A St. Paul native is taking on the NBA to prove his rights were stolen when COVID-19 vaccines were mandated in 2021.
Kenny Mauer was a referee for the NBA for over 35 years; he never missed a game. Mauer grew up in St. Paul and was an athlete his whole life. He played baseball for the University of Minnesota and began refereeing high school sports in college.
“I could see myself competing as a referee for the next 50 years as opposed to possibly playing a sport and being done at, what, 32, 34,” Mauer told Liz Collin on her podcast this week.
Mauer did just that. He attended NBA camp at 24 years old, was hired by the minor leagues, and was an NBA employee by 1986.
He loves the game of basketball, its cultural significance, and how it teaches discipline, among many other principles.
Mauer said he was always “kind of a rebel” in his role. He would question why certain rules were changed and the reasons behind those decisions.
So when the NBA began mandating that referees, but not players, be vaccinated against COVID-19, naturally, Mauer asked why.
In March 2020, the season was delayed and then moved to “the bubble,” an area in Walt Disney World where the players and employees stayed to finish the season. Mauer opted to get hip surgery during this time, something he’d needed for a while, and so did not participate in the bubble season.
But he kept in touch with some fellow refs.
“It was a real, real tough couple of months for the people that were involved,” Mauer said.
Besides COVID, Black Lives Matter was reaching the height of its influence over professional sports. Refs who refused to kneel for the National Anthem were “scrutinized, chastised,” Mauer said.
“I believe in black lives, I don’t believe in Black Lives Matter,” he continued. “Now we all know they never gave one nickel to the black community, and shame on them.”
The 2020-2021 season started in December 2020, and at this point, the NBA was allowing unvaccinated referees to test for COVID instead, every day. Mauer was among those who refused the vaccine.
“Sometimes we had to get to a city two days early to test two days before a game, before we went into the arena,” Mauer said.
Then, summer of 2021 brought the worst of it. Refs, fans, and coaches had to be vaccinated, but the players did not.
“If it was about safety and health, why didn’t they mandate the players?” Mauer said.
Mauer’s contract was changed to mandate the vaccine; it allowed refs to say no to the vax and be suspended for a year, and the NBA would take them back if they decided to get vaccinated in that time period. If not, refs could file for a medical or religious exemption.
Seventeen refs voted the contract down, including some pregnant women who refused to get the vaccine, but they lost to 56 votes to keep the contract.
Mauer, a lifelong Catholic and Christian, filed for both exemptions. He’d had COVID already and got through it just fine, he said. He also said he knew about the use of “aborted fetal cells” in the vaccine’s development, which went against his pro-life beliefs.
Both exemptions were denied.
Arbitration with the NBA was an option, but Mauer knew what kind of power the NBA would have in that situation, and a coworker’s experience proved his point.
Mauer and two other refs brought their case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which didn’t respond for six months — until they filed for a right to sue, which was approved.
The case has been in the federal courts since November 2022 and has experienced several delays.
“I think the NBA wants to break me … this is why people don’t do this. They can’t stand the stress or the challenge,” Mauer said.
Mauer also has been trying to access his pension since January, an effort blocked by the NBA, he said.
“They don’t want me to have the money to continue to fight this,” he explained. “I’ve lost a lot of respect for them.”
When players decided not to get the COVID vax, the media did not “tell the whole story,” Mauer said. “I don’t believe anything that I hear or read anymore.”
“It’s not about Kenny Mauer, it’s not about Liz Collin; it’s about people who should have a God-given right to make a decision for themselves,” Mauer said.
He has no regrets in filing the lawsuit and believes he will win.