletes. I wish it had, as I’ve promoted of the NFL, other leagues and even college athletics. I think such orders could force the hand of parts of the country where public officials are refusing measures to stop COVID’s spread but love sports so much that the threat of losing them might force their hands.
But the leagues can mandate vaccines only in agreement with their players’ union. And while the NBA players’ union, like all pro sports players’ unions, support vaccines either through statement or action — players in all leagues are vaccinated above 90%, with baseball at just 85% — none is willing to support a mandate. For one reason, so few of their members have balked. For another, as one sport’s union boss told me, they don’t want to spend time and resources defending an argument that would give more oxygen to the dangerous disinformation campaign of the anti-vaxxing corner. To be sure, the reactionary milksop Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has railed against mandated COVID mitigation measures as some sort of threat to freedom, quickly championed Beal and other black NBA players for their vaccine hesitancy and refusal. They are among the same group of players he lambasted for using the flag and national anthem as backdrop for protests.
I wish we in the media could pay less attention to the tiny minority saying the wrong things and underscore the vast majority doing the right thing. This whole affair reminded me of the reaction from NBA players when one-time role player John Amaechi revealed he was playing as a gay man. Most NBA players when asked about his revelation shrugged their shoulders or, like Grant Hill, offered a particularly intelligent response. But what we served the public in gobs was Tim Hardaway’s imbecilic denouncement of gay men. Hardaway eventually apologized and said he learned to support LGBTQ neighbors.
Now we again are spotlighting those who are misinformed, or disinformed. This isn’t a 21st century recreation of the Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were intentionally left infected with syphilis and denied the medicine to save them. This is a case of a medicine available free to people who look like Beal, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and other Black stars. They should take it to stop disproportionate suffering from a contagious disease among us. I hope that Beal, Irving and other NBA players who’ve been outspoken about the worth of Black lives, and not shy about voicing their doubts about the efficacy or need for coronavirus vaccines, learn the error of their ways, as Hardaway did.
And quickly. Time is of the essence here.
After all, COVID vaccinations are a free solution to distribute a benefit more equitably in our society that can help eliminate an inequitably distributed burden. That’s a near definition of social justice.