Column: WNBA aside, player vaccinations remain an issue

The numbers are in, and the WNBA has something to brag about. The league declared Monday that 99% of its players have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and all 12 teams are considered fully vaccinated.

That’s impressive, though it’s a bit odd that league officials chose to use percentages instead of giving actual numbers. Still, assuming the percentages are accurate, it means just one player — or possibly two — in the entire league remains unvaccinated.

That by itself is a remarkable success story for the WNBA. It’s also a statement to other leagues that a vaccine that has proven extraordinarily effective can provide a path toward normalcy once again.

North Carolina State baseball coaches should have been paying attention. Had they pushed players to get vaccinated anywhere near the WNBA level — and gotten vaccinated themselves — they very well could have been playing for the national championship in Omaha, Nebraska, this week instead of watching from home on TV.

Meanwhile, seven Major League baseball teams remain under the 85% vaccination threshold they need to reach to have coronavirus protocols relaxed. Potential trouble also looms as the NFL prepares to open training camps next month with more restrictive rules — including masks and daily testing — for players who aren’t vaccinated.

And then there’s Japan, where an Olympics postponed one year because of the pandemic begins July 23. Nerves that were already on edge over the prospect of thousands of people from around the world entering the country were frayed a bit more with the news that two Ugandan team members who arrived in Japan early tested positive for the virus — with at least one having the highly contagious Delta variant.

To be clear, there’s a lot to cheer about during the first real summer of sports since the pandemic began. Masks are mostly gone, teams are playing before big crowds and it seems on the surface at least as if everything is normal.

Except it isn’t. Unvaccinated people are still getting infected — and there are worries the more easily spread Delta variant will infect even more.

That’s a minor concern now for the WNBA, which can play the remainder of the season with few restrictions. But it’s potentially a big issue as NFL training camps open without nearly the vaccination rates the WNBA is crowing about.

Veteran Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley has staked out his ground already, saying he would rather retire than get the vaccination.

“I will be outside doing what I do,” Beasley tweeted. “I’ll be out in the public. If your scared of me then steer clear or get vaccinated. Point. Blank. Period. I may die of Covid but I’d rather die actually living.”

Beasley’s thinking is, of course, as irrational as it is self-absorbed. His attempt at logic not only doesn’t make much sense but has the potential to fracture a team considered a Super Bowl contender even before the season starts.

It’s not clear how many NFL players are vaccinated, or how many will come to training camp without shots. But with rosters of up to 90 in camp — and national vaccination rates lagging — it figures to be a sizeable number.

That means different protocols for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. It means play will be disrupted, and it means teams will be split between vaccine and non-vaccine factions.

Not to mention it’s just silly.

“If you’re not vaccinated you’re just living in a different world,” Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said on a recent podcast. “Why put yourself at risk of going through that again?”

Athletes have a simple choice. They have the right to ignore science and the tens of millions who have safely been vaccinated and refuse to get the shots.

Or they can be like Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, who visited underprivileged areas in Los Angeles this week to encourage vaccinations.

“Just trying to get everyone to understand we need to get the world back to normal and it starts with this,” Betts said.

The WNBA players understood that, at least when it comes to their league. Because they did, the remainder of the WNBA season will be played in conditions that should be about as normal as possible.

And that’s something to brag about.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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