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The Kyrie Conundrum

Kyrie Irving’s stance on the vaccine is a complicated and not very fun thing to talk about, because it’s a story in which two individually messy subjects intersect in compoundingly messy ways   

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

OK. Here we go. [Sighs heavily, puts head in hands.]

No, seriously, we need to do this. [Slowly lowers head to desk, leaves it resting facedown.]

Sorry—sorry—I’m ready, just give me one second to—[Slides out of chair, curls into fetal position on the floor.]

Let’s talk about Kyrie Irving.

If you’re an NBA fan, you’re probably familiar with the latest twists and turns in what, with an apology to the epic bards of old, we might as well call the Kyrie Irving saga; in case you’re not, let me bring you up to speed real quick. About 14 billion years ago, in the moments after the Big Bang, the universe began to behave in ways consistent with what we now know as the laws of physics. Over the succeeding eons, huge clouds of particles coalesced around stars and formed planets—and because gravity pulls uniformly in all directions, these planets were roughly spherical in shape, or, as human beings would say billions of years later, “round”…

No, wait. My mistake. That’s a different Kyrie Irving saga. The current Kyrie Irving saga is about the COVID-19 vaccine. He doesn’t want to get it. New York City’s vaccine mandate stipulates that he can’t play in home games if he doesn’t. His team, the Brooklyn Nets, after a bit of dithering, has declared that the seven-time All-Star won’t practice or play “until he is eligible to be a full participant,” meaning, I guess, until either he gets vaccinated or New York changes its law. His teammates, including All-Stars Kevin Durant and James Harden, are understood (by the people who understand these things—whoever they are) to have supported this decision.

Irving’s motives for refusing the vaccine and possibly losing out on around $17 million in salary while possibly torching the championship hopes of a team he was instrumental in assembling are, like many things about Irving, a little tricky to pin down. To go by a mishmash of anonymous comments reportedly from people close to him and a dizzyingly incoherent statement he released on Instagram, he’s not anti-vax so much as uncomfortable with vaccine mandates in general. It’s hard to be sure, though, because this clear, if possibly misguided, protest position has been jumbled in among a lot of vague rhetoric about how he’s doing what’s best for his body, and how no one will ever take away his voice, and how this isn’t about one side versus the other, and so forth. I have no idea what’s going on inside Irving’s mind, of course—that’s part of the problem—but it’s easy to look at the messaging from his camp and conclude that he himself is not quite sure why he’s doing this, or that he’s attracted to the idea of taking a stand without being excessively clear on the specifics of the stand he’s taking.

An anonymous source told The Athletic earlier this week that Irving wants to be “a voice for the voiceless,” meaning, I guess, people who had lost their jobs after refusing to be vaccinated. This quote gave rise to some funny tweets to the effect that, sure, all the great voices for the voiceless throughout history have declared their intentions through the medium of the unnamed spokesperson. But the thing is, even if you take the statement at face value, people who are opposed to vaccine mandates are not “the voiceless” in America. They have numerous voices. Their voices include one of our two major political parties and our most widely viewed television news channel.

I’m still curled up on the floor, by the way. Irving’s vaccine holdout is a complicated and not very fun thing to talk about, because it’s a story in which two individually messy subjects intersect in compoundingly messy ways. The first messy subject—see the above—is Kyrie himself: obviously one of the smartest and most thoughtful players in the NBA, also one of the most grandiose and whimsical. How do you make sense of someone who combines great moral courage with a tendency to talk himself into self-evidently loopy positions?

Irving’s fiercely individual worldview, his eccentricity, and his unapologetic commitment to his beliefs have always seemed to go hand in hand with the idea of the NBA as a league that put its superstars above everything—above teams, above outdated norms of the sport, sometimes above the game itself. The same sense of outsized agency that allowed Irving to walk away from LeBron James’s shadow and maneuver his own superteam into being in Brooklyn has also allowed him, at times, to call the NBA’s social and political foundations into question. But wielding that kind of influence also confers an obligation not to use it frivolously, and it’s there, on the “don’t blow up basketball to take a messianic stand over a couple of weird memes you saw on Facebook” front, that Irving runs the risk of going awry.

It was impressive when he pushed for the league to cancel the 2020 bubble season in the name of racial justice. But now that same instinct for standing on principle is leading him to … insist on his right to play basketball … in a public space … where there’s a higher chance to infect an at-risk person with a potentially fatal virus … even though he is not personally opposed to the vaccine that could defeat this virus … but only determined to preserve his “voice”? Really? The Nets are set to pay him more than $18 million in the coming season even if he sits out every game. I like Irving and want to understand this from his perspective (help me, Kyrie!), but it’s extremely easy right now to see him as a powerful, coddled person who’s confused his own quirks for a compelling argument.

