Kyrie Irving and the Downside of Player Empowerment

Just asking questions. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA commissioner Adam Silver long ago had an essential insight that is still mostly, and curiously, ignored by other major North American sports leagues. The way to establish labor peace and mutual collaboration in his organization, he reasoned, was to treat players like owners — to understand that everyone in the league was, in their own way, an entrepreneur. When the players thrived, the league would too. The player-empowerment movement has led to long-term labor deals and unprecedented, palpably effective activism. (Much of that activism was initially driven by less financially stable WNBA players.) It remains the NBA’s calling card: We’re the league that values our players.

But COVID has thrown a wrench into the organization’s way of doing business. When your star athletes hold power, there is always the possibility that they, being human after all, will wield that power in the stupidest possible ways — ways that shoot your league right in the foot.

Enter Kyrie Irving.

The Brooklyn Nets star guard has always been a bit of an odd duck. His eccentricity has often manifested in ways that are productive and interesting, like the time he showed up on a Zoom gathering for former Manhattan district attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi, or when he enlisted sports activist John Carlos to question whether playing in the NBA bubble was the most effective use of their time during a summer of social protest. (Sometimes Irving has been less helpful, like when he’s argued the Earth is flat.) It is one thing to push for a league to live up to its promises on social justice; it’s quite another to lead a charge against vaccines using misinformation and tired “I’m just asking questions” rhetoric.

Irving refused to answer questions about his vaccination status during the Brooklyn Nets’ Media Day on Monday, but the fact that he had to participate remotely cleared up any confusion: He wasn’t allowed to attend because he’s not vaccinated. As detailed in a terrific story by Rolling Stone’s Matt Sullivan over the weekend, Irving is part of a loud minority of NBA players who have successfully strong-armed the NBA into avoiding vaccine mandates and the players union into supporting less testing and fewer restrictions on unvaccinated players. There are other players at the forefront of this charge, like the famously conservative Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who spent his Media Day spreading misinformation.

But it’s Irving who’s at the center of all this, for two primary reasons. First, well, he’s Kyrie Irving, one of the best players in the NBA, playing for probably the league’s best team in the largest media market in the country. The more practical reason: If he doesn’t get vaccinated, he can’t play home games. New York City, as of September 13, will ban anyone over the age of 12 from entering “certain covered premises” in the city if they are not vaccinated — and “covered premises” include Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center. The ban does not apply to road teams, for whom the city has granted an exception, but it does apply to Knicks and Nets players. This isn’t a problem for the Knicks, who are 100 percent vaxxed, but it is for Irving and the Nets. If he continues to refuse the shots, he will only be allowed to play in cities that are not New York — an untenable situation, to say the least. (The Golden State Warriors are facing the same problem in San Francisco with forward Andrew Wiggins.) Until those restrictions are lifted — and they certainly could be if the COVID situation improves as the season goes on — the Nets could be without one of their best players for half their games.

Oh, and another thing about Irving: He’s a vice-president of the players union.

For all the talk of Irving being, as one player called him, “a contrarian without a cause,” he’s not that much of an outlier; the NBA may have more of a vaccine-messaging problem than most other leagues. LeBron James, of all people, was publicly hesitant to say whether he’d gotten the vaccine back in May, and Sullivan’s piece details how even some vaccinated players have been sympathetic to those who are resistant or hesitant. The league that built the bubble, that finished a full season of indoor sports during COVID, is facing yet another COVID headache — and it’s being driven by players couching their hesitance in similar player-empowerment language. (“I believe it is your God given right to decide if taking the vaccine is right for you!” Isaac wrote on Twitter Sunday.)

(None of this is an issue in the WNBA, by the way, which boasts a 99 percent vaccination rate.)

The NBA’s 90 percent rate is still much higher than the general population. But the specter of rescheduled or canceled games elevates the stakes. And having players like Irving — with the eighth-best-selling jersey in the NBA right now — spread misinformation causes damage to the league, and the players, in a way that transcends logistics. (The stories out of the various Media Days on Monday were about vaccine skepticism, not basketball.) The real issue, though, is that the NBA attempted to dodge all of this by not requiring its players to get a vaccine in the first place, even though most team staff and all referees have such a mandate in place. And those staffers are pissed: “They need to hold the players to the same standards they hold us,” one strength and conditioning coach told ESPN. “This is a disease that doesn’t differentiate between a player and a staff member.” “Not requiring NBA players to be vaccinated is horseshit,” another coach said.

But angering players is not the NBA’s way. (Or for that matter, the players union, which could have made a mandate happen but didn’t.) The league’s strategy works when you assume that players will make decisions in their best self-interest and, thus, in the best interest of the league. And so far, up until the age of vaccines, that calculus has worked pretty well. But if we’ve learned anything from the last six months of public life, it’s that millions of people will justify all sorts of absurd reasons not to do the right, logical thing — even if, or sometimes especially if, it means being a contrarian without a cause.

In the end, this will all probably work out just fine. Ninety percent vaccination is 90 percent vaccination: The rest of us should feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many inoculated people. And while you can imagine Irving having to miss a few home games at the beginning of the year, there’s no way, barring a more conventional injury, that he won’t be on the Barclays Center floor come playoff time in April. Still, this is exactly the headache the league was trying to avoid. The NBA has ridden player empowerment to new levels of success. But there were always going to be bumps in the road. It turns out that some players using their power to be complete idiots is a pretty big one.

Kyrie Irving and the Downside of Player Empowerment