Sports·THE BUZZER

Majority of NHL, NBA players are vaccinated — but anti-vaxxers are making news

CBC Sports' daily newsletter takes a deeper look at the ongoing saga surrounding vaccine holdouts among NHL and NBA players ahead of their upcoming seasons.

Vaccine holdouts could create an awkward situation for some players and teams

Kyrie Irving isn't alone, but he's the most prominent NBA player known to be against taking a COVID-19 vaccine. (Elsa/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

The vast majority of NHL and NBA players are vaccinated — but the anti-vaxxers are the loudest voices

With training camps for the upcoming NHL and NBA seasons now underway, the leagues' vaccination policies are being put to the test. Neither has ordered its players to be inoculated against COVID-19, but both leagues are trying to nudge the unvaccinated toward the needle by making life more difficult for those who choose not to get their shots.

In the NHL, teams reportedly will be allowed to suspend unvaccinated players without pay if they're unable to participate in games or practices due to COVID-19 protocols. The unvaxxed also won't be allowed to move about freely on road trips, potentially separating them from their teammates for stuff like team dinners and other social outings.

The NBA reportedly wanted to take it a step further by making vaccines mandatory for all players — as they are for most staff and all referees. But the players' union blocked the move, thanks partly to the objections of a vocal minority of unvaxxed and/or anti-vax members. The rules for both vaccinated and unvaccinated players are still being hammered out, but it's expected that the unvaxxed will be subject to more testing and will be asked (though likely not required) to sit in separate areas in the locker room and during team meetings, meals and travel.

For the most part, this approach seems to be working. The current vaccination rate in both the NHL and the NBA is believed to be around 90 per cent — meaning only about one or two players per team, on average, haven't taken the needle. The NHL claims it'll get up to at least 98 percent by opening night, which would leave only 15 players in the entire league (about one for every two teams) unvaxxed. For comparison, about 80 per cent of eligible Canadians are now fully vaxxed.

However, it's the anti-vaxxers that are making news right now. While no NHL stars have publicly refused the vaccine (Detroit forward Tyler Bertuzzi and New Jersey goalie Mackenzie Blackwood are the highest-profile holdouts at the moment), a few big-name NBAers are vocally anti-vax. Most prominent is Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets star and self-styled Free Thinker who believes the earth is flat and also has some questions about dinosaurs. As noted in a recent Rolling Stone story, his latest quest for knowledge has involved liking Instagram posts by a conspiracy theorist who claims "secret societies" are behind the COVID-19 vaccine. Sportswriter Howard Bryant had a great line about Irving the other day: he's "a contrarian without a cause."

Whatever it's rooted in, Irving's vaccine stance is now being put to the test after New York City made a law requiring pro athletes to show proof of at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose in order to play indoors, unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. This would prevent Irving from playing in Brooklyn's home games, and yesterday it meant he could not attend the start of the Nets' training camp, which also happened to be media day. Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call, Irving dodged questions about his vaccine hesitancy, asking everyone to "please just respect my privacy." It also should be noted that Irving sits on the executive committee of the players' union.

Meanwhile, Canadian Andrew Wiggins has placed himself in the same pickle. His Golden State Warriors play their home games in San Francisco, which passed a law similar to New York's. Wiggins tried to get around it by asking for a religious exemption, but the city removed that provision on Friday, giving the NBA cover to reject his request. Like Irving, Wiggins appears undaunted by the prospect of missing games. "I'm going to keep fighting for what I believe is right," he said at Golden State's media day. Asked what those beliefs are, exactly, he replied: "It's none of your business."

As for Canada's only NBA franchise, the Toronto Raptors are one dose away from being fully vaxxed, according to GM Bobby Webster, and will be by opening night on Oct. 20. Under the terms of the Raptors' agreement with the Canadian government, unvaccinated players will be allowed into Toronto for games but will be subject to testing and restricted to the arena and their team hotel. The Nets are in town Nov. 7, the Warriors Dec. 18. If Irving and/or Wiggins haven't changed course by then, you know what the hot topic around those games will be.

Canadian Andrew Wiggins is another well-known NBA player who doesn't want the vaccine. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Quickly...

The Blue Jays begin their final week of the regular season with a big series vs. the Yankees. After a disappointing split of a four-game series at Minnesota, Toronto finds itself two games behind New York and one game behind Boston in the race for the two American League wild-card spots. Seattle is just a half game back of the Jays. All six of Toronto's remaining contests are at home (the final three vs. the comically bad Orioles), where the Ontario government is now allowing a capacity of 30,000 — double what it was for the last game at the dome. Hyun Jin Ryu comes off the injured list (strained neck) to start for the Jays tonight vs. dual Canadian-U.S. citizen Jameson Taillon.

The Canadian women's basketball team is looking for a new head coach. Lisa Thomaidis and Canada Basketball have "mutually agreed to part ways," the organization announced today. Thomaidis, whose contract expires in a couple of days, was at the helm for a disappointing showing at the Tokyo Olympics. Despite being ranked No. 4 in the world, Canada went 1-2 and failed to advance past the group stage. Thomaidis also guided Canada to the 2016 Olympics, where it lost in the quarter-finals. Read more about her tenure here.

The WNBA semifinals start tonight. One of the league's three Canadian players is still alive. Guard Kia Nurse and the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury won back-to-back single-elimination games vs. New York and defending-champion Seattle to advance to a best-of-five series vs. No. 2 Las Vegas, starting tonight at 10 p.m. ET. Nurse started both victories and averaged 10 points, five rebounds and an assist. The other semifinal, which opens tonight at 8 p.m. ET, pits newly crowned WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones and top-seeded Connecticut vs. No. 6 Chicago. Both Connecticut and Las Vegas had a bye for the first two rounds.

And finally...

Happy 49th anniversary to this:

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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