Religion is deepening the NBA’s vaccine drama

Religion plays a supporting role in the NBA’s escalating conflict over COVID-19 vaccines

The NBA and its players’ union have battled for months over vaccine mandates. In recent weeks, religion has come off the bench and deepened the drama.

The ongoing conflict centers on the league’s approach to vaccine resisters. The NBA wants to push players toward vaccination by forcing the unvaccinated to comply with stricter safety rules, but the union believes players concerned about COVID-19 shots deserve more respect.

For much of the summer and early fall, the players’ union had the upper hand. After facing pushback from stars like Kyrie Irving, the league gave up on imposing a vaccine mandate and heeded requests for changes to proposed travel and testing rules.

“Unvaccinated players have forced the league to cave on nearly every ... demand,” Rolling Stone reported last week.

However, city-level vaccine mandates in San Francisco and New York City have slightly shifted the balance of power.

In these cities, the NBA can now reap the safety benefits of mandates without angering players by imposing one. The league also gains the power to decide which players receive medical or religious exemptions.

The NBA is “insisting on state and local compliance, saying that it and not the teams will assess medical and religious exemption requests. The league also noted, in a Sept. 1 memo to teams ... that under the player contract, a player who cannot comply with local laws can have pay docked, be fined or suspended,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

What you need to know about religious exemptions to vaccine mandates
Utah Jazz, Vivint Arena to require proof of COVID vaccination or negative COVID test to attend events

For many workers, religious exemptions are relatively easy to get. Many employers want to avoid getting into theological debates with — or facing religious freedom lawsuits from — vaccine resistant employees, as the Deseret News reported last month.

However, early evidence suggests the NBA will closely scrutinize religious exemption requests.

Last week, the league denied such a request from Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, forcing him to choose between getting vaccinated and missing all of his team’s home games. On Sunday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr confirmed that chose to get the shot.

Irving, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets, is reportedly considering filing his own religious exemption request. In recent weeks, he’s “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,’” Rolling Stone reported.

His aunt, Tyki Irving, told Rolling Stone that Kyrie’s concerns are not really faith-based.

“He is going to try to figure (the exemption process) out as it comes, because it’s not religious-based, it’s moral-based,” she said.

Many Americans, including some NBA players, have questioned why religion would ever lead someone to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, noting that leaders from a variety of faith groups have spoken in favor of getting your shots.

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, who previously played for the Utah Jazz, told Rolling Stone that people of faith should celebrate the opportunity to protect their community.

“I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys — I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’” said Kanter, who is Muslim.

More than half of U.S. adults, including 58% of white mainline Protestants and Catholics, 56% of Black Protestants and 67% of Hispanic Catholics, see vaccination as “a way to live out the religious principle of loving my neighbors,” according to Public Religion Research Institute. Among people of faith, only white evangelicals showed high levels of resistance to this idea, the survey found.

With the start of the NBA season quickly approaching, some people associated with the league are asking God to keep everyone safe.

“No shade to Kyrie. It’s his choice. I just pray that if something happens, he’ll survive it,” says one courtside employee in New York to Rolling Stone.