It’s tempting to gloat a little.
After all, the Brooklyn Nets have called Kyrie Irving’s bluff. Following weeks of cajoling and coddling and respectful nodding about the all-star point guard’s "personal views" when it comes to refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the organization that is on the hook for his $35.3 million salary — only to be faced with prospect of having him work part-time — finally said "enough."
If he doesn’t want to play by the rules of the land — and in this case, not the team’s rules, not the NBA’s rules, but the rules that everyone else in New York City (and several other municipalities) must live with — he can just stay home.
In New York City you need proof of vaccination to enter indoor gyms — including Barclays Center, the home of the Nets, and Madison Square Garden, the home of the Knicks. There was some wiggle room when it was determined the Nets' practice facility was a private business and thus exempt, raising the spectre of Irving practising with the team and playing road games other than visits to The Garden.
But in the end the Nets decided that, for all of Irving’s gifts, it wasn’t worth the trouble. If he wasn’t willing to sacrifice for them, they weren’t going to accommodate him either.
“… 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 said Tuesday afternoon in a written statement. “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. It is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice.”
Editor’s note: With overwhelming consistency, research has shown vaccinations against COVID-19 are safe and effective. Residents of Canada who are looking to learn more about vaccines, or the country’s pandemic response, can find up-to-date information on Canada’s public health website.
In an age where those with sufficient fame, talent and means can seemingly make the rules up as they go along, you must admit it’s kind of refreshing when someone in that category finally hears the word "no" and there’s no way around it.
It’s like seeing someone in a Ferrari get a speeding ticket.
It’s also the right thing to do. At their root, basketball teams are no different than the societies that surround them: they function best when those within the group accept that small sacrifices and inconveniences make things better for the whole.
There’s no need to get into what kind of justification Irving has arrived at for choosing not to be vaccinated.
If you’re the charitable type and you twist yourself into enough knots you might be able to finds some measure of respect for Irving, who – to this point – seems willing to stand on principle even in the face of some significant financial penalties, pressure from his employer and peers.
But it all unravels under even the barest scrutiny. The key to being a martyr, hero or person of principle is that you sacrifice something of yourself for the greater good. People who make a stand that runs counter to those values are some combination of selfish, misinformed, or complete jerks.
Irving seems like he might be somewhere in the middle. He's interested in big issues and causes, it appears. It was evident in his reported reluctance to the NBA resuming the 2019-20 season in the bubble while much of the U.S. was in the early days of the pandemic and, simultaneously, the midst of a nearly unprecedented summer of racial unrest. It surfaced again when he left the Nets last season for two weeks, a period in which he threw his weight behind some progressive, grass roots political organizing.
On this front, good for him: more of us should strive for a more purposeful day-to-day.
But potentially cratering your team and perhaps your career because you won’t be vaccinated in the middle of a pandemic that is still roiling in many parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world, often in places where the availability of vaccines is a just a rumour?
There are other issues in the world that someone like Irving could put his time, money, and fame behind. This isn’t it.
Related reading: The NBPA needs to step in and save NBA anti-vaxxers from themselves.
Like most healthy young people, chances are being vaccinated isn’t going to be the difference in whether Irving recovers from COVID or not if he’s unlucky enough to get it.
Certainly, there are always exceptions and the risks to elite athletes from the aftereffects of a constantly evolving virus aren't yet fully known. But if Irving’s playing the odds and calculating what’s best or most convenient for him, skipping the jab probably falls under the category of "tolerable risk" for himself.
But here’s the thing, and where the Nets are right to leave Irving at home.
The reason for Irving and people like him to be vaccinated isn’t so much for their own benefit, it’s for the benefit of those around them and people that they’ll never meet. More vaccinations means less people will be infected, or those that do will have significantly reduced chances of a severe outcome. It means hospitals will be less burdened dealing with COVID patients and have more capacity to deal with people who are merely sick or injured. It means healthcare workers can return to a more typical workload and that the vulnerable among us have a little less to worry about.
Being vaccinated – especially if from a population category that is otherwise not at high risk – is a small act of civic courtesy. In a properly functioning society, we should feel excited to have the privilege to make a small personal gesture that – when repeated often enough – provides untold benefits for those that truly need the consideration.
It is – quite literally – taking one for the team.
Defining what a great team is in the NBA can be a bit of a challenge at times. It’s a sport where the individual can hold sway in a way they can’t in most other games. But teams that win titles always find the balance between great players forcing their will onto the game while knowing how to inspire others to excel on the margins or create the room for them to shine.
Famously, Michael Jordan found a wide-open Steve Kerr to clinch a title and Chris Bosh gave up a little of himself so that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could shine as Miami won back-to-back titles. Kawhi Leonard didn’t know he needed Fred VanVleet to win a championship in Toronto until it was almost too late, but he figured it out and the Raptors had the best parade in league history.
Kyrie Irving has won an NBA title – hitting one of the most pressure-filled shots in league history along the way. He’s a basketball genius and – to these eyes – one of the most pleasing athletes I’ve ever been lucky enough to watch play anything. The way he moves and shifts and slithers is more like performance art than sports.
But the stance he’s chosen doesn’t only put his own interests above the Nets, he’s putting his own interests ahead of the more than 14 million New Yorkers who have had at least one dose of the vaccine, the rest of his vaccinated teammates, the 95 per cent of NBA players who have done their part and the hundreds of millions everywhere else who have rolled up their sleeves and the billions who desperately wish they could.
It’s a team game. That Irving is facing consequences for not wanting to play really isn’t something to gloat about – even if it feels good for the moment.
But after that? It mostly makes you sad.