Kyrie Irving has become the center of the NBA universe as his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine makes him ineligible to play home games or practice with his Brooklyn Nets team. The franchise responded by stating that it won’t allow Irving to participate in team activities until he’s vaccinated, and Irving finally broke his silence after weeks of speculation over his motives.
First, The Athletic wrote a story explaining how Irving believes he’s the “voice of the voiceless” for people forced to take the vaccine to keep their jobs. Then, he took to Instagram Live in a meandering, 20-minute speech: “It’s not about being anti-vax or about being on one side or the other. It’s about being true to what feels good for me.”
Irving’s Live did nothing to dispel the notion that he misunderstands who is actually voiceless and refuses to understand that criticism and fact-checking are vastly different consequences from persecution.
Much of Irving’s career has been defined by his off-the-court ideologies. Sometimes criticism of him has been valid, such as the ridicule he received for his comments questioning whether the Earth is flat, which he later apologized for. Other times, the criticism has been ill-informed, like those who mocked Irving for burning sage in Boston’s TD Garden arena before a Nets game, something he did as part of his Native American heritage.
But the pushback over his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination as hundreds of Americans are dying per day is warranted. Yes, Irving has control over his own body, but his decision, when it becomes a public health concern, is open to criticism.
“If I’m going to be demonized about having more questions and taking my time to make a decision with my life,” he said, “then that’s just what it is.”
But Irving isn’t being demonized for his belief. He’s facing appropriate ramifications for perpetuating a public health crisis. This isn’t an example of someone punished for being a freethinker.
Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for years for his anti-war beliefs. Colin Kaepernick has been essentially blackballed from the NFL for trying to bring attention to police brutality (a belief, I might add, that he expounded on in great, astute detail many times in news conferences afterward). This is what happens to freethinkers who want to also help get us free. Irving is merely parroting the thinking of the anti-vaccine sector. And he’s being celebrated for it by the same people who have attacked the activists I just named.
It’s a group that includes Donald Trump Jr., who said Irving has sacrificed more than Kaepernick. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wants Irving traded to the Houston Rockets. And a gaggle of Fox News hosts are praising Irving for bucking a system of mandated vaccinations that they themselves follow.
These are powerful people who use their anti-vaccine mandate positions to influence a large swath of Americans, who then take to school board meetings, social media, vaccination sites and anywhere else in the country they can impose their beliefs.
And yet, Irving, who says he is thinking on his own here, is following their script, being cheered on for that harmful rhetoric and then complaining that he’s being victimized by the rightful pushback.
You know who is actually voiceless? The line cooks who were forced to show up to work to feed their families. The older adults in assisted living facilities who died while a plague tore through their rooms. The workers in meatpacking jobs. The incarcerated in superspreader facilities. These people are the voiceless. These are the people Irving is betraying.
As I wrote last week, the act of getting vaccinated is a true social justice issue, and one can’t proclaim to put Black lives first by refusing to stem the tide of a disease that kills more Black and brown people per capita than anyone else. Epidemiologists have said this. Activists have said this. People who are doing the work to get Black folks free are urging people like Irving to get vaccinated. His cause is contradictory to the notion of supporting the most vulnerable among us.
Irving has shown himself to be a compassionate individual who cares about those in need. He spent $1.5 million of his own money to supplement WNBA players’ salaries. He helped build a solar water center in Pakistan. This is why this controversy is all the more frustrating. Irving is more than capable of doing better. His refusal flies in the face of every charitable and socially conscious issue he’s undertaken. While he may want to be known as a freethinking man for the people, Irving is laying the foundation for a legacy of dangerous anti-intellectualism. It is making him a hero to the people he thinks he’s fighting against, and an impediment to the people he wishes he were fighting for.