The business of sports relies on unwritten scripts. For all those who profit from the games we watch, the optimal state of affairs is for things off the field of play to remain as predictable as possible, even as the on-field product stays deliriously unpredictable. Players and coaches tend to speak in clichés, beat reporters and cameras dutifully record them, organizations and corporate partners issue vague paeans to commitment and tradition and sportsmanship and, of course, winning. If you’re a sports fan, you’re likely so used to all this that it’s boring when someone even points it out.
But every now and then, something comes along that disrupts these scripts so dramatically that it seems to throw every premise of this carefully manicured universe out of whack. In recent weeks, this is slowly but surely what has been happening to the Brooklyn Nets, whose superstar guard, Kyrie Irving, has steadfastly refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, despite being employed in a city that will not allow him to take the court until he does so. NBA talking heads speculated on Irving’s “availability” in the same way you’d speculate on an injured player’s availability, despite the fact that Irving was holding himself out of at least half his team’s games on unexplained principle. (There was much speculation that perhaps he would be permitted to only play road games.) Irving’s teammates spoke of respecting his privacy and his right to make decisions, as though this particular decision wasn’t potentially catastrophic to a team constructed under the premise that anything less than a championship is an existential failure. And the Nets’ front office and the NBA itself mostly buried their heads in the sand, intoning vague assurances that they’re confident everything will work out.
Then, this past Tuesday, the dam finally broke, and the Nets announced that Irving was, effectively, no longer a member of the team for as long as he remained noncompliant with New York City’s vaccine protocols. It’s worth pausing to reflect on just how bizarre this all is: Imagine an injured player who could return to play instantly with an extremely simple medical procedure, and yet the player refused the procedure, for reasons he refused to explain. That is essentially what’s happening here. There are many other NBA players who have been deliberately cagey about their vaccine status—league sources claim 96 percent of players are vaccinated, although there’s no way to confirm this—but Irving is the only player who plays in a city with a vaccine mandate who continues to refuse the shot. (New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all require proof of vaccination to attend large indoor events like basketball games.) There seems to be no endgame here other than Kyrie’s desire to make a point, except he’s been deliberately opaque on what exactly that point is, and what he hopes to achieve with the attention he has commanded.
Kyrie Irving has never been a typical NBA player, talentwise or otherwise. He is a land of contrasts. He has spent most of his career playing point guard, often believed to be the most selfless position on the court, yet perhaps no other NBA player of his generation has been as subject to accusations of selfishness. Irving clearly loves the game of basketball—you simply do not become as good as he is without that—but he often seems profoundly ambivalent toward the profession of basketball, to a degree that has increasingly caused onlookers (myself included) to wonder if he might simply up and leave the game.
Perhaps most maddeningly, Irving seems to resent the responsibilities of fame at the same time that he seems addicted to being famous. There are plenty of superstar athletes with little use for fame—Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers, for instance, often seems like he would rather hug and kiss some poisonous snakes than sit for a postgame press conference. But Leonard is consistent and seemingly genuine in his reclusion; Kyrie scorns “the media” but relishes attention, hence his penchant for just-asking-questions provocations, his public video chats, his puckish, poking-the-bear social media posts. Kyrie loves being famous but wants to be famous entirely on his own terms, which isn’t how fame works, and continuing to insist that it should work that way is self-centered by definition.
This tendency also leads to some jarringly incoherent messaging, especially when it comes to a matter as serious as the one Irving (and, it must be emphasized, everyone else) is currently facing. Until Wednesday we’d been led to believe that Kyrie’s refusal to join his teammates was rooted in a desire to become a culture warrior in the crusade against workplace mandates. Irving’s aunt recently gave an interview to Rolling Stone that was riddled with anti-vax talking points and referred to Anthony Fauci as “Dr. False-y.” A story in the Athletic earlier this week quoted a source close to the guard speaking on Irving’s desire to be “a voice for the voiceless,” an absurd claim for a number of reasons, not least of which being that Irving himself had thus far refused to speak on the matter.
But then Wednesday night Irving popped up on Instagram Live to provide his own perspective, steadfastly insisting that his decision was “not a political thing.” “I chose to be unvaccinated, and that was my choice, and I would ask you all to respect that choice.” He also repeatedly emphasized that he respects doctors and all those who’ve chosen to get vaccinated.
Liberty and morality in the United States don’t map neatly onto each other, which is by design. We all have the freedom to make personal choices; sometimes those personal choices come with consequences and sometimes they don’t, but simply making a choice isn’t an inherently morally defensible act. If, during a pandemic, your choice is to refuse to get a vaccine that would help protect yourself, your co-workers, and all those around you, a choice that will negatively affect the lives of those who work for the same organization as you, other people have the right to view that as a selfish act and one that’s worthy of criticism.
Irving is a player who frequently insists that many things in this world are more important than basketball, and he is unquestionably right. His record of activism, community engagement, and charitable work is exceptional among many of his peers, and truly admirable. I was deeply sympathetic to Irving’s argument back in the summer of 2020 that the NBA’s “bubble” plan to return to play would distract attention and energy from the protests and activism that many players were participating in, and I was disgusted when anonymous league sources essentially smeared him for raising those concerns.
But sowing vaccine paranoia isn’t more important than basketball, certainly not when so many of the communities you purport to care about have been disproportionately ravaged by COVID-related deaths. Thus far Irving’s vaccine refusal has led him to be celebrated by the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and assorted Fox News personalities. Irving might prefer to see himself as a Muhammad Ali–like hero of conscience, but the people currently lionizing him are the sort of people who, in 1967, would have clamored for Ali to be imprisoned. Irving’s not obligated to disavow the full-throated support of Sen. Ted Cruz—a cynical opportunist who stands in opposition to nearly every cause Irving believes in—but not doing so is a personal choice, too.
All of sports’ most well-worn clichés involve wanting to play: I want to be there for my teammates, I just want to help the team succeed, I’m just trying to go out there and have fun/silence the doubters/win championships. Throughout his career, Kyrie Irving has had a tendency to buck these conventions, but never so spectacularly as he is now, when he is asserting his right to individuality by not showing up for his team. There are no clichés for that, and while his teammates continue to express their support in public, it’s hard not to wonder if out of our earshot they are calling it what it is.