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'To hell with you': The reaction and ripple effect of Kyrie Irving's vax choice, and what's at stake

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Expert
14th October, 2021
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By now you’ve probably heard that Kyrie Irving won’t play for the Brooklyn Nets unless he gets vaccinated.

According to a report by The Athletic, the 29-year-old was “upset that people are losing their job due to vaccine mandates” and further, “this is about a grander fight than the one on the court and Irving is challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood.”

Irving chose to not get vaccinated.

ESPN’s Stephen Smith scolded Irving for refusing the vaccine and called his suspension “well-deserved.”

“As far as I’m concerned, the hell with you!” Smith said. “Sit him down, let him stay home, don’t pay him a dime.”

The criticism didn’t stop there.

NBA legend Charles Barkley, 58, questioned exactly what point some athletes were trying to make by avoiding the vaccine.

“For us to be selfish and not trying to help the world get back where we can take these stupid masks off and go out to dinner in a full restaurant, I just think it’s selfish,” said Barkley.

Last week the NBA said that players who don’t abide by regional inoculation laws, they can except a substantial financial loss.

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“Any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in the statement.

Even NBA’s all-time scoring leader and former Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, shared his views with Rolling Stone on unvaccinated NBA players and how they should be banned for the season.

Kyrie Irving.

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

“There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research,” he said.

The past 48 hours has been one endless Twitter scroll about Kyrie Irving’s choice. It’s been relentless. If you type into Google “world wide vaccinations” the number one common question is: ‘Is Kyrie Irving vaccinated?’

The dialogue online has come in waves about how Irving is being selfish and is a bad team mate, and how he’s left Brooklyn hanging out on the line to dry. There’s also thoughts how he’s added himself to the small list of people who are dragging out this pandemic longer by not getting vaccinated. Fans are confused about his stance. His supporters are cheering him on.

The things we know about Kyrie Irving is that he doesn’t conform to popular beliefs or opinions. He can be anti-government. He believes in people’s rights. He can also not have the best interests of his team at heart.

As a philanthropist, he’s helped people in need. The New York Times reported that Irving purchased a home for George’s Floyd’s family, according to former NBA player Stephen Jackson; during the WNBA.’s season in the bubble, Irving started an initiative to give $1.5 million to players who did not participate and would not be paid. And then there’s his K.A.I. Family Foundation — partnered with City Harvest — that donates 250,000 meals in New York.

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As a teammate he’s spent a lot of time appearing disinterested in basketball, and has lacked focus, even though he’s a supreme talent. If you remember last year, Irving missed a handful of games for reasons “unspecified” and when a video surfaced showing him at his sister’s birthday sans mask, it violated NBA health and safety protocols. And then there was the Zoom call he attended for a Manhattan candidate when his team mates were prepping for a match with Denver.

Irving once suggested the Earth was flat. He’s unorthodox. But remember the ring he won with LeBron for the Cavs? He’s an All-Star.

This is the contrasting narrative of Kyrie Irving.

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Irving’s choice doesn’t make him a bad person. Actually, all of these things about him — empathic public crusader and shoddy team mate — can be the same guy. And it just so happens that he believes in not getting vaccinated just as much as the 3.76 billion (credit: NYT) around the world who believe in getting the COVID-19 jab. Not saying it makes sense to the large majority, but it makes sense to Irving.

A lot of people disagree with Irving’s choice — heck, his employer is first in line. Largely because doctors, politicians, scientists, have advised that the only way through this pandemic is the vaccine. Irving’s stance represents pausing the path forward, letting the virus linger longer.

The NBA union stated that 96 percent of the players are fully vaccinated — met with some hesitancy and no active lobbying to get it among the players. LeBron said that is a choice that everyone needs to make for themselves. For what it is worth though, most of Irving’s peers are on board with moving forward. Even the reluctant ones that were against the idea of vaccination, chose to do it for the greater good, and their career: I’m looking at you Andrew Wiggins. Yes, even those guys got the jab.

The New York Times reported that, when asked about whether Irving was vaccinated, Sean Marks, the Nets’ general manager said: “If he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I think that’s probably pretty clear.”

The NBA is seen by many as being the best in the world at supporting its players and leading the charge on social issues like Black Lives Matter and mental health campaigns. So why would Irving, considered a public crusader and perhaps one of the NBA’s most outspoken players, not use his stature to fight for ending this pandemic rather than prolonging it?

It feels like a peculiar stance. When you think about it, the fight Irving is trying to take on is one the US government — at all levels — has been tackling since March, 2020 in all its complexities. This isn’t a job for Kyrie Irving, unless he plans to pay every unemployed American their wages. Maybe he will? None of it makes any sense but it makes sense to Irving.

Like it or not, If Irving decides to not get vaccinated for this season, and forfeits his position on the Nets roster for the 2021-22 season, his decision will leave a trail of tiny cuts that could run deep. And he needs to own it.

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His choice might cripple the Nets in ways we don’t know yet. It definitely hurts their championship campaign. It hurts his teammates — James Harden, Kevin Durant and spare a thought for Patty Mills who just joined the team looking to get in on a deep playoff campaign. Irving’s choice could fracture all of these relationships. It might not. But this is what he needs to brace for.

Irving’s choice will give head coach Steve Nash and his coaching staff headaches that now, one of their blue chip players is suspended. The maddening part from their perspective: this matter has a quick solution.

“Without a doubt, losing a player of Kyrie’s calibre hurts,” Marks, told the public at a presser. “I’m not going to deny that. But at the end of the day, our focus, our coaches’ focus and our organization’s focus needs to be on those players that are going to be involved here and participating fully.”

From afar, it seems like he’s choosing the wrong side of the fight this time, but if there’s anything we’ve all learned during the pandemic, it’s that individuals have the right to make their own personal choices and this is Irving’s choice.

What basketball fans and critics are particularly raw and salty about is that Irving’s decision is deeply personal on an issue that is widely public, global and is about more than just the individual. It affects workplaces, hospitals, families and communities. It’s bigger than Irving.

We’re sure Irving is aware, but as someone who likes to make a public stand for the greater good, he will also have to live out the consequences for being the stand-alone, notable, NBA activist this time and will have to be accountable for making his choices personal as countries still grapple with the pandemic and the death toll of 4.8 million worldwide (credit: WHO) left in its wake.

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If he decides to not play this year he’ll lose about $380,000 per game — he’s choosing that.

If he decides to not play and loses those relationships within the Nets organization and in the NBA — he’ll have to learn to live with that.

As much as Irving has a choice to deny the vaccine, and to make a stand, the Nets — and NBA — have every right to draw their own line in the sand too.

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