WNBPA Wins Big with a Player-led COVID-19 Vaccination Approach
WNBA Players are COVID-19 Vaccine Champions
Just one month into the 2021 season, all 12 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) teams celebrated being COVID-19 vaccination champions.
By June 2021, 99% percent of WNBA players had been vaccinated—the highest rate so far of any professional sports league in North America.
To reach this impressive milestone, the WNBA recognized that it had to let players take the lead on planning and implementing their vaccination strategy. This player-led approach focused on:
- Understanding players’ COVID-19 vaccine questions
- Conducting early education and open discussions with racially and ethnically diverse medical experts
- Delivering easy to understand and consistent information about the vaccines to players and their families
Many WNBA players are now COVID-19 vaccine advocates ─ sharing what they learned and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
The Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) is the first labor union for professional women athletes. It was created in 1998 to protect the rights of players and help them achieve their full potential on and off the court.
Women of ‘The W’ don’t shoot from the hip. They’re going to stop, get informed, and get their questions answered so they’re comfortable sharing the information with others. They’re not going to be an advocate for an issue until they’ve learned about the issue.
WNBPA’s COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy
The WNBPA’s strategy focuses on helping players make informed vaccination decisions by providing education from multiple trusted experts in a welcoming and open environment. “When we first started out, the goal was to get the players information from the experts,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) and lead on the COVID-19 vaccination effort.
Understanding COVID-19 Vaccine Questions and Concerns through Teammates’ Conversations
The WNBPA’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy was directed by strong player leadership ─ including that of Elizabeth Williams, center-forward for the Atlanta Dream and secretary of the WNBPA. Williams is the daughter of a doctor and nurse who plans to attend medical school after her WNBA career. She was reading vaccine research as early as September 2020, which left her with numerous questions. Knowing she wasn’t the only one with questions, she insisted that the WNBPA hold information sessions with players as soon as possible before misinformation on social media had a chance to take hold. Jackson agreed to schedule a series of Zoom sessions with medical and scientific experts, while WNBPA player representatives (“reps”) led the informal research effort to identify their teammates’ vaccine questions and concerns.
Creating a Safe Space to Talk to Trusted Experts
The WNBPA held three Zoom sessions from January to March 2021 and recorded and shared the sessions for players to watch later. They also created a dozen clips from the sessions to ease sharing. Sessions were held in various time zones to enable those playing overseas to join. Players had their cameras on, were engaged, and actively participated throughout each session. Any question was fair game.
In preparation for the Zoom sessions, the WNBPA created a spreadsheet for player reps to capture their teammates’ questions. From October to November 2020, they called up their teammates across the globe to collect their questions and concerns about the vaccines through informal conversations.
Through these conversations, the player reps collected nearly 60 unique questions ranging from whether the vaccines would impact their fertility (it won’t) to whether the vaccines would change their DNA (they don’t). Jackson shared the spreadsheet with the Zoom panelists before the sessions so they could understand the players’ concerns and address their questions.
“As for the panelists, we searched for epidemiologists, someone connected to the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, obstetricians, mental health specialists, and those with an understanding of Black and Brown communities’ historical mistrust in the medical community. We tried to cover all the bases and address how the pandemic was impacting our communities,” said Jackson.
Recognizing the Diversity of the WNBA
The WNBA is diverse, including women of numerous races and ethnicities, members of the LGBTQ community, and mothers.
The WNBPA recognized the importance of having experts who represented their players in likeness and who could relate to their experiences, genuinely connect with players, and serve as trusted advisors. Of the nine experts on the Zoom calls, two-thirds were women of color.
Women are usually the ‘health officers’ of our families. This is true with many women in general, but specifically in African American communities. Our families look to us to be the decision makers.
Jackson started each session stating its purpose: To inform the players, to help them feel comfortable, and to share the information with their families. The WNBPA invited players’ families to join the Zoom sessions and encouraged family conversations about the vaccines.
From one Zoom to the next, players heard the same answers from different experts. This consistency in information solidified their trust in COVID-19 vaccines.
What made the strategy so effective was “coming to everyone from a place of no judgment in a space where people weren’t afraid to ask questions. And we were consistently given the correct information from medical experts,” said Williams.
Empowering WNBA Players to be COVID-19 Vaccine Advocates
Arming players with COVID-19 vaccine information empowered them; they wanted their communities to see them getting vaccinated and to talk to them about it.
As Black Lives Matter and social justice advocates, players understood that in this pandemic, that meant helping Black and Brown communities understand the importance of getting vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them.
Players were confident in their decision to get vaccinated because they did their homework. They understood what they were putting into their bodies and the benefits the vaccines would provide. Because of this strong understanding, players felt confident answering others’ questions and encouraging them to get vaccinated, passing on the knowledge they gained from the multiple Zoom sessions.
“Take the Shot for the Win” Campaign
The WNBPA partnered with community groups, put out social media posts, created content for players to distribute, and helped facilitate vaccine clinics at arenas and practice facilities. Most recently, they partnered with the Black Women’s Health Imperative and National Council of Negro Women to create the “Take the Shot for the Win” campaign.
“[The] campaign raises awareness that we feel comfortable getting vaccinated and hopefully that helps others feel comfortable as well. This is a way to help reduce people’s mistrust and fear of the vaccines,” said Williams.
Knowledge empowered players to help each other and their communities understand the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine and ultimately get vaccinated. The conversation will continue as the WNBPA is planning Zoom sessions with many of the same experts to discuss vaccine boosters and pediatric vaccines ─ further empowering players to make educated COVID-19 vaccination decisions and be vaccine ambassadors.