Noah Brier | October 7, 2021

The Pro Athlete Edition

On vaccines, painkillers, and permission

Noah here. The NBA season is just getting underway, and most of the conversation isn’t about basketball. Despite its 95%+ vaccination rate, the league has a couple of superstar vaccine holdouts that are capturing much of the attention. The three most notable players who weren’t vaccinated going into training camp were Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins. Irving (Brooklyn Nets) and Wiggins (Golden State Warriors) both play in cities where vaccines are required to enter their home arena. That means despite the lack of league-wide mandate, the two players had to decide between shots and, well, shots. 

Earlier this week, Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, unceremoniously announced that Wiggins had gotten his vaccine and was cleared to play in the team’s opener. That leaves Irving as the only high-profile player without a vaccine that could realistically miss half his team’s games. (Whether Wiggins should be considered high-profile is a fight for another WITI.)

While at this point, conversations about vaccines and mandates are pretty boring, I thought a point made by sports commentator Bomani Jones on Slate’s What Next podcast was worth highlighting. In discussing why the league didn’t mandate a vaccine, Jones highlights the slippery slope of a player’s union allowing a league to mandate anything having to do with a professional athlete’s body: 

There are some things that a union is going to push back on, particularly in an industry like this one, and in this industry “you have to put this in your body” is something that is never, ever going to be able to fly. It really is a slippery slope, I think, for them in particular, because so much of that job does involve putting things in your body. You gotta at least have the option to say no if you want to do that. And so this is somewhere where, as much as people can talk about the weakness of the National Basketball Players Association in different negotiations, this is one that they had to stand on and they stood on it. And I think that the owners ultimately understood that the players are going to stand on it because they didn’t try to bring them to the ground.

Why is this interesting?

Jones isn’t saying he doesn’t think the players should get vaccinated (he says just the opposite, in fact), but the point that there are certain boundaries within sports leagues, particularly as it relates to the relationship between the league and the bodies of players, has been underplayed in most of the conversations around the issue. Sports leagues have a long checkered history of medicating their players in ways that are good for the team and bad for the athlete. Just this week, in an incredibly rare break of protocol for an active player, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner called out the NHL for handing out drugs like candy.

Toradol is famous and widely used across college and professional football. The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) is regularly injected into players before and after games to dull the pain of contact. Here’s an excerpt from a 2011 ESPN piece on Toradol

While the long-term effects are unknown, some physicians worry about the short-term problems players ignore. Although Toradol is technically not a numbing agent, many players say they feel diminished sensations when it's in their system. That presents a problem because pain is the brain's way of sending the body a message. In the case of NFL players, that message is: Don't play. Dr. Arthur Bartolozzi, a University of Pennsylvania orthopedist who served as the Eagles team physician from 1995 to 2002, wonders, "You have to be very careful with it -- do drugs like Toradol enable players to play, or do they cause further injury?"

While lots of the world rely on drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, there’s a different dimension to the conversation when your employer is dishing it out to keep you working. That’s not to say the players aren’t part of the decision-making (professional athletes are famous for doing anything to stay in the game). Still, there are obvious questions about how much the team should be protecting them against themselves. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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