This isn’t the first time Irving has courted controversy. But the skepticism he and other holdouts have propagated and the wishy-washy stances even some of their vaccinated colleagues have taken, are worth addressing seriously — and not just for what they say about the fight against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The best way to show respect for athletes as political actors and philanthropists is to push back when they’re wrong — especially when the stakes are this high.
Irving plays for the Brooklyn Nets, and the city of New York mandates that Nets players be vaccinated before they can play in their home arenas. Irving is the only stubbornly unvaccinated Net. Since he would have to sit out roughly half the team’s schedule, Nets management has wisely decided it’s best he not play at all.
A performative iconoclast, Irving posted an I’m-the-victim justification on Instagram Live. “It’s bigger than the game,” he said. “I came into the season thinking I was just going to be able to play ball. . . . Why are you putting it on me?”
Cue the violins.
I don’t respect his “choice” at all. As for why we’re “putting it on” him, we are battling together to defeat a highly infectious virus that has killed more than 720,000 Americans. We have a trio of safe and effective vaccines that slow the spread of the virus and confer miraculous protection against serious illness and death. Irving’s choice threatens not just his own health but also, should he be infected, that of his fellow players, his coaches and trainers, the referees who call the games, and the fans who come to see the Nets play.
Irving clearly understands the privileges that come with his stardom, including the ability to get millions of people to listen to whatever he has to say. A few years ago, he drew worldwide attention by claiming, with a straight face, that he believed the world is flat. “I do research on both sides,” he said in 2017. “I’m not against anyone that thinks the Earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate.”
He later apologized. “At the time, I was, like, huge into conspiracies,” he said. “And everybody’s been there.”
That’s precisely the problem. Far too many Americans are “huge into conspiracies,” and it is deeply irresponsible for famous athletes to encourage them to go down the anti-vaccine rabbit hole.
When James criticized President Donald Trump in 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham said he should just “shut up and dribble.” She was wrong, of course. Athletes have every right to use the megaphone their fame gives them to speak out on issues they care about.
And I believe they should be treated as though their views matter — which means pushing back when they say things that make no sense or are harmful to society. The vaccination rate among young adults and teenagers — Irving, Beal and James’s target audience — is much lower than it should be. They’re hearing a catastrophically mistaken, perhaps deadly message.
Many vaccine skeptics insist they are doing their own “research,” as though they have medical degrees and are experts in virology and epidemiology. Irving has none of these qualifications; neither do James nor the other players who are withholding their voices from this vital campaign. Clearly, it is important to him to assert his individuality. But there are occasions — such as wartime — when individual rights are outweighed by collective duty. We are at war with the virus that causes covid-19, and we have suffered far more casualties in this 20-month battle than in World War I and World War II combined.
I do so love watching Irving play. At just 6-foot-2, tiny by NBA standards, he has the uncanny ability to score from anywhere on the court, even in the paint surrounded by shot-blocking giants. Playing alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden, he seemed destined to win a championship and perhaps help make the Nets into the NBA’s next dynasty.
Not until he’s vaccinated, though. He’s right about one thing: This is, indeed, “bigger than the game.”