Anyone who has played a team sport at any level has probably heard the saying “There’s no I in team” at some point. It’s a short way of expressing that individual sacrifice is sometimes needed for the greater good of the whole. Every team achieves the greatest success when its members are committed to a common goal and care as much about the person standing next to them as they do themselves.
Autumn is the rare time of year when all four major American men’s professional sports leagues play simultaneously. America’s pastime, baseball, begins its playoffs in a leadup to the Fall Classic, better known as the World Series. America’s most watched professional sport, football, is back to claiming its own day, “Football Sunday.” In the NBA and NHL, players hit the hardwood and the ice as their seasons begin. The WNBA and both men’s and women’s professional soccer leagues crown new champions in early autumn as well.
In 2021, professional sports leagues faced a new challenge – overcoming vaccine hesitancy among players for the greater good of the team. Each league above instituted varying COVID-19 vaccination and testing protocols in an effort to keep players, staff and fans safe during their respective seasons. Although the vaccine isn’t a guarantee against COVID-19, we know it’s highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death.
Owners, general managers and coaches need players (especially their star players) available to compete to have the best chance to win, entice fans to watch and keep support from corporate sponsors. There’s an old saying in sports – “your best ability is your availability” – and we are seeing that play out across several leagues.
After the NFL announced that COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players could cause teams to forfeit games, a league-wide push helped get 93 percent of players at least partially vaccinated by the start of the season. In the NHL, 99 percent of the league’s 700 players are vaccinated.
In the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets banned Kyrie Irving, one of their best players, from participating in practices or games unless he gets vaccinated. “I think we all know what our objective is this year and how a decision like this maybe affects that ultimate objective,” said Nets general manager Sean Marks. “We’re looking at putting a group of people out there that are going to be able to participate fully.”
Ultimately, many players across various professional sports leagues decided to put their personal views aside to avoid impacting their team and their ability to make a living. The byproduct is thousands of players who are not only available to play for their teams, but are also better protected when they interact with coaches, fans and their communities.
Labor unions and sports teams have much in common. Both achieve more when their members take collective action toward a shared goal, even if that means some level of personal sacrifice. Both achieve more when their members care about the success and well-being of the person next to them. At LIUNA and other labor unions, we often share this idea with the saying “I am my brother’s keeper.” And all major U.S. sports leagues are unionized, with policies and procedures collectively bargained between the league and Players Associations.
When asked about the NHL’s 99 percent vaccination rate, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, “Everybody banded together to do the right thing. Maybe that’s why hockey is the ultimate team sport.”
Imagine if we could achieve that same 99 percent vaccination rate for all eligible Americans. That would be the ultimate display of teamwork to beat this pandemic, which has already caused 700,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.
[Matthew Brown is the LHSFNA’s Health & Welfare Specialist.]