If Andrew Wiggins is fighting for beliefs by refusing vaccine, it's fair for media to ask about it

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Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins has taken centre stage in the NBA's ongoing debate over COVID-19 vaccination. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press - image credit)
Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins has taken centre stage in the NBA's ongoing debate over COVID-19 vaccination. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

This past weekend, information trickled out of San Francisco about Andrew Wiggins, the Canadian national team star, and a key piece of the Golden State Warriors' plans to rebound from a lacklustre season.

We learned Wiggins, who is scheduled to enter his second full season with the Warriors, was restricted to solo workouts because local COVID-19 protocols prevent unvaccinated people from gathering indoors in large groups. Then we learned that with training camp set to open, Wiggins risked missing Warriors' home games unless he complied with San Francisco's vaccine guidelines.

Everyone at indoor sports events is required to show proof of vaccination. No exceptions for players. Even the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

Monday afternoon, at the Warriors' season-opening news conference, we finally heard from Wiggins himself. He sat at the head table in a gold-trimmed blue Warriors jersey and, in the clips that hit the internet first, seemed… not quite surly, but snippy. Certainly annoyed, and likely tired of answering questions about his vaccination status.

But this was a press conference, so the questions kept coming, including one from a reporter curious about how Wiggins was dealing with the prospect of missing the Warriors' entire home schedule, and passing up half his eight-figure salary.

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"It's my problem," Wiggins, a Thornhill, Ont., native, told the reporter. "Not yours."

Regarding money, he's correct. He holds one of the few jobs on the planet that makes your salary public. Everyone knows how much he makes ($31.6 million US this season), and nearly all those people have ideas on how he should spend, invest and value his cash. But between Wiggins and the reporter, only Wiggins knows whether he can afford a pay cut, and how far he's willing to take this stalemate.

If he's ready to sacrifice his career, then that's what it is. Between Wiggins and the reporter, only one person has quit-working-at-age-26 money — and it's not the person with a pen and a notepad, sweating a deadline.

Vaccination status not just a personal matter

But Wiggins, like LeBron James, Damian Lillard, and other vaccinated players — 90 per cent of the league, according to published reports — is a member of a team. And Wiggins is also, like all of us, a member of a society that's 20 months into a coronavirus pandemic. So his vaccination status matters, and not just to him.

"I have a lot of people in my family that I'm tight with and I spend a lot of time around and I'm just not going to put their health or their lives in danger," Lillard told reporters at Portland Trailblazers' media day.

Steve Kerr and the Warriors' coaching staff might need to figure out how to plan around a Wiggins-sized hole in the lineup every other night. Wiggins was Golden State's second-leading scorer last season, averaging 18.6 points per game, and making a career-high 47.7 per cent of his field goal attempts. His potential absence is the whole team's problem.

And public health is everybody's business. It's no longer even worth arguing whether vaccines work. The more people get jabbed, the sooner this pandemic ends. None of these points should be debate topics anymore.

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So whether vaccinated NBA players were motivated by responsibility to team, family, or society, they've acted in accordance with established science and sound medical advice, and now compose 90 per cent of the league. The Knicks and Lakers report that their rosters are fully vaccinated, and last week the Raptors said they're nearly there.

But that lagging 10 per cent is loud and problematic.

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal caught COVID-19 recently, and casually told reporters that his only symptom was the loss of his sense of smell.

"I would like an explanation to people with vaccines, why are they still getting COVID?" Beal asked reporters, apparently unaware of the difference between protection and a forcefield.

Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac revealed that a previous bout with COVID-19 left him with antibodies, and that his research told him he didn't need a vaccine.

Of course, there's Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who joined his team's media day remotely because, reportedly, indoor gatherings of that size in New York are reserved for vaccinated people. Via webcam, he coyly evaded questions about the vaccine.

"Please just respect my privacy," Irving told reporters. "All the questions leading into what's happening, just please. Everything will be released at a due date once we get this cleared up."

And then there's Wiggins, who told reporters in San Francisco that his vaccine status isn't a question of negligence but an issue of principle. Late last week Wiggins applied for a religious exemption that would allow him full access to team activities without a vaccine. The NBA denied the request, but Wiggins says it's not over.

"[My] Back is definitely against the wall, but I'm just going to keep fighting for what I believe," Wiggins said. "I'm going to keep fighting for what I believe is right. What's right to one person isn't right to the other and vice versa."

After that, it's fair, logical, and almost mandatory, to ask what, exactly, Wiggins believes in. The reporter asked and Wiggins demurred.

"It's none of your business," he said.

If Wiggins wants to keep the details of his spiritual life private, that's his prerogative. From here, we can only assume he's sincere in believing that taking the COVID-19 vaccine conflicts with his faith.

But the curiosity his assertion triggers is natural and reasonable.

Does Wiggins' religion allow needles for measles and mumps and polio, and the other shots that get recorded in the yellow booklet almost all Ontarians have, and that are mandatory before we enroll in school? Does it view the COVID-19 vaccines differently, or did Wiggins recently convert to a faith that forbids medical inoculation?

He's free not to answer any of those questions, especially if he was planning a quiet resistance to the league and municipal vaccine policies until journalists helped make the conflict public.

But if he's girding for a Muhammad Ali-style stand on principle, then it might be worth explaining the relationship between his faith and this particular set of vaccines. Maybe he has a solid reason for declining the vaccine that none of us can see yet. Or maybe the NBA made a bad decision in denying Wiggins' exemption application, and taking his case to the court of public opinion could nudge the league to reconsider.

Either way, we're still wrestling with a pandemic, which means we're up against a bug that hops from human to human, among teams and through entire communities. So whether the goal is to defeat COVID-19 or just to beat Sacramento, we can't pretend that refusing the vaccine only affects one person.

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