Kyrie Irving becomes NBA’s anti-vaccine face

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, an NBA champion and seven-time All-Star, has become the face of a vocal minority of prominent NBA stars voicing their hesitancy toward the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The All-Star guard, who serves as vice president of the players union that blocked the NBA’s effort to impose a vaccine mandate, has sparked backlash from health experts and basketball legends by refusing to get vaccinated.

It’s a stance that could cost Irving games and money, since New York City requires proof of vaccination to attend large indoor events. That rule would include players performing before fans at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

The NBA confirmed Wednesday that salaries will be withheld from players who do not play because their unvaccinated status does not allow them to do so given local ordinances. That could cost Irving half his $34 million salary for Brooklyn’s home games alone.

It could also cost the Nets, Las Vegas’s favorite to win the NBA title this year, a title.

Yet Irving, an NBA iconoclast know for irreverent views, has shown no real sign of backing down.

“Obviously I’m not able to be present there today,” Irving told reporters on Zoom during the Nets’s media day, which he was unable to attend due to the city’s vaccine rules. “But that doesn’t mean I’m putting any limits in the future on my being able to join the team.”

In an interview with CNN this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) confirmed that the Nets star won’t get special treatment. 

“We have a rule that has to be applied, whether you’re famous, whether you’re not famous, you know, whether you’re an everyday working man or woman — get vaccinated because that’s what makes us all safe,” he said. 

“I’m a fan of Kyrie,” de Blasio added. “I would just appeal to him, get vaccinated. Your fans want to see you. We all want you back. Your teammates want you back.”

Besides the home games, Irving could miss two games in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden and one game in San Francisco, which also has an indoor vaccine mandate. He stands to lose roughly $400,000 for each game he misses.

Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai told the New York Post on Thursday that he hopes his star point guard will be vaccinated, noting that the Nets have “championship aspirations” this season. 

“What is our goal this year? What’s our purpose this year? It’s very, very clear: Win a championship,” Tsai said. “And the championship team needs to have everybody pulling the same direction.”

Ninety-five percent of NBA players are fully vaccinated — up from 90 percent late last month — despite the lack of a mandate from the league. That’s already a higher rate than the MLB and the NFL, which have had more time to get players vaccinated. 

But discussion around the upcoming NBA season has centered around the relatively small pool of players who have refused to get vaccinated. Many of them are stars, including Irving, Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac and Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. 

Irving drew the most attention after he liked an Instagram post from a user who baselessly claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine implants microchips as a part of “a plan of Satan.” The conspiracy theory quickly spread to other locker rooms in the league, according to a report from Rolling Stone. 

In the same report, Irving’s aunt, Tyki, said he and other anti-vaccine players might purposely skip games to protest NBA rules. It also found that Irving declined to wear a mask during a visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, of which he is a member, against the community’s guidelines.

After the NBA unveiled COVID-19 protocols last month requiring unvaccinated players to wear a face mask in some settings, Irving tweeted, “My mask is off. Now take yours off. No fear.” He later tweeted that the cryptic message was a metaphor and did not have anything to do with the league’s COVID-19 rules. 

Several NBA legends criticized Irving over his COVID-19 comments, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, two of the game’s all-time greatest players.

“I took the vaccine because I’m not trying to get my mother sick, or my sister or my brother or people around me … sometimes you have to think about the overall picture and you have to think about more than yourself,” O’Neal told USA Today in an interview.

The widespread coverage of Irving’s position has alarmed public health advocates, who fear it could drive his fans to reject the vaccine.

“It’s extremely disheartening to see people with massive platforms abdicate the duty to help inform the public about the best ways out of this crisis,” said Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative. 

Public health experts feel that not enough players are actively countering statements from the vocal minority of anti-vaccine players. Many in the field were just as disappointed when Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James confirmed that he is vaccinated, but said he wouldn’t advocate for others to get the shot, calling it a personal decision.

“I can understand the allure of appearing apolitical in the midst of a polarized conversation, but we lost the potential there for many people to receive information from someone who they look up to who has gotten vaccinated,” Yasmin said. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) weighed in on Twitter on Wednesday, stating that he stands with Irving and the NBA’s other vaccine holdouts in opposing vaccine mandates.

The son of a former professional basketball player, Irving was born in Melbourne, Australia, and began his rise to basketball stardom in his home state of New Jersey. Irving has dazzled fans with his wizardry at the point guard position on his way to seven All-Star nods and an upset win over the heavily favored Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, in which he drilled the go-ahead three-pointer for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Controversy is nothing new for Irving, who previously came under fire in 2017 for falsely insisting that the Earth is flat. One year later, Irving apologized to science teachers who told him that his viral conspiracy theory had caught on with some of their students. 

Irving, nicknamed “Uncle Drew,” also made headlines for missing several Nets games last season due to personal reasons and for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols by attending a private indoor party.

Still, Irving has the respect of players around the league for his vocal social justice activism. 

Amid unrest across the nation over the death of George Floyd last year, Irving said that he didn’t approve of restarting the NBA season and would rather spend the time pushing for reform. Irving purchased a home for Floyd’s family and released a documentary with rapper Common about the police killing of Breonna Taylor.  

Irving also donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who wanted to sit out the 2020 season that was interrupted by the pandemic and social unrest.

“Whether a person decided to fight for social justice, play basketball, focus on physical or mental health, or simply connect with their families, this initiative can hopefully support their priorities and decisions,” Irving said in a statement at the time.

Tags Bill de Blasio Brooklyn Nets Coronavirus COVID-19 NBA Ted Cruz

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