NBA won't pay some unvaccinated players who miss games — it's a scare tactic that could work

Key Points
  • The NBA is back in the spotlight as players refuse the Covid vaccine despite local mandates.
  • On Wednesday, the league said players who miss games would not be paid.
Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets drives to the basket against the Milwaukee Bucks during Round 2, Game 3 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 10, 2021 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Nathaniel S. Butler | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

The National Basketball Association wants to fully embrace its upcoming 75th anniversary, but internal problems around Covid policies and vaccinations continue to overshadow the milestone.

The NBA's Covid problems returned to the national spotlight when it announced unvaccinated players in New York and San Francisco won't be paid if they miss games.

The cities, not the league, issued a mandate that requires eligible people to be vaccinated for entry to public places, including sports arenas. NBA teams opened training camps this week, and most of the chatter was centered around unvaccinated players.

"There's a whole lot of ignorance on the part of players who will not get vaccinated," said former NBA player turned scholar Len Elmore. "The NBA is flexing its muscle and has to support mandates for the greater good because that's really what we're talking about here."

How the NBA got here

Like most vaccine advocates, including NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elmore said science supports requiring vaccinations. Now a professor for Columbia University's sports management program, Elmore noted the Black community remains at high risk for contracting Covid, adding NBA players should recognize the power they hold through positive messaging.

"We've got to protect our communities, and in a league that's 80 percent Black, these guys have got to understand that," Elmore said. "The impact of your decision goes way beyond your personal interest," he added.

The NFL used a similar tactic when it said it plans to finish its 2021 season without delays. The NFL said in July it's fining players and forfeiting teams if unvaccinated individuals cause outbreaks that lead to postponements. The NFL also fined players who violate mask guidelines at team practice sites.  

Sports leagues are taking a hard stance on vaccines, in part, because media partners lost money on postponed games during the 2020 season. Networks like CNBC parent company NBCUniversal needed to provide make-goods to marketers who didn't receive viewership impressions for primetime games that were moved due to Covid outbreaks.

The NBA agreed to vaccine mandate terms with its referees last August to avoid disruptions for the upcoming season. The Athletic said in July that 90 percent of NBA players are vaccinated. But, the league hasn't issued a mandate for players since it can't find common ground with its players' union.

In Brooklyn and San Francisco, where mandates are in place, players Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Andrew Wiggins (Golden State Warriors) are two prominent faces in the NBA that remain unvaccinated. Wiggins attempted to use religious reasons to excuse his status, which the league office denied. And Irving spoke on the Nets' media day away from the team, which shed further light on his vaccination status. Both players downplayed questions around the vaccine and asked for privacy during recent media events.

Leagues often have to go after players' salaries to get attention. It's a financial loss that players will never get back.

NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said players who miss games due to vaccination status during the upcoming season will forfeit their paychecks. Without factoring in pay advances or a negotiated pay schedule, should Irving elect to sit home games, he could miss an estimated $425,000 per game. Irving, 29, is scheduled to make $34.9 million this season. Wiggins will bring in approximately $31 million.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attends an NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers during game two of the first round of the NBA playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 19, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Ashley Landis | Getty Images

Protecting the NBA's image

Penalties will only help the league if other NBA cities decide to issue vaccine mandates. Elmore praised the NBA's stance on pushing for vaccinations, noting a player's "decision goes way beyond your personal interest."

"I think they are being smart," added sports marketing executive Tony Ponturo of the NBA's threat to withhold payments. "People are still getting Covid – it's not like we escaped it. And as a marketer, I would also respect someone that's not doing the easy thing, but they are doing the right thing."

The NBA will return to a standard 82-game format next month, limiting room for postponements due to Covid. The NBA will also lose its flexibility to shift games to different venues as other sports leagues and entertainment properties return to arenas where teams play. 

Ponturo, the former vice president of global sports and entertainment marketing at Anheuser-Busch, said sponsors should be concerned since they'll lose impressions on rescheduled games, which could cost them millions.

"Sponsors are underwriting not only the broadcast rights but the local team signage and trademarks and other forms of sponsorships that they do with leagues and athletes," he said. "All of a sudden, if you have a widespread Covid situation and you lose games, there's going to be a pro-rata situation."

Ponturo said the NBA's image is at risk if it makes excuses for unvaccinated players. He said NBA commissioner Adam Silver is "sensitive to looking like the NBA gets an exception" and wants to avoid "stepping on government laws."

There is a confusing exception, though. Visiting players could be allowed to play in mandated cities even if they aren't vaccinated. So, though Wiggins and Irving can't play at home, they'd be able to play on the road. Elmore said that exception is unfair and questioned its legitimacy.

"I would suspect that anybody that's not vaccinated can't go inside the arena," Elmore said. "How is it in those cities that visitors can get inside? How do they get into the arena? I'm still trying to figure out how guys are allowed to play if the jurisdiction requires you show your vaccination."

Ponturo pointed to a recent Broadway outbreak that led to a canceled show even though performers were vaccinated. He said the NBA wants to avoid a similar situation with unvaccinated players. Since the pandemic, NBA issued protocols designed to help prevent outbreaks, including mask mandates. 

But will the NBA really enforce its guidelines and issue fines as the NFL does? Or is it just creating a scare tactic? Bass did not respond to a CNBC request on Wednesday evening for additional comment.

Patrick Rishe, the director of Washington University's sports business program, said the NBA's public stance could impact smaller businesses. It's similar to the NBA's decision to suspend play when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

"I have to believe that there will be an influence," Rishe said. "If the NBA is taking this stance, then there will probably be organizations and venues that may copy."

Rishe used NBA superstar LeBron James as an example. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers forward told reporters he's vaccinated, despite early skepticism. "I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends," James said via the Associated Press.

Said Rishe: "Who knows how many people that is going to inspire to say, 'You know what, if he's doing it, I can do it.' If you follow his history, he's a guy that wants to do good socially, and this may be a form of that."

NBA says some unvaccinated players could miss home games, depending on local rules
NBA says some unvaccinated players could miss home games, depending on local rules