In recent years, the NBA has been lauded for its ability to adapt to crises and leverage its bully pulpit to advance messages of activism. After the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States in spring of 2020, the league pivoted the remainder of its season to a meticulously crafted “Bubble” held in Walt Disney World, recouping an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue while recording a whopping zero cases of COVID-19 among participating teams. At around the same time, the NBA refused to enforce rules requiring players to stand for the national anthem, as players and coaches around the league kneeled in solidarity with ongoing demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality.
On the issue of COVID-19 vaccines, however, the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, have opted for a more passive role. While Silver has gone on the record saying that he would have “preferred” that the league instituted a vaccine mandate for players, the league and the National Basketball Players Association did not come to an agreement on such a policy, allowing it to remain an individual choice among the players so as to avoid it becoming an “adversarial” issue. This decision has had several ramifications in the current NBA season, which commenced on October 19, 2021.
While 95% of players have received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the remainder continue to be completely unvaccinated, including prominent holdouts like All-Stars Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving. Popular players’ public refusal to get vaccinated have not only fueled the politicization of vaccines (an anti-vaccination, pro-Kyrie Irving protest at Barclays Center on October 24, 2021 escalated to physical confrontations between demonstrators and arena security), it has also generated a measure of regulatory inconsistency that is confusing and unfair.
By refusing to mandate vaccines while also withholding pay to players who miss games due to their vaccination status, the league is essentially devolving the vaccine question to local jurisdictions. San Francisco and New York City currently have full vaccine requirements for large indoor sports venues, which in turn bar unvaccinated players playing for the three NBA teams in those cities (the Golden State Warriors, the New York Knicks, and the Brooklyn Nets) from participating in games and practices held in their home cities. Yet, the same restriction does not exist for players playing in cities without such a mandate (such as Beal, who plays for the Washington Wizards). What’s more baffling, the aforementioned restrictions exempt visiting players, so on any given night in New York or San Francisco,
 @wojespn, Twitter (October 28, 2020, 3:35PM), https://twitter.com/wojespn/status/1321536043175301123.
 Kelcie Pegher, Coronavirus Today: The NBA’s Bubble Worked, Los Angeles Times (October 12, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/science/newsletter/2020-10-12/coronavirus-today-nba-bubble-success-covid-lakers-coronavirus-today.
 Vincent Frank, NBA Commissioner says league will not enforce rule requiring players to stand for national anthem, Sportsnaut, (July 30, 2020), https://sportsnaut.com/nba-commissioner-says-league-will-not-enforce-rule-requiring-players-to-stand-for-national-anthem/.
 Tim Bontemps, NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted vaccine mandate, says Kyrie Irving's status is issue with New York City, ESPN.com (October 18, 2021), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/32425851/nba-commissioner-adam-silver-wanted-vaccine-mandate-says-kyrie-irving-status-issue-new-york-city.
 Kurt Heilin, Unvaccinated NBA players in cities with local requirements (NYC, SF) will not play in home games, NBC Sports (September 1, 2021), https://nba.nbcsports.com/2021/09/01/unvaccinated-nba-players-in-cities-with-local-requirements-nyc-sf-will-not-play-in-games/.