Adam Silver: NBA considering vaccinating players for COVID-19 to raise awareness in Black communities

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With skepticism over the COVID-19 vaccine threatening to stunt its impact, the NBA is advocating that its players take a leadership role in promoting the rollout.

Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the issue in a Sportico roundtable on Tuesday. He said that the league is discussing the possibility of some players taking the vaccine publicly in an effort to advocate for its safety and efficacy.

The idea is that the NBA is a largely Black league, and players could play a role in tamping down skepticism in Black communities that have historically been underserved by the American health care system.

“In the African American community, number one, there’s been enormously disparate impact from COVID,” Silver said, citing data on coronavirus contraction, hospitalizations among Black Americans. “But now, somewhat perversely, there’s been enormous resistance in the African American community for understandable historical reasons.”

Black Americans disproportionately impacted by COVID-19

According to the CDC, Black Americans are 1.4 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized by the virus and 2.8 times more likely to die from the illness than their white counterparts. Socioeconomic status, access to health care and increased exposure to the coronavirus related to occupation play a role in the increased risk, per the CDC.

Silver cited “understandable historical reasons” that some Black Americans don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition to the overarching systemic reasons Black Americans suffer poorer health and higher death rates than their white counterparts, incidents like the Tuskegee experiment have raised further fears of public health campaigns in Black communities.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attends Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
The NBA commissioner believes players can play a prominent role in advocating for the COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

What was the Tuskegee experiment?

The Tuskegee experiment was a 40-year study that started in 1932 that saw the U.S. Public Health Service mislead Black participants who were infected with syphilis about their health status. The study intentionally withheld proper treatment from its 399 infected participants who were told they had “bad blood” instead of their actual syphilis diagnosis.

At least 28 men died directly because they weren’t properly treated for syphilis with many more deaths believed to be linked to complications related to the study.

Silver pointed to skepticism inspired by the Tuskegee experiment as even more reason to increase awareness.

“If that resistance continues, based on the earlier data I cited, it would be very much a double whammy to the Black community, because the only way ultimately out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated,” Silver said.

Black athletes, leaders have advocated for vaccine

Prominent members of Black sports communities have used their platforms to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine. The NBA released a public service announcement on Sunday with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar receiving the vaccine.

“We have to find new ways to keep each other safe,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “For myself and my family, I’m going to take the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker advocated for the vaccine in December after seeing that James Hildreth — a leading immunologist and a Black man — sat on the FDA panel that voted in favor of approving the emergency rollout of the Pfizer vaccine.

“There was an African American doctor that was in charge of the vaccine,” Baker told reporters Monday on a video call. “I felt more comfortable that he and other African Americans were on the boards to come up with the vaccine.

“And he guaranteed that it wouldn’t be another Tuskegee kind of experiment. And he urged Black Americans to use the vaccine.”

Would NBA players be jumping the line?

Abdul-Jabbar and Baker advocating for and receiving the vaccine is one thing. Young, healthy NBA players in their physical primes getting vaccinated is another and would raise concerns about vaccine priorities.

Silver has repeatedly stated that the NBA won’t jump the line ahead of priority recipients like front-line health care providers, the elderly and essential public-facing workers. On Tuesday, Silver cited public health officials supporting prominent Black figures as advocates for the vaccine rollout.

“Several public health officials — and this is operating state by state right now — have suggested there would be a real public health benefit to getting some very high-profile African Americans vaccinated to demonstrate to the larger community that it is safe and effective,” Silver said.

It’s not clear who would lead the campaign if players are approved for early vaccinations. But National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts has anticipated the move and realizes that there’s skepticism in the NBA circles just like elsewhere.

“I've heard they want Black influencers to step up, convince the Black community to do this,” Roberts told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill earlier in January. “I'm just waiting on the tap on the shoulder to say, ‘Michele, will the players do this?’ I know it's coming.”

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