Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving has become the face of the National Basketball Association’s struggle to get all of their professional players vaccinated against Covid-19. “It’s just about the freedom of what I want to do,” said Irving in an Instagram Live, attempting to justify why he hasn’t taken the vaccine.
He isn’t the only NBA player to not take the vaccine, with Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. also saying that he had Covid twice and has an idea of what it does to his body but couldn’t say the same for the vaccine.
He can’t play. New York rules state that he can’t play or practice in the state professionally until he gets one of three vigorously tested vaccines at hand in the United States of America.
The Nets tried many ways to accommodate Irving’s demands. They moved their pre-season practice 3000 miles away to San Diego where Irving took part in training. They successfully managed to get the Brooklyn Nets facility to be designated as a private office building, thus allowing Irving to be a part of proceedings. But eventually, the Nets gave up.
“Given the evolving nature of the situation and after thorough deliberation, we have decided Kyrie Irving will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant,” Nets general manager Sean Marks wrote in a team statement issued Tuesday morning. “Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose. Currently the choice restricts his ability to be a full-time member of the team, and we will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability.”
Irving’s max deal with the Nets means his salary for the year of 2021-22 was set to be $35 million. Because he can’t attend away games due to his vaccine status, this cuts his salary down to $17 million for this year. This number is subject to change if he takes a vaccine or New York changes its laws. Irving would have had to lose out on more money had the Nets themselves not ruled him out.
Irving has forever been known as one of the most eccentric players in the NBA. In 2017 Irving famously revealed himself as a flat earther and said, “I do research on both sides,” he said. “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 according to the Washington Post. “At the time, I was, like, huge into conspiracies,” he said. “And everybody’s been there.”
This move on his part stems from the mandate – the term that has been demonised as something that takes the freedom of the individual away by the state. ‘Once again, I’m going to repeat this. This is not about the Nets, this is not about the organization, it’s not about the NBA, it’s not politics,’ Irving said. ‘It’s not any one thing,’ Irving said.
According to a report in the Rolling Stone magazine, Irving had liked posts where a conspiracy theorist said that the vaccines were a way to connect Black people to a Master computer ‘for a plan of Satan’. The article also states that the theory gained plenty of traction among NBA locker rooms.
Why hasn’t the NBA tackled the problem of misinformation among their ranks?
For a league that has placed the bedrock of their business on science, the NBA’s failure to communicate with their players has led to these problems. And they must look no further than their sister organisation to see how it was done.
By June 2021, the WNBA announced that they had achieved near total vaccination (99%) among the league’s players. They achieved this feat by communicating with the players union and letting the union lead the way forward. By allowing every player in the league to hear why a vaccine was required by their peers, the WNBA created a safe atmosphere for doubts and fears to be allayed.
“I think that was what made players comfortable, to be honest,” says Dream forward Elizabeth Williams, who was one of the player leaders of the vaccination campaign, according to Sports Illustrated. “If the league were to mandate it and we didn’t feel like we knew enough about it, I don’t think people would have gotten vaccinated. But because as player leadership, we were saying, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity to ask all these questions and not feel bad about it’—I think that was kind of what made people feel more comfortable, not feeling that extra level of pressure.”
How did the NBA’s player union act on the refusal of certain players to take the vaccine?
Irving serves as the vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union. Therefore it is no surprise that the union de-facto tried to block NBA’s attempts to dock pay from players who refused to take vaccines.
Michele Roberts, the union’s executive director, said that the league withholding pay should a player not get himself vaccinated, is something that they were not willing to accept. “They’ve been reporting that we’ve agreed that if a player who was not able to play because of his non-vaccination status, they could be docked [pay]. We did not agree. The league’s position is that they can. We’ll see. If we get to that point, we’ll see,” said Roberts.
“We were against mandatory vaccination because the union’s membership appreciated that, given all the information, that players would make the best decision for them,” Roberts said. “And 95/96% said, ‘I want to be vaccinated.’ We’re still working towards 100%.”
Players like LeBron James and Draymond Green have publicly spoken out against mandatory vaccinations, calling them a ‘personal choice’. Washington Wizards’ All-Star Bradley Beal has yet to take the vaccination and has questioned it’s efficacy and its side effects. Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins initially said that he was not going to take the vaccine for religious reasons but then made a u-turn and got jabbed.
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