Opinion: LeBron James finally speaks out in support of COVID-19 vaccine, but not loudly enough

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Once again, the NBA’s most visible star addressed an important issue far more significant than whether the Los Angeles Lakers can win an NBA title or if he can remain an elite player in his 19th season. LeBron James explained why he took the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was very skeptical about it all,” James said at the Lakers media day Tuesday. “But after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me, but for my friends. That’s why I decided to do it.”

Unlike when he has spoken out about Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric, systemic racism or the importance of voting, however, James stayed silent regarding the importance of everyone else taking the vaccine.

“We’re talking about our bodies. We’re not talking about something political, racism or police brutality or things of that nature,” James said. “We’re talking about people’s bodies and well beings. So I don’t feel like for me personally, I should get involved in what people should do for their bodies and their livelihoods.”

LeBron James says he “was very skeptical about it all" before deciding to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
LeBron James says he “was very skeptical about it all” before deciding to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

This leaves James deserving both praise and criticism on how he handled the issue.

James deserves praise for admitting his skepticism and becoming an instrumental part of the Lakers planning to become fully vaccinated by the beginning of the regular season in three weeks. James also deserves criticism because he passed up on an opportunity to make an impact, just as he has done in recent years.

James’ words would not just have a possible affect on the estimated 10 percent of NBA players that have not received the COVID-19 vaccine. James’ words would have had an impact on the general public, which has included those in marginalized communities that have yet to take the shot because of distrust in the vaccine. That explains why the NBA had key luminaries record public service announcements about the importance of the vaccine, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.

TIP-OFF: Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated players just one of big storylines entering NBA training camp

BRYANT CASE: Los Angeles County says Vanessa Bryant’s claims in grisly photos case are ‘misdirected’

Given their strong record with speaking out on racism and helping marginalized communities, Abdul-Jabbar and Russell have the authority and credibility in this case. They have touted the COVID-19 vaccine as safe and effective because they received it. They have addressed the skepticism stemming from the country’s racially driven health inequities because they have fought for social justice causes for decades.

As for James? He decided to shut up and dribble.

“It would be like me telling somebody if they should take this job or not,” James contended. “Listen, you have to do what’s best for you and your family and if you should relocate. You have to do what’s best for your families. So I did that for me and my family. I know what some of my friends did for them and their family. But as far as speaking for everybody and their individualities and things that they want to do, that’s not my job.”

In fairness to James, it isn’t necessarily his job. The NBA players union has maintained that it won’t require players to receive the vaccine. Although about 90 percent of the players have still taken the jab anyway, Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, Washington’s Bradley Beal and Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins represent the defiant 10 percent that have refused to do so. In the interest of public safety, the NBA is constructing its safety protocols so that the unvaccinated experience more inconveniences than the vaccinated.

But James’ defensive explanations bear false equivalencies. To say he doesn’t want to tell someone what to do with their body implies he’s simply declining to tell the public to consume his favorite sports drink or meal. To say he doesn’t want to tell someone how to handle life decisions implies this decision only affects a person and their immediate family. It doesn’t. The importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine traces all points back to public health.

That explains why the Lakers will become fully vaccinatedafter Marc Gasol and Dennis Schroder tested positive for COVID-19 last season. That happened partly because the Lakers repeatedly had health experts talk to the team about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. That happened partly because Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had a direct conversation with role player Kent Bazemore, who had publicly expressed skepticism about taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

“When the vaccine first came out, I felt like it was forced on me,” Bazemore said. “I’m not a person that responds well to that. It kind of put this shell around me. I fought it off quite a bit. I’m a big energy person. I didn’t feel the right energy toward it. But I had a good call with Rob Pelinka. He laid it down to me in the most fairly honest way that I ever heard. To pass up an opportunity like this and be on a roster with so many greats especially during my era. It would be a hard opportunity pass up.”

James has passed up on the opportunity to talk about the COVID-19 vaccine since last season. At first, it seemed understandable. NBA players did not want to cut in line. Just like the general public, NBA players wanted to ensure that the vaccine remained safe and proven. After several months passed without significant break-through incidents, James stayed noticeably silent about the issue. He declined several times to share whether he received the vaccine. He declined to explain why the NBA determined he broke the league’s health and safety protocol after attending an outdoor marketing event.

So given that James has always viewed himself as more than an athlete, one can’t help but believe he could have made a bigger difference had he refused to stick to sports. Even if it sounded encouraging James talked more openly at media day about why he took the vaccine, the Lakers’ star still disappointingly passed on pleading for others to take the shot.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sign up for USA TODAY’s various subscription deals.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers’ LeBron James finally speaks out in support of COVID-19 vaccine