Why do NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB players unions oppose vaccine mandates?

·5 min read

The NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all have required certain key employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, especially those who might come into close contact with their most important assets – the players.

In the NHL, any person whose job might put them within 12 feet of a player must be fully vaccinated, including chefs, bus drivers and security staff, according to league protocol for the coming season. In the NFL, any club personnel member who is around the players must be vaccinated, a spokesman said. Other leagues have mandated vaccines for coaches, trainers, front office staff and virtually anybody else who supports players in games or locker rooms, with one big exception:

The players themselves.

Players unions have opposed or avoided such mandates, keeping players free of them.

But why?

It’s a delicate subject. Former NBA Players Association executive director Charles Grantham told USA TODAY Sports that players union leadership is failing its members if it isn't pushing for vaccine mandates.

Pro sports leagues have been unable to reach an agreement with players unions mandating vaccines.
Pro sports leagues have been unable to reach an agreement with players unions mandating vaccines.

“There’s no edge to be gained here,” Grantham said. “We’re concerned about the health and welfare of our players because they are our major assets in this business.”

Others see it differently. In these cases, vaccine mandates for players would have to be collectively bargained between league management and the players unions.

League management would love to require player vaccinations. Yet because these players unions fought for so long to win other rights and benefits in collective bargaining, they generally don’t want to give an inch for a shot if it means league management might start to think it can take a mile later for something else. This is especially true when it could mean giving league owners more power over their most valuable possessions — their bodies.

“As much as I wish all the players would get vaccinated … I would not encourage any players union to set a precedent that allowed the league to mandate it,” former NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth told USA TODAY Sports.

The players unions are not opposing mandates because they are against vaccinations. To the contrary, players unions have encouraged vaccinations and supported more severe safety protocols for unvaccinated players, knowing their members’ health and livelihoods are at risk without inoculation. Both have helped push voluntary vaccination rates for players near or above 90%, well above the rate of the general population.

They just don’t want to push a mandate to make it 100% for one simple reason apparently, according to sports labor union and law experts. They view it as intrusion by management.

“With 90% vaccination rates, that extra 10% is not worth opening the door to this particular avenue of league or commissioner power,” said Foxworth, a former NFL cornerback.

MORE YOU KNOW: NBA will require teams to hold COVID info session in latest push to vaccinate all players

These unions have been relatively quiet on the subject publicly. None responded to specific inquiries from USA TODAY Sports about why they don’t support mandates. The NBA players union has called the idea of mandates a “non-starter,” while the NFL players union has said mandates are “not the best approach,” according to news reports.

The WNBA players association basically said it’s not necessary.

“With a 99% vaccination rate, we do not need to contemplate hypotheticals,” WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson told USA TODAY Sports in a statement.

Grantham applauds the WNBA players association leadership for reaching that level, saying its leadership was “right on top of it.” But he said other players unions are making a mistake by opposing management on an issue in which the interests of players and management are the same – to minimize health and business risks while maximizing revenue.

He said it’s important for union leaders to know when to collaborate with management and when to fight it in bargaining. This is not like fighting over revenue sharing or salary cap issues in which the players and owners are at odds. He said this issue calls for players to collaborate with management. Look what happened last year, he said, when COVID-19 shortened seasons and restricted game attendance, drastically cutting revenues from which players are given a share.

“Is it in my best interest to see that the revenue continues to grow, or is it in our best interest to see it in some way deflated?” asked Grantham, now the director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall.

“Collaboration is the key here, and it’s a failure to collaborate and not being able to see the impact on our business” by the unions, Grantham said.

Vaccine mandates have been supported by labor unions outside sports, including for meatpackers, teachers and nurses. Other unions, such as police unions, have opposed such mandates and even filed lawsuits against those seeking to impose them, saying they violate their constitutional rights.

The main role of unions “is protecting their members, but there’s more than one way to assess protecting their members,” said Dorit Reiss, who has studied vaccine mandates and is law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “Some unions interpret their roles as protecting their members against intrusions by management that the members don’t want, and some say their main role is making sure their members are safe.”

In these pro sports leagues, a small number of players have loudly opposed vaccinations, including Cole Beasley of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and Andrew Wiggins of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

“If the minority is extreme, they probably won’t react to a mandate,” Reiss said.

Foxworth noted a players’ unions responsibility is to “carry out the wishes of the players, particularly when it’s something players are passionate about.”

Grantham counters that unions are democratic organizations that can decide matters by vote. He praised the NBA referees union, which agreed to a mandate. In the NFL, the referees’ union does not have a mandate, but officials are 99% vaccinated, according to the league.

Grantham also cited a recent quote by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Rolling Stone. “There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates,” Jabbar said.

“Conflict and controversy require strong leadership,” Grantham said. “So the question then is, `Are you willing to sacrifice 90% of your membership for 10%?”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB players unions oppose vaccine mandates, but why?