On Sept. 30, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green spent time defending teammate Andrew Wiggins’ decision to forego any COVID vaccination. The speech spread like wildfire online and gained plaudits from a fascinating swath, including right-wing and Republican talking heads and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James. The All-Star and three-time NBA champion was also equally criticized, the address called “inane” by one San Francisco writer. How was this possible? It starts and ends with Green’s curious notions of freedom.
What does “freedom,” a value we hold dearly in America, look like through the lens of COVID-19 and broad public safety? Or has Green, and many others, misunderstood its meaning?
To start, Green equalized a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of 714,000 people in the United States alone, with the recent birth of Wiggins’ child and whether he chose to be present even if it meant being away from the Warriors.
“[That] would be like me telling him, ‘Yo, your wife is going into labor. How dare you leave this team and not go tend to your wife?’” Green said, per ESPN. “That’s something that’s personal to him. That’s something that’s health-related. That’s something that’s personal to his family. This is no different.”
Wiggins’ vaccine hesitancy became a matter of public debate and criticism across social media. The discourse further turned into the former Kansas star’s disadvantage when the NBA informed the players they would not be paid if they did not comply with city and state vaccination mandating—San Francisco is one of two cities with the requirement.
Wiggins would have to choose his immense salary (from home games and other locations with mandates) or his principles. Predictably, the idea of forfeiture of at least half his $31.6 million salary for the upcoming season became too much for his moral system to withstand. He was vaccinated this month.
“The only options were to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA,” Wiggins said recently after Golden State’s preseason opener per Sports Illustrated. “It was a tough decision. Hopefully, it works out in the long run, and in 10 years, I’m still healthy.”
The suggestion here is that he’s trying to abstain from unnatural remedies, as he doesn’t know how his body will react in “10, 15 years.” However, there is no scientific indication that anything will happen aside from general safety from the virus. (He also curiously admitted to carrying around an Epipen for allergic reactions, which is not a natural remedy.)
As Green stated, Wiggins similarly sees the vax issue as a matter of personal freedom.
“I guess to do certain stuff, to work, I guess you don’t own your body,” Wiggins said. “That’s what it comes down to. If you want to work in society today, then I guess they made the rules of what goes in your body and what you do. Hopefully, there’s a lot of people out there that are stronger than me and keep fighting, stand for what they believe, and hopefully, it works out for them.”
The palpable strain between unvaccinated NBA players and players, and non-athletes like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who side with them is shocking. It’s all thanks to these messy, culture war notions of freedom amid an ongoing public health crisis.
Part of this issue rests in gross misidentification of the scale and scope of COVID-19, partly attributed to the fact that a significant number of these highly public anti-vaxxers (Kyrie Irving, various celebrities) and autonomy advocates (Green, largely right-wing politicians) are availed high-quality healthcare and can afford a distance the non-rich can only dream of. Also, these are high-trained, hard-working, well-tuned athletes (mostly Black in the major American sports leagues) who aren’t used to be considered and herded with the larger masses. The engrained exceptionalism with a combination of social media is both a gift (in terms of sociopolitical issues) and a curse (regarding COVID-19.)
There is also a strain of inhumanity and reduction of empathy, albeit as a coping mechanism, arriving in our attempt to make sense of the data. And suppose you are not in the crosshairs of COVID-19, at least in perception. In that case, deferring to the warped notion of freedom as your ruling factor is at play. Dr. Paul Slovic, a longtime researcher in risk and decision science at the University of Oregon, calls this human tendency the “prominence effect.” In other words, when faced with complicated choices, such as buying a car, people tend to defer to one reigning factor, such as a safety rating on said car.
Another related aspect, “psychic numbing,” relates to the onset of indifference when faced with unimaginable catastrophe. “One life is valuable, but that life loses value, perceptually, if it is part of a larger tragedy,” Slovic told apa.org.
Coming back to Green’s unloading, he asserts that, “we’re dealing with something that to me feels like has turned into a political war when you’re talking about vaccinated [people] and non-vaccinated [people]. I think it’s become very political.”
“And for someone who’s not extremely into politics, when you make something so political, and not everyone is into politics, then you can also turn those people off. I think you have to honor people’s feelings and their own personal beliefs. And I think that’s been lost when it comes to vaccinated and non-vaccinated. …You say we live in ‘The land of the free’—well, you’re not giving anyone freedom because you’re making people do something essentially without making them, you’re making them do something. And that goes against everything America stands for, supposedly stands for.”
Of course, this idea falls shallow, given that most American lives are centered on law enforcement, mandates, and medical normalizations, such as wearing seat belts and having children vaccinated as babies.
The politicization of COVID-19 is unquestioned for Dr. Eman Spaulding, a physician in Tampa, Florida, but he believes there’s more in how Americans, including Green, perceive themselves. He suggests the emotional checking out of the human experience of COVID lives somewhat baked into American culture.
“What you have to understand is that the problem with mandating people to do things is that you don’t have society set up that way,” explains Spaulding. “It’s never been that way, for, let’s say, the free world, modern-day democratic countries. The generations past have only lived in an ‘age of freedom.’ So they’re socialized to be able to have choices. And you’re telling them, ‘No, you have to do this, or else.’ Some people are going to buck because you didn’t raise them that way.”
SportsNet New York anchor Chris Williamson states, “There are so many factors involved: poverty, race, gender, able-bodied, disabled, the whole nine yards. That’s why I laugh when folks like Draymond or King LeBron, Wiggins, Kyrie talk about ‘personal choice.’ It’s not; it actually infects or affects the [the Black population] disproportionately for multiple reasons. It’s not a ‘personal choice’ when over 700,000 people die from this virus.”
In the end, the most dangerous notion Green elucidated during the press conference, which has been widely parroted in right-wing echo chambers for decades, is the implication of reduction. Many still hold that vaccines cause autism, based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, pushing conspiracy.
We take shots to travel, enforce pedestrian protection laws, acquire licenses to drive, or work various positions. We allow anesthesia for surgeries in hospitals we use as a broad utility. Somehow though, these nearly invisible, conventional decrees, which aren’t here to “honor people’s feelings and their own personal beliefs,” but to protect us on the whole, are a separate matter.
Recently, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes considered how people were upset about new seatbelt laws. During the ’80s, the legislation nationwide brought the similar “They’re taking away my freedoms” rhetoric, though they were meant to protect drivers. They could not see the scale or understand how their choices exponentially affected everyone around them.
The CDC and doctors offer guidance that by taking the COVID-19 vaccine, we can collectively reduce cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Yet, we have the same misunderstandings… except today we have social media reinforcing misinformation and violently half-baked ideas such as Green’s statement.
According to the CDC, “seat belts dramatically reduce risk of death and serious injury. Among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45% and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%.” Seat belts also “prevent drivers and passengers from being ejected during a crash.”
The organization does not tell people they cannot get into an accident, nor does it mean people cannot die wearing a seat belt. And yet, because we’ve worn them, we’ve likely saved millions of lives.
Rhoden’s Road Trip
Award-winning columnist William C. “Bill” Rhoden is the product of a grand HBCU tradition. Rhoden’s collegiate journey began at Morgan State University, where he was a member of the 1968 team that beat Grambling in Yankee Stadium in the Whitney Young Classic. One of the most respected journalists of his generation —spanning nearly four decades— he has witnessed the changing face of HBCUs from their rise to their desire to thrive. Fifty years after that memorable moment at Yankee Stadium, Rhoden, along with the help of the Rhoden Fellows, a team of aspiring HBCU journalists, explore the rich history and culture of HBCU football.