Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: NBA players should jump coronavirus-vaccine line

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

UNSPECIFIED, - APRIL 22: In this screengrab, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar speaks during “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Effort” airing on April 22, 2020. “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” will provide financial, educational and community support directly to Black communities hit hardest by COVID-19. (Photo by BET2020/Getty Images for BET NETWORKS)

Getty Images for BET NETWORKS

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar received his coronavirus vaccine and is urging others to do the same. That’s great. It’s great Abdul-Jabbar – who’s 73 years old with underlying conditions – was inoculated from this deadly virus. It’s great he’s promoting the life-saving medical treatment.

But Abdul-Jabbar is also advocating for young, generally healthy and disproportionately naturally immune NBA players to jump the vaccine line.

Abdul-Jabbar in The New York Times:
Among the groups that are reluctant to be vaccinated: African-Americans and adults under age 35. Other groups have increasingly embraced the idea of being vaccinated. Those 65 or older willing to get the shots increased to 87 percent in January from 60 percent in October, those 50 to 64 are up to 69 percent from 48 percent, and those 35 to 49 rose to 58 percent from 48 percent. However, those under 35 have stayed level at 55 percent, and only 62 percent of African-American adults said they are willing to get a vaccination.

That is why we can waste no time promoting legitimate role models. This is where N.B.A. players come in.

In 1956, Elvis Presley received his polio vaccine on television, launching a highly effective vaccination campaign that by 1960 had reduced annual occurrences of polio by 90 percent. Health policy professionals suggest that public health campaigns using celebrities should focus on celebrities who are influential in particular communities in order to build trust. N.B.A. players, 81.1 percent of whom are Black, appeal to the under-35 and African-American demographics.

N.B.A. players don’t deserve to move to the front of the line because they are rich or because the country needs basketball during these isolating times. It’s not a matter of deserving as much as a way to get to herd immunity faster.

This remains a bad idea.

Abdul-Jabbar correctly asserts the only way to return to normal life is herd immunity. Vaccination will be the major driver of herd immunity.

But the fundamental problem with the United States’ vaccination program isn’t willingness. It’s availability.

There are MANY people eager to take the vaccine who can’t yet get it. We shouldn’t waste precious resources deciding which celebrities should be prioritized and getting them doses. Public-health officials should concentrate on increasing vaccine supply and getting it to the masses.

The polling Abdul-Jabbar cites actually shows how the reluctance issue has been overblown. Some people say they’re opposed to vaccination. But that’s when vaccination is a far-off idea. As vaccine availability nears, many change their tune.

Adults under the age of 35 (Black or otherwise) mostly can’t get the vaccine. At our current rate of vaccination, they aren’t close. As the vaccine goes from nebulous possibility to realistic opportunity, many who previously said they were unwilling will come around. They’ll also have the benefit of having seen more people before them take the vaccine with favorable outcomes.

The Elvis comparison is also misguided.

In a PSA recorded around the same time as his televised vaccination, Elvis said, “Hey kids can I talk to you? This is Elvis Presley. If you believe polio is beaten, I ask you to listen. The fight against polio is as tough as it ever was.” Nobody believes coronavirus is beaten. (The conspiracy-theorist lunatics who believe coronavirus doesn’t exist never thought it was something to beat in the first place.)

The polio-vaccination effort needed more buy-in. The coronavirus-vaccination effort needs more vaccines.

Polio was also most damaging to young people, so targeting them was logical. The exact opposite is true of coronavirus. Older people suffer the most severe outcomes and should be prioritized.

At some point, we should address the vaccine holdouts. But, unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point – especially with young vaccine holdouts.

It’s also unclear whether NBA players – some of whom distrust vaccines themselves – would be effective messengers. Though Elvis received outsized attention for his polio shot, many more measures were taken to get teenagers on board.

The sharpest line of Abdul-Jabbar’s op-ed: “We can waste no time promoting legitimate role models. This is where N.B.A. players come in.” But, in this case, we can take the time to listen someone more authoritative than a former NBA player – an actual doctor.