Adam Silver can’t afford to fumble COVID-19 vaccine messaging

Adam Silver is powerless in a lot of ways. He can suggest and nudge but cannot exert his force of will on pressing issues.

He’ll do his best on bringing up issues of diversity in the coaching ranks, knowing billionaires will do what they want no matter the public appearance.

Silver can know what having an All-Star Game in midst of a pandemic in Atlanta will do for his league’s reputation, but is well-aware the NBA needs it for its financial bottom line.

The mixed messages rightly made the public question its intentions considering the NBA positioned itself as some bastion of morality when it’s impossible to satisfy billionaires, partner with players and have a conscience at the same time.

But Silver can maximize his capital in getting the players on board, or at least on the same page, with the messaging and the execution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Whether it’s the biggest voice of all, LeBron James, or random players whispering or even tweeting concerns surrounding the vaccine, consistency would be helpful. Laker veteran Jared Dudley actually stated the FDA hasn’t approved the vaccine — which isn’t true at all.

And James has been noncommittal.

“That’s a conversation that my family and I will have. Pretty much keep that to a private thing,” James said. “Obviously, I saw Adam had his comments about the vaccination. But things like that, when you decide to do something, that’s a conversation between you and your family and not for everybody. I’ll keep it that way.”

Adam Silver won’t force the players to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It’s not fair or reasonable to expect uniformity, and since the NBA has aligned itself with free expression, contrasting feelings among powerful figures must be factored in.

76ers coach Doc Rivers said he would take the vaccine.

“I’m a Black man that needs to say that because I think it’s important,” Rivers said. “We have a history with vaccines that aren’t very positive in this country.”

But especially on the heels of Philadelphia 76ers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid being held out of the All-Star Game due to a barber in Philadelphia testing positive for COVID-19, the dangers are just as real as ever with the second half slated to begin later this week — and the league won’t have the space to make up postponed games if an outbreak happens in the next two months.

The worst could very well be behind the league. Fans are slowly being allowed through the turnstiles, there are three approved vaccines Americans can take and President Joe Biden has stated there would be enough doses by the end of May, creating the possibility for an atmospheric finish to the season and playoffs.

But there’s no wiggle room. The 72 games must be played to fulfill the television contracts, the playoffs and Finals must be done in a timely manner in order for the NBA to send its players to Tokyo for the Olympic Games, and Silver is hoping to get the league back on a relatively normal track for next season to start recouping revenue.

And if you don’t think the NBA is in big-time need for all the bread it can take, its determination to squeeze in the profitable All-Star day should be Exhibit A.

It’s a precarious time. States like Texas are running loose and fancy-free, well before it’s safe to do so. It’s also reasonable to assume fatigue among the people who can see the finish line whether they’re headed for the line to receive a vaccine or not, cabin fever creeping in after a year of restrictive protocols.

The fault line the NBA sits on can teeter on a trifle, and by no means should the league feel it’s made it out of the woods. It’s merely advanced to another level in the game, and just like with an old-school Nintendo or new-school Playstation, the higher the level, the more dangerous the stakes.

Silver can’t force the players to take the vaccine, although one would assume he’d like to politely nudge them. You don’t have Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Gregg Popovich on television spots endorsing the vaccine just for the sake of Joe Public. There’s incentive in getting the players to latch onto the trust they have in these historic and timeless figures, these beacons, for the sake of ensuring the rest of this season goes off reasonably.

Silver has positioned himself as an ally to the players through his tenure, but his title of commissioner makes him in a position of authority. The authority Silver represents and the government in this sense aren’t close, but it can be used as an approximation.

It’s fair to assume there’s a rightful distrust of the government from the players — events over the past year have only cemented the decades-long beliefs — and now they’re being told to forget or ignore their belief system, take this needle in their arms, do it for the sake of the business and to be public spokesmen for it.

 Lebron James #23 of Team LeBron stands for the national anthem prior to the 70th NBA All-Star Game at State Farm Arena on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.

LeBron James is noncommittal about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

For some, that’s a bridge far too long and wobbly to walk, no matter their level of trust in Silver. From being told the stories about the Tuskegee Experiment to the disparate treatment Black people have received in the health care system to their own personal experiences in the athletic world, there are barriers that need to be broken down.

“To those who have been hesitaters, I think as tens of millions of people now in the United States have gotten the vaccine, that people are seeing at least in the short term what the impact is, and they’re hearing about how incredibly effective these vaccines are,” Silver said Saturday. “My hunch is that most players ultimately will choose to get vaccinated.”

The rollout of the vaccine has been shoddy, especially in Black communities. But according to Civiqs polling of registered voters, 57% of Black people who haven’t been vaccinated yet plan on doing so, higher than Hispanic (56%) and white people (41%).

If there is an advantage to players getting it done now or in short order, it would certainly build public trust within the Black community as well as the obvious economic benefits and possible loosening of strict protocols.

The restrictions aren’t easy to follow on the daily, and some incentive could be helpful, even as there’s so much we don’t know about the long-term effects of the virus.

There’s no magic solution to this multi-pronged, complicated problem. Silver is walking a fine line as well as his league — but it may be in his best interest to cash in some of that goodwill for the sake of all involved.

Because while we don’t know the future, we know the alternative — and nobody wants that.

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