kyrie irving

The Brooklyn Nets Caved

Kyrie Irving.
Kyrie Irving, still unvaccinated. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

For months, the fate of the Brooklyn Nets’ 2021–22 season seemed fatally dependent on the whims of Kyrie Irving, the star point guard who opted out of getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and, by extension, out of home games in New York.

The team’s initial position was that if Irving wouldn’t get vaccinated, he wouldn’t play. His refusal made him eligible only for road games in places that didn’t require proof of vaccination, which would’ve been unfair to his teammates and undermined the precept of the NBA’s preseason vaccine push: that the league takes COVID seriously and anyone who doesn’t get vaccinated is willfully endangering others.

It was naïve, in retrospect, to think this was sustainable, especially after the Omicron variant swept through the league this winter and sidelined more than 100 players and coaches. Irving’s teammate Kevin Durant, arguably the NBA’s premier offensive talent, missed a nationally televised Christmas Day matchup. Several teams have resorted to filling roster holes with G-league players on ten-day contracts. One result is that this year’s NBA has been a diminished entertainment product with the biggest players absent from some of the biggest games, a dynamic that shows no clear signs of abating under the league’s current COVID protocols.

It was probably a matter of time before someone decided it wasn’t worth it — that weird NBA basketball was worse than whatever might happen if too many players or staff got sick. After some deep soul-searching and even deeper profit-margin calculating, the Nets have decided that Irving will make his season debut on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers.

The Nets were doing well without Irving, it’s worth noting. After a rocky start, punctuated by an October home loss to the Charlotte Hornets on the same day that anti-vaxx protesters