Kyrie Irving Is Not the Real Villain Here
In the absence of federal vaccine mandates or a league-wide stoppage, the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets are just trying to make the best out of a terrible situation.
Those foolish enough to form a unified theory of Kyrie Irving have spent a decade getting outfoxed by a mercurial weirdo, but I, writer Corbin Smith, believe that I have cracked the code. Kyrie Irving is, first and foremost, a pain in the ass. It is the only constant thread throughout his career.
Sometimes it befuddles. He won a title with LeBron in Cleveland, the first in that city in more than 50 years, and instead of looking to a future where he could take another whack (or three) at it, he demands a trade out of town where he could seek a different form of validation with the Celtics. Then he told people he believes the Earth is flat, which was pretty weird. Sometimes, It kicks ass: like when he emerged as a central figure in the effort to get the NBA to dedicate the COVID-19 bubble playoffs to the Black Lives Matter movement, or when, after falling out with the Boston Celtics and their roster full of children, he returned to New England, whooped their asses in the playoffs, and stomped on their logo’s creepy face at midcourt.
Sometimes, Kyrie is just your standard pain in the ass. This year, even though he plays for the Brooklyn Nets, one of the NBA’s top title contenders, Kyrie’s been benched for the entire NBA season on account of his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19. There are some other NBA players who have opted out of getting a safe vaccination that prevents the acquisition and spread of a deadly disease that’s killed millions around the world, but Kyrie is the only one who has the good fortune of playing in New York state, which mandates that anyone stepping into a basketball arena provide proof of vax.
He’s been fairly quiet about his terrible decision, although some recent scuttlebutt has suggested that he might be willing to get a plant-based vaccine that is currently in development. Kyrie is such a massive pain in the ass that he doesn’t even give humble writers the gristle to pigeonhole him as a particular type of anti-vaxxer. He’s Schrodinger’s basketball player: always moving even when you try to observe him in a controlled environment. There are no conclusions to come to about him. He’s just Kyrie, doing Kyrie shit.
As he sat and the season went on without him, the Nets developed a COVID problem bigger than Kyrie. This week, most of their team has tested positive for COVID-19. Outside of Kyrie the squad is vaccinated, of course, but immunity is imperfect and doesn’t last forever, and being an NBA player living on the road and playing in front of a ton of different people every night in a country that has treated vaccination as a cool accessory instead of the absolutely necessary primary weapon in the fight against communicable disease, makes you a hot target for an opportunistic virus.
Without any players to stick on the floor, the Nets are fielding a truly insane team: Blake Griffin, now a respectable role player, and veteran Aussie combo guard Patty Mills led a team that also featured three rookies and three guys signed to 10-day contracts. It might be the worst one-game roster ever by a legitimate NBA title contender. On Saturday night, this motley crew lost to the 6-25 Orlando Magic. If you want to see Robin Lopez toss in some hook shots over Blake Griffin, brutally undersized at the center spot, please click here.
Staring into a fatty two-week void in the middle of their triumphant title run, the Nets have opted for a desperate move: they have activated Irving, still unvaccinated, to play the half of games they play on the road. He still needs to sit out a week to clear COVID protocols, but he’ll be on the court soon in a random Midwest city near you. Irving doesn’t get to join their team immediately—being that he is unvaccinated and hasn’t been undergoing testing on account of his absence from the team, he’s been placed in COVID protocols until he registers five negative tests on consecutive days.
Nets GM Sean Marks told reporters that “...the overall environment has changed, as we all know, drastically.” This is true on two counts: the Nets are more screwed than they were before, and the Omicron variant appears poised to send a whole new insane COVID wave crashing into America’s battered, brutalized society. “Several months ago, we made a decision that was based around what was best for the team. What was best for the team at that point was continuity. And I think we all see that continuity right now over the course of the last week and whatever the future looks like may be out of the window for a while, and we’re going to navigate that as best we can.” In short: when we first did the right thing, we weren’t fucked. But now, you see, we’re fucked, so… we’re gonna do something pretty stupid.
Almost immediately after the decision on Irving was announced, Kevin Durant, currently in pole position for NBA MVP, tested positive for the virus.
Marks and the Nets organization are being irresponsible. By any rational epidemiological measure, Irving should have to sit until he’s vaccinated. But it’s hard to observe this situation and not come to the conclusion that the Nets are also being, well, pragmatic. They are incentivized to win games. They need players to make that happen. All their normal players are sitting in empty rooms somewhere. One player they can play isn’t, at least not yet, and there is no rule against playing him, even if he is a one-man superspreader event waiting to happen.
This week, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-frequent-testing-mandate for companies with more than a hundred employees. The mandate has widespread support among major medical organizations, and is generally regarded as the useful thing the executive branch can do to grind the spread of COVID-19 to a halt. The mandate, which is supposed to go into effect in January, was originally suspended by the Fifth Circuit on a legal challenge brought in part by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association that represents the interests of retailers across the United States.
The NRF insists that they’re OK with the mandate in the abstract, but that they would prefer it start in February, after the holiday season and the yearly orgy of shopping it creates. The labor market is tight, they need all the employees they can get, and they can’t be expected to deal with mandates or weed out anti-vaxxers right now, they argue. Macy’s CEO Jeff Genette tried to sell the company’s perspective to the Times: “We have a lot of stores that have a lot of openings, and any ruling that we have to mandate those colleagues be vaccinated prior to Christmas is just going to exacerbate our labor shortage going into a really critical period for us.”
Of course, Macy’s is opting to play a dangerous game. By letting unvaccinated employees work their floors during their highest-trafficked period of the year, they’re inviting spread, particularly among less vaccinated populations across the country. It’s an act of pure epidemiological malfeasance.
But, like the Nets forced to play Langston Galloway in December, Macy’s and other retailers are fucked. Every incentive at play demands that they do everything they can to navigate this economic climate as stably as they possibly can. To them, it doesn’t matter if the spread of COVID will be buoyed by their desperate need to acquire any warm body that can sell a peacoat; their function is to sell pea coats, and no one can change that. They are not a rational epidemiological actor any more than the Nets slumping through a different sort of midseason crisis in employment are, or Kyrie and his primal urge to be a pain in the ass is. Every decision companies are making right now is the Scorpion and the Fox: we cannot depend on people to make decisions for themselves. The second they realize they’re a little bit fucked, they’ll sting us and we’ll all drown, because it’s in their nature.
The problem here isn’t Kyrie or the Nets or Macy’s. It’s the U.S. government, which has chosen the path of least resistance from the second the FDA broadly endorsed vaccinations for all adults back in August. At that point, federal mandates should have made life become unconscionably difficult for anyone who chose to opt out of a safe and effective means of managing the biggest, thorniest, deadliest crisis of our generation. Any legal challenges could have happened as early as possible, so that we wouldn’t go through another cold season in the mire of yet another outbreak. People whinging in front of courthouses about “personal liberties” that actually haven’t existed since the 1970s should have been told to kick rocks. The U.S. government was the one institution that could have made it happen, blown through the BS, and do what needed doing, and they opted to be gentle to salvage some political sway over the vaccine-hesitant that they wouldn’t have had anyway. You can accuse the relevant actors of doing the wrong thing in the absence of a national unified front, but what’s the point? They’re just agents of profit, or whatever Kyrie happens to be on that particular day. You can’t depend on their better natures.