The WNBA made clear this week that it is leading the major professional sports leagues in COVID-19 prevention measures, with 99 percent of its players fully vaccinated and zero new players testing positive since the start of the regular season.
Those numbers are partly the result of a league-wide effort to communicate with players. As coronavirus vaccines increasingly became available earlier this year, the league’s union, WNBPA, held video meetings between players and medical professionals to discuss how vaccines work and the history of vaccine hesitancy among marginalized communities. The union also used its social platforms to share clips of those conversations with the public.
Dr. Geeta Swamy, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology with Duke University, was one of the medical experts who spoke with the players in February, explaining the vaccine clinical trial process and how vaccines affect the body.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed by the WNBA players’ commitment to advocacy and community engagement,” Swamy wrote to The 19th in an emailed statement. “The players association and WNBA leadership have clearly prioritized the health and well-being of their players as well as their education and social support, which are particularly important given how geographically dispersed the players are across the world.”
Other professional sports leagues have not reached the WNBA’s vaccination milestones. The MLB reported last week that 23 of its 30 teams had reached an 85 percent vaccination rate, allowing for more relaxed pandemic protocols. The league’s stadiums have hosted inoculation drives, and First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff were on site for a vaccination event at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. ESPN reported last week that 65 percent of NFL players have received at least one shot of a vaccine. The NBA’s commissioner said in April that more than 70 percent of players had received at least one shot.
Nearly all MLB stadiums are currently holding games with fans in the stands at full capacity. The NFL also expects stadiums to be at full capacity for games in the fall. WNBA teams are still holding games with a limited number of fans who are socially distanced and masked at games in their home arenas. Players returning from playing overseas during the winter had to receive six negative coronavirus tests on consecutive days before being cleared to play.
“The health and safety of everyone in the WNBA family has continued to be of utmost importance as we developed scenarios prior to the season and now have returned to play in WNBA arenas,” Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in an emailed statement to The 19th. “We are grateful for the WNBPA-led vaccination education efforts prior to the season, and continue to be inspired by the leadership WNBA players have shown by getting vaccinated to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus.”
The league will continue to monitor the pandemic as several WNBA players gear up to play on the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in Tokyo.
Last year, the WNBA received praise for avoiding an outbreak in its “Wubble,” where players, coaches and medical professionals lived in an isolated complex in Florida for an abbreviated 22-game season. The NBA saw similar success over the summer.
Public health is one of the focuses of the WNBA/WNBPA’s social justice council, which launched in July 2020 in response to social unrest around the country following the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and other Black people. Individual players have also been outspoken against racial injustice and pushed for former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the former co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, to sell the team in February.
The WNBA and the players’ union have partnered to raise awareness about COVID-19 vaccinations and donate to initiatives supporting the health and wellness of Black women and girls.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified one of the people attending a vaccination event at Minute Maid Park. It was First Lady Jill Biden, not Vice President Kamala Harris.