by Wyatt Camery
[originally published October 2021]
It’s that time of year again, folks. No, I’m not talking about Halloween. I’m not talking about syllabus week. Heck, I’m not even talking about pumpkin spice season. The NBA season is upon us and everyone (believe me) here at the Grape is thrilled. But like the start of our academic season, the pandemic continues to bring uncertainty to the basketball season. Over 90% of NBA players have been vaccinated, yet a few players are still holding out on receiving their first shot. LeBron James, a perennial face of the NBA, only announced he was vaccinated on September 28, and didn’t exactly encourage others to get vaccinated, framing it as a personal choice. Other notable players, such as Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal and Orlando Magic poward/small forward Jonathan Isaac, remain unvaccinated. The most significant player to remain unvaccinated after the beginning of NBA preseason is Brooklyn Nets starting point guard Kyrie Irving. One of the league’s top players on one of the league’s top teams, Irving has a history of giving voice to conspiracy theories, like the Earth being flat. Simultaneously, Irving’s activism has ranged on the selfless and humanitarian side, expressing support for those demonstrating at the Dakota Access Pipeline, pledging money to WNBA players who sat out the pandemic-interrupted season, and among many other generous actions, he has been a constant and vocal supporter of issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. In addition to all this, he has even starred in a feature film, Uncle Drew, inspired by a series of commercials he shot for Pepsi Max. And on the court, the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, among other accolades, is a 7x All-Star, NBA Champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and won Rookie of the Year in 2012.
Irving plays in New York, one of three cities with NBA teams, along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are the three cities with NBA teams to have issued mandates requiring proof of vaccination before entering buildings. New York, where Irving plays and practices with the Nets, requires proof of only one shot to enter arenas and other facilities. Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors (which is based in SF) remained one of the last vaccine holdouts in the NBA after being denied religious exemption by the league, but got vaccinated over the weekend, stating “the only options were to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA.” Not playing in the NBA is not the only consequence players are facing now. Irving faces a pay dock of $380,000 per game. Only a seemingly hefty fee, this accounts for a little over 1% of his salary. I would imagine if he continued to sit out because of his vaccination status, the fee would increase, but if that is the rate per game, Irving could miss all 41 home games this season and still make nearly $18 million, which is, as the New York Times says, a “substantial loss” to his expected income, but I think Irving will be alright with that $18 million (minus tax).
All this follows in a long line of the issue of the increasingly complex role of professional athletes in our society. The job of an athlete goes beyond practice and play: they are celebrities, spokespeople, employees, and artists, one might argue, all at once. With this, athletes must reckon with the responsibility of a far reaching platform, and lots of fans, especially younger people, look up to them. This generation of NBA players looked up to a generation who weren’t known for their leadership or activism, but for their intensity and fierce competitiveness on the court. Today, star athletes have a new spotlight on them, and although it's one they may not have asked for, it's one they inherited when they got lucky enough to achieve financial and statistical success in the field of their passion. Typically, athletes embrace this platform and use it to promote progressive ideals (and of course, many times quite the opposite). Yet, in such a divisive political climate, it must be stressful to have to grapple with constant scrutiny over anything one shares, especially since sports fandom typically brings together both ends of the political spectrum. This difficulty is only exacerbated by the ease with which athletes can communicate to the world. I think athletes and other celebrities alike deserve privacy and to be treated decently; however, when anyone with a voice as loud as theirs chooses to use their name to promote false and potentially harmful ideas, they should be censured.
Through his actions on social media, Irving’s social stature has been co-opted by the anti-vax movement to promote misinformation. In fact, NBA players are a safe bet for conspiracy theorists to harness since they are less likely to be banned from social media than other influencer types. Unfortunately, Irving has avowed indisputably false and dangerous opinions. Typically outspoken players such as Irving and James have now begun to make claims for privacy and individual choice only when it comes to the vaccine. As human beings, their claims to privacy are valid. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka who have made strides for the recognition of athlete’s mental health and personal well being off the court. They have sat out competitions, putting their own needs and inner struggles ahead of the game. Despite the controversy, they are human just like you and me. But Irving and James’ wishy-washiness when it comes to the vaccine is hypocritical. To reiterate, these two players have undeniably done plenty of positive work for various communities all while earning themselves spots in the basketball pantheon. Yet their choice to not speak out and support what is safe for just about everybody is not a personal choice. It affects family, friends, teammates, and anyone those people interact with, and again, anyone who looks to them as trustworthy. James has embraced the “Shut Up and Dribble” controversy, spinning it into a series on Showtime highlighting Black athlete’s achievements off the court and their right to speak out on social and political issues. But where is his voice now? For those who haven’t (yet) read my pieces on the NBA, I am a proud New York Knicks fan, so I would be delighted to see the Nets falter without one of the best ball handlers ever (oh, they still have Harden and Durant? I guess they’ll survive...), but if it shuts up vaccine-efficacy deniers and conspiracy theorists, I think I’d be just as happy to see a ring on Kyrie’s finger and a banner at the Barclays Center.