Well, here’s an NBA face-off we didn’t anticipate this holiday season: NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had words for his equally iconic fellow Laker LeBron James after the latter posted to his Instagram page a version of the popular pointing Spider-Men meme equating COVID-19 with the flu and common cold.
“🤷🏾♂️ Help me out folks,” James captioned the post—which many took to imply that he was unaware the distinct and dangerous differences between the three highly contagious viruses.
Abdul-Jabbar was all too eager to clear up James’ confusion, penning a lengthy online essay debunking any notion that these three illnesses are in any way comparable, and calling out James’ “uninformed” post for potentially putting “lives and livelihoods at risk.”
“LeBron James is not only one of the greatest basketball players ever, he’s committed to being a leader in the African American community in the fight against inequality,” the 74-year-old icon began, “But his Thursday Instagram meme showing three cartoon Spider-Men pointing at each other—one labeled “covid,” one labeled “flu,” one labeled “cold”—with his message: “Help me out folks” was a blow to his worthy legacy. The meme’s implication is that LeBron doesn’t understand the difference among these three illnesses, even after all the information that’s been presented in the press. Well, since he asked, let me help him out by explaining the difference—and how knowing that difference might save lives, especially in the Black community.”
Abdul-Jabbar went on to outline the rates of infection and mortality since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a disproportionate affect on Black communities. Noting that the Black community has been made even more vulnerable by disproportionate vaccine hesitancy, he added: “With 106 million Instagram followers, making such a post is automatically politically impactful because he questions the validity of the efforts to get the country vaccinated. As is evident by some of the comments that cheer LeBron’s post, he’s given support to those not getting vaccinated, which makes the situation for all of us worse by postponing our health and economic recovery.”
Notably, James used research to override his own hesitancy, confirming in September that he “felt [vaccination] was best for not only me, but for my family, for my friends” (h/t People magazine). However, he has remained reticent when it comes to encouraging his vast following to do the same, saying:
“When it comes down for me, I can speak about myself. I think everyone has their own choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their family...But as far as speaking for everybody and their individualities and things they want to do, that’s not my job.”
Okay, fair(ish)—but then why fuel further skepticism about the ongoing danger of contracting COVID-19?
“We’re all for freedom, but not at the expense of others nor if it damages the country,” Abdul-Jabbar posited in a subsequent post (h/t People). “That’s why we mandate seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, car insurance, education for our children.”
As for James, his post remains in place, but the power forward did touch on the controversy on Tuesday night.
“I don’t have a response to Kareem at all,” he said in the press room following the Lakers’ win over the Houston Rockets. “And if you saw the post and you read the tag, you’re literally, honestly asking, ‘Help me out?’ Help me kind of figure it all out. We’re all trying to figure this pandemic out and the new strain.
“I think people forgot about the flu,” he added. “People like literally forgot about the flu during these times like that’s still going around; it’s flu season. People have forgot about common colds...But no, I don’t have any response to Kareem.”
But as Abdul-Jabbar explained in his essay, it’s really not that complicated. “To directly address LeBron’s confusion, no one thinks colds and the flu aren’t serious,” he wrote. “Experts agree that COVID-19 is at least 10 times more lethal than the flu. As for the common cold, death is extremely rare.”
Granted, as previously reported by The Root, the standoff between these two icons is a direct reflection of the ongoing “civil war” within the NBA, as some players insist on remaining unvaccinated even as rates of COVID infection have dramatically risen with the
Omarion Omicron variant. On that, we’ll let Abdul-Jabbar have the final word:
“For those confident that the Omicron variant may not be as harsh as previous variants, it’s important to realize that, while most might come out of it okay, they can still unwittingly infect others along the way—the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, people with respiratory problems—who could end up hospitalized or dead,” he said, adding: “For those pointing out that there are ‘breakthrough’ cases in which the vaccinated contract COVID-19, [it’s] important to realize that they also have lighter symptoms and are at a much less risk of dying than the unvaccinated. The crucial statistic here is this: 98-99% of Americans dying of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.”