• December 8, 2022

Why N.B.A. Referees Agreed to a Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate

Late last month, the NBA released a brief press release announcing an agreement with the union representing the league’s umpires to mandate Covid-19 vaccines. It stipulated that all referees for work games must be fully vaccinated, including “recommended boosters”.

Otherwise, the statement said, the referees would not be able to work.

The announcement came after a tumultuous NBA season in which several referees had to miss games because they were in contact with a person who tested positive, sometimes forcing the league G-League officials convened to fill the void.

The agreement was notable at a time when unions in various industries were divided over whether to agree to vaccine mandates for their members. Some unions like the American Nurses Association, have supported mandates out of concern for the health of members, while others, particularly police unions, have rejected mandates and stated that they violate members’ right to make their own health decisions.

The issue is heavily politicized, as are many restrictions around the virus. Vaccination requirements have long been common in schools and colleges and are routine when traveling between countries.

The National Basketball Referees Association represents 145 members who run NBA, WNBA, and G-League games, in addition to 50 retirees. Their agreement stands out in the sports world and even in their own sport: there is no such mandate for NBA players, creating a potentially uncomfortable situation where some league staff are required to take the vaccine and others are not. (However, the league has issued instructions that players from the Nets, Knicks, and Golden State Warriors must be fully vaccinated to play at home, as local rules state that only vaccinated individuals can enter arenas.)

Of the 73 NBA referees in the union – five of whom are women – 36 percent are aged 45 or over.

The NBA players’ union did not respond to a request for comment on its position on vaccine mandates. In June, the WNBA announced that 99 percent of their Players were fully vaccinated. An NBA spokesman said the number of NBA players was around 85 percent and that the league was “in talks with the union on a variety of topics for the season including vaccinations”.

The NFL and MLB do not have any similar arrangements with their umpires or players that the NBA has with their umpires. The NHL does not mandate vaccination for its players or referees, but a league spokesman said Monday that all of their referees had been vaccinated ahead of the upcoming season. An MLB spokesman said the league strongly recommends vaccines to all referees and is considering “adjustments” given the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration, but did not say whether that would imply a mandate. In March, the head of the MLB players’ union, Tony Clark, said the The group he heads was against a mandate.

Marc Davis, president of the basketball referees union and referee himself for more than two decades, said in an interview that the deal grew out of a strong relationship with the NBA and that referees were largely in favor of the mandate.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Can you tell me how the vaccination mandate came about?

Updated

9/14/2021, 3:41 p.m. ET

In my opinion, when you have a collaborative environment between management and employees, you are constantly working on topics and there is constant dialogue back and forth.

I think if I had to say who introduced the idea, I think it’s more the relationship and constant conversation that came about. I mean, that was clearly something that really aligns with our two mission statements, which is to keep our members and their families safe and secure.

It is a common view about vaccines that they are probably one of the three most important inventions in human history. And in order to have that access to this innovative vaccine and allow us to keep working, doing our business and continuing to work collaboratively, it’s not that difficult to start a conversation and work through it.

What is the value of the mandate for the referees union if the players have not consented?

First of all, we’re our own independent group and I think the players will agree. They also work on their problems. They may have different problems than we do, or just a different pace. I can’t talk to them, but I’m sure they will solve your problems too.

Understand US vaccination and mask requirements

The advantage of the mandate is that our officers fly commercially. They have families to return to. We are in the basketball business. We are in intimate surroundings with our players. We recognize the importance of the vaccine. I think this will work by itself at all levels and in all leagues.

Was there significant resistance from union members who would be affected?

In terms of numbers, I would say no. But their voices were heard. We have articulated their concerns. We worked through these problems. A major issue of concern was FDA approval. And we worked our way through this until we negotiated, among other things, that nobody is needed before FDA approval. So this is a reasonable approach. You know, obviously, FDA approval came around the same time we got the deal.

Understanding that the players are your collaborators, has there been resistance such as “Why should we agree to a mandate when the players have not consented to you?”

No, because we know that when we started our conversations, they started conversations too. We just reached an agreement before them. We did it at our own pace. We were not interested in another group’s decision.

During your negotiations, how much did you follow what other unions were doing? Have you had contact with other referee unions?

We were in constant contact with the players’ association. We were in constant contact with the hockey, baseball and NFL officials. Other unions, like the mechanics of Southwest Airlines, the employees of United Airlines. They had some very difficult things and couldn’t handle them. It turned out to be something different from what we’d agreed to. We just didn’t have that experience with the NBA. It never became a controversial headbutt.

Do you think the players union should agree to you the same way they do?

It is not my position as the board of directors of our union or as a member of any other union to discuss or even articulate what I believe someone else should or should not do. I think they will do what is in the best interests of their electorate. We know our best interests.



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