NBA vaccination controversy: What you need to know about league’s policy

Nets guard Kyrie Irving reacts during a playoff game.
Nets guard Kyrie Irving, reacting during a playoff game against the Bucks in June, will not be able to practice or play in New York if he’s not fully vaccinated.
(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

NBA teams started training camp this week, but instead of roster changes and championship hopes, many teams were left talking about vaccination controversy during media sessions Monday and Tuesday. Major stars, including the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, were at the center of an anti-vaccination discussion as to who has and hasn’t gotten their shots threatens to loom over the upcoming season.

Here’s what you need to know about the NBA, its players and COVID-19 vaccines.

What is the NBA’s vaccination policy for players?

The NBA doesn’t require players to get vaccinated but has incentives for them to roll up their sleeves with separate protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Those who are fully vaccinated avoid regular testing and can sit together in the locker room, at team meals and during travel, signaling a return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. They also don’t have to quarantine if a close contact tests positive for the coronavirus unless the fully vaccinated player begins showing COVID-19 symptoms.


On the other hand, vaccine holdouts are subject to testing on all days involving practice or travel and could be tested multiple times on game days. Unvaccinated players are expected to maintain social distance and must enter quarantine if they are deemed a close contact of someone who tests positive for the coronavirus. Even if unvaccinated players don’t get sick from COVID-19, just being subject to contact tracing quarantines could be detrimental as they could be sidelined for a week, missing several games in the process.

Coaches, referees and support staff who work closely with players are required to get fully vaccinated.

“A vaccine mandate for NBA players would need an agreement with the Players Association,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “The NBA has made these proposals, but the players’ union has rejected any vaccination requirement.”

On Wednesday, Bass added that “any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses.”

Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving won’t answer questions about his vaccination status. Unvaccinated players are not allowed to practice or play in New York City.

Sept. 27, 2021

How do local government restrictions impact NBA teams?

Even if the NBA doesn’t pass a vaccine requirement for players, they are not above protocols from local health officials. New York City requires people over 12 years old to show proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to attend indoor entertainment events, including sports games. In San Francisco, people over 12 are required to be fully vaccinated to attend indoor events. That includes NBA players hoping to take the court for practice or games, although the league told teams the requirements don’t apply to visiting players.


Of the three teams in those markets, only the New York Knicks have confirmed being 100% vaccinated, according to the Associated Press.

Are any players resisting vaccination?

The NBA said that 90% of its players are vaccinated, but there is a vocal minority of unvaccinated star players, including Irving, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal.

Wiggins’ application for a religious exemption was denied by the NBA last week, potentially forcing the 26-year-old to miss all Warriors home games this year, and Beal, who was held out of the Tokyo Olympics because of a positive coronavirus test, told reporters Monday that he declined a COVID-19 vaccine for “personal reasons.”

What is the Moderna microchip theory?

Rolling Stone reported that Irving, one of the NBA’s most vocal vaccine deniers, has been following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims “secret societies” are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.” The theory has reportedly spread across the NBA, similar to misinformation that claims COVID-19 vaccines are carrying microchips and are being used to track people.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said Monday he has no timeline for his recovery from surgery while indicating he hasn’t ruled out a return this season.

Sept. 27, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addresses the theory of microchips in the COVID-19 vaccine, saying shots don’t include any such device: “Vaccines are developed to fight against disease and are not administered to track your movement. Vaccines work by stimulating your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly like it would if you were exposed to the disease.” The ingredients for each COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in the United States are listed online.

What is the policy for fans attending games?

Fans must follow local public health guidelines while attending games in regard to vaccination and masking mandates varying from arena to arena. For example, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, everyone 12 and up is required to show proof of at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but those sitting within 15 feet of the court must be fully vaccinated. Those who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear masks indoors.

At Staples Center, fans are required to show proof of full vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the game. Masks are required for everyone 2 or older.

How does this compare to the NFL?

Like in the NBA, the NFL did not implement a vaccine mandate for players, opting to pass protocols aimed at quelling any outbreaks among unvaccinated individuals and allowing vaccinated players to return to a mostly normal season. After several outbreaks forced the NFL to delay games and create scheduling chaos in 2020, the league warned teams that any outbreaks among unvaccinated players in 2021 that left a team unable to compete would result in a forfeit and a loss on the infected team’s record if the game can’t be rescheduled. An unplayed game would also cost players from both teams a week’s paycheck.

What about MLB?

In Major League Baseball, 24 of 30 teams have reached the threshold for less restrictive guidelines, which take effect when 85% of so-called Tier 1 personnel — players and on-field staff, primarily — are fully vaccinated. Under the less restrictive guidelines, adopted in June, fully vaccinated players and staff need not wear masks in dugouts, bullpens and clubhouses, and they can leave team hotels to eat at restaurants.

With the rise of the Delta variant, MLB this month informed teams that any manager or coach who is not fully vaccinated would be prohibited from being around players during the postseason.

As of Monday, 87% of the league’s Tier 1 personnel are fully vaccinated.