NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his staff have conducted expanded talks with teams, players and agents about crafting a policy to manage widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines around the league, sources told ESPN.
Multiple COVID-19 vaccines are in final stages of approval, and the NBA could find itself as the first major professional North American sports league to manage widespread distribution for players and coaches.
According to an array of discussions with league executives, team physicians and agents, the league has been focusing on a few key areas:
• A need to create an educational program for players and staff about vaccine choices, possible side effects and efficacy with the intent to put players at ease so they are willing to receive the vaccine. The process is in its earliest stages, and some players have already expressed hesitation about the vaccine to their agents and team doctors, sources told ESPN.
Educating the players about the measures taken to prevent the virus at the bubble in Orlando proved effective in fostering cooperation.
"I would guess that for most players, they will be willing to take it," said a prominent agent who represents numerous players. "I think there will be a societal push for as many as possible to take it."
Others feel it will be a harder sell. Among the issues, sources said, is that players who have had the virus -- and now have some level of antibodies -- might need to be convinced the vaccine is necessary. Between the season restart this summer and the start of this season's training camp, the NBA announced around 100 positive tests for players and staff. But that does not account for the players and coaches who contracted the virus during the shutdown and in the offseason, only a few of whom have identified themselves.
"We are going to need someone they trust, who is not involved with the league, that can lay it out for the skeptical guys," said another agent who represents All-Stars. "Maybe it's someone like [former] President [Barack] Obama. To position this to the players as an opportunity to motivate others, which happened with masks."
• A need to create a policy for how quickly the league will seek injections. Regardless of its resources, league officials know that higher-risk populations take priority, including health care workers, nursing home residents, essential workers and others. The NBA aims to respect whatever guidelines and criteria are enforced by the government and medical agencies concerning which populations will receive a vaccine early, sources said.
With that said, league sources said the NBA doesn't plan to prohibit individuals from trying to obtain a vaccine if they want one while it's available -- even if that would mean some players and teams might get access to the vaccine earlier than peers who play and live in another city. League executives are already recognizing this type of policy could lead to a competitive-balance issue if some teams are inoculated before others.
Numerous teams have close connections to top health care providers in their regions, and the availability of shots could vary depending on the home state or region. Local governments are still determining distribution.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that some health officials support early vaccination for professional athletes to demonstrate its effectiveness and safety in a high-profile manner.
"I think there's people right now that need the vaccine more than we do," Marc Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers said Thursday. "We're very fortunate to be in a very safe environment. Physically, the virus doesn't affect a 35-year-old male as much as it affects other people that are more at risk and more vulnerable to the virus. So I would prefer that the vaccine goes to the people that need it the most instead of us. That's just, to me, common sense."
Over the summer, the NBA was active in assisting with education and enrollment around vaccine trials. The league worked with partners at the National Urban League and UnidosUS to help spread awareness and solicit vaccine trial participants in underserved communities.
Additionally, the league took a first step last week when its health and safety protocols were updated to include provisions about vaccines. In the guidance, the league told players it would work with the National Basketball Players Association to determine whether receiving a vaccine would be required if it's proven safe. Or, if not required, whether there would be separate protocols for players who were not inoculated.
Of the 541 players tested for COVID-19 since Dec. 2, eight new players have returned positive tests. As previously announced, 48 players returned positive tests during the initial return-to-market testing phase Nov. 24-Dec. 1.
ESPN's Baxter Holmes contributed to this story.