The other messy subject here, of course, is the problem of legal vaccine mandates themselves—New York City’s, but also President Joe Biden’s private-sector mandate, which Biden promised on Thursday would take effect “soon.” And I know, I know, it’s 2021 and we all know what side we’re on, but ideologically, legal vaccine mandates like these are a sack of eels; the cases for and against them are a lot more tangled than our current state of polarization would imply. Events have shaken out in such a way that the default position on the right is to be anti-mandate and the default position on the left is to be pro-mandate, but it takes no effort at all to imagine a world where each side took up the opposite position. A conservative case for mandates would look a lot like the case conservatives made for, say, the Patriot Act—something like, “in the face of a grave threat, we must give up a little freedom to protect our nation.” And the liberal case against mandates is so obvious that it’s the case conservatives are now literally making, having co-opted, with a kind of giddy hypocrisy, “my body, my choice” rhetoric from the left.

Our accepted schools of political language, which deal broadly with the rights of individuals and the powers of the state to curtail those rights, are simply not very well adapted to a realm of invisible pathogens that can be transmitted unconsciously and by accident. I have the right to own a gun, a libertarian might say, but not the right to shoot you with it; do I have the right, under that construction of freedom, to infect your body with a microbe that I spray into the air every time I exhale? The state, an old-school liberal might argue, has no legitimate power to compel me to inject a mysterious liquid into my arm; am I still entitled to refuse, under that construction of freedom, if my refusal might plausibly hurt, even kill, other people?

Probably the most fascinating thing about Irving’s holdout is that it brings those same ambiguities to bear on the stars-first, individualist conception of the NBA. Players on Irving’s level are used to a world in which they can ignore, to a great extent, the restrictions that constrain other people. Their contracts are more like suggestions. Tampering rules? It was just friends having dinner. Traveling? I took only four steps! But the pandemic tests the limits of that unrestrained freedom, which suddenly becomes a public-health hazard if it flaunts COVID-19 restrictions. To an extent, then—first with the bubble and now with Irving’s soft ban from the Nets—we’re seeing the reassertion of the organization over the star.

For many of us, how we feel about vaccine mandates is probably less a function of theory or philosophy and more an outgrowth of our established dispositions toward the virus. If we’re in the habit of taking COVID-19 seriously and supporting aggressive measures to combat it, then mandates look perfectly reasonable; if we’re in the habit of dismissing the virus as an overhyped invention of the media, then we’re quicker to see mandates as an example of authority run amok. I’m OK with mandates, for the abstruse reason that I think they’ll lead to fewer people dying—but would I still feel this way if, say, President Trump were pushing the vaccine on national-security grounds and the ACLU was defending people’s right to refuse? Would I be as likely, in that scenario (which, again, is not at all far-fetched), to trust the science? I don’t know.

I can’t prove this, but I suspect some of the overblown certainty and anger surrounding mandates has to do with this feeling, the apprehension that our language isn’t adequate to the moment. Our explanations of our positions have some weird gaps; there are places where they sound eerily like the other side’s explanations, and that subliminal confusion is stressful, particularly in a climate in which our political affiliations are a major component of our identities.

And in that sense, Irving’s not-quite-anti-vaccine protest seems like just about the most unhelpful message a public figure could put into the world at this moment. It’s a discourse bomb: It will generate a frenzy of conversation, but because Irving’s own statements about his intentions are so muddled, it will neither clarify the situation, nor change it for the better, nor serve as a model for making better choices. It will only exhaust us, and make us want to lie down on the floor.

I mean, what is he doing? He’s giving anti-vaxxers an icon—a wealthy, famous elite who shares their reluctance to get the shot—without making a cogent case against mandates. He’s raising the vague specter of danger around vaccines—“Why would this elite athlete refuse them,” your uncle will bellow at Thanksgiving, “if he didn’t know something?”—without offering any details to evaluate or argue. His actions benefit no one but conspiracy theorists, not even Irving himself.

If he wanted to show moral leadership on an urgent public-health issue, he should have spent his energy urging his followers to be vaccinated voluntarily before mandates were even on the table. If he wanted to offer a protest against a perceived injustice, he should have thought carefully about what to say and tried to say it clearly from the beginning.

Well, maybe I’m wrong to think he cares about showing moral leadership or protesting injustice. I almost hope I am—because whatever leadership looks like, whatever protest looks like, this tedious, reactionary incoherence isn’t it.