Kyrie Irving strode into Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, earlier this month, waving at his teammates and fans on the way to his courtside seat like an unabashed aunt late for a middle school graduation. The image of an NBA player having to purchase tickets in order to watch his own team play illustrated the confusing and backward state of the COVID-19 protocols.
Irving was barred from playing in the March 13 game against the New York Knicks — and any games that took place in New York or Toronto — due to his continued refusal to get vaccinated, which was a requirement to play in those cities. On Thursday, New York City mayor Eric Adams exempted athletes and performers from the city’s workplace vaccine mandate effective immediately, allowing Irving to return to play in home games.
Under the previous mandate, Irving’s refusal to be vaccinated caused him to miss more than half of his team’s games (Brooklyn is 30-23 without Irving and 8-12 with him), alienated teammate James Harden to the point that he left the Nets and went all the way to Philadelphia, and put the Nets, who opened the season as an NBA Finals favorite, on a crash course for the play-in tournament. Yet, while Irving has skated on his social responsibility to get vaccinated and help bring an end to a two-year pandemic, the change in the mandates and protocols defanged New York’s public health responsibility.
If the city of New York doesn’t appear to take COVID-19 seriously, then why was Irving not allowed to play?
During the Knicks game, Irving’s former teammate LeBron James, who himself is an imperfect spokesman for anything COVID-19-related, tweeted that it makes “ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE” that Irving wasn’t allowed to play in home games.
And James was absolutely right. The protocols and mandates are completely nonsensical if fans and visiting players can be unvaccinated and/or maskless in New York, while Irving was forbidden from playing or sitting on the team’s bench.
Don’t misconstrue this, though. Irving should absolutely be required to be vaccinated against a disease that has claimed more than 975,000 American lives. He should absolutely be barred from playing in games until he gets the shot like 97% of the league has. But due to the concessions New York City has made over the past few weeks, we currently live in a society that prioritizes convenience over public safety.
Which is what you can parse from Nets forward Kevin Durant’s comments after the Knicks game, when he accused Adams of just wanting “some attention” by refusing to lift the private business mandate keeping Irving out (Durant later backtracked on his comments).
But Durant misplaced his anger. It’s Irving who wants the attention.
Irving made the big to-do about not playing in the bubble two summers ago to keep attention on the protest movement, yet has gladly played since then even though the issue of police brutality remains unresolved.
It’s Irving who makes spectacles of rudimentary things — burning sage to cleanse the court at the Boston Celtics’ arena caused by Irving’s very own bad vibes. It was Irving who got on Instagram Live last fall and rambled on for 20 minutes about how he doesn’t understand how he’s become the main character of his own movie, even though he’s the one who didn’t get the shot when nearly every player in the league has. And it’s Irving who, when asked about his culpability in his inability to play in home games, responded that “there’s no guilt that I feel.”
That’s the anti-vaccination creed: Center yourself as the victim while accepting no personal responsibility.
His reasons for not getting the shot have been more shifty than his handles. He presumably received shots in the past to attend K-12 in New Jersey or move to the United States from Australia. And he hasn’t claimed, like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, that he’s allergic to any of the vaccine’s ingredients, or that he’s a toddler.
He has said his reluctance was about standing in solidarity with those who lost their jobs due to vaccine mandates. New York City lifted most of its vaccine and mask mandates two weeks ago and many other cities lifted their restrictions weeks and months ago — or never had work requirements in the first place.
But it’s also about him not being allowed an exemption to play in home games and being “put in an F’d-up situation.” Or he remains unvaccinated because “this is about my life and what I am choosing to do.” Or it’s that he “cares about the world.”
Not enough to get a shot 6-year-olds are eligible to get, apparently.
That all being said, we all need to drop the act. America is closing in on 1 million lives lost to COVID-19, more than 1,000 people a day are still dying from the disease, and we’re dealing with the effects of the rampant widening of wealth inequality from a two-year pandemic, yet many Americans have already decided that the pandemic is over.
If, in some places, vaccine and mask mandates are lifted, capacity limits are eliminated and mass congregating isn’t discouraged, then what’s the point? Rules without enforcement are mere suggestions.
Irving and those who oppose vaccinations have won. Like a high school basketball team up late in the final period, the unvaccinated ran out the clock until they were no longer obligated to take the shot, no matter how many jobs or how much money it cost them. They rode the coattails of the vaccinated all the way to the finish line, meanwhile complaining and violating any and every health protocol along the way. (While courtside on March 13, Irving was not wearing a mask.)
Some anti-vaccination believers subscribe to such crackpot theories as the vaccine will steal your DNA or kill you, and yet the vaccinated were brave enough to take that supposed risk, for any number of reasons: to protect themselves, protect their loved ones, a sense of community responsibility or merely a desire to finally be able to sit inside at Red Lobster again.
At one point, Irving compared himself to Muhammad Ali in his willingness to risk his career for his beliefs. But aside from the obvious, Irving never actually risked anything other than a few game checks; the Nets encouraged Irving’s foolishness the second they backtracked on not allowing him to be a part-time player this season.
Would the decision to let the unvaccinated run amok undermine all the lifesaving protocols put in place over the past two years? Of course, but so has states lifting restrictions as early as April 2020.
So has allowing unmasked and possibly unvaccinated spectators into crowded arenas while players like Irving aren’t allowed to play.
A segment of America gave up on the pandemic long ago, so how can it criticize Irving for doing the same? Either every fan in an arena is vaccinated and masked — and properly distanced from strangers — or none are. Policies like those that were in place in New York were created to encourage — some would say force — people to get vaccinated, but they became toothless when the unvaccinated could just decide not to participate and still be allowed the same freedoms as those who fulfilled their civic duties.
The fact that Irving can efficiently score 50 and 60 points at relative ease, as he did in two games in March, is a reason to want to see him in as many games as possible. It’s wrong that he skirted responsibility this whole time by refusing to get vaccinated. But New York has been just as irresponsible in holding up its end of the bargain. Irving should have been able to play, not for basketball reasons but because the rules were in place for reasons other than the health of New Yorkers.
I could have asked, What’s the worst that could happen? But that question has already been answered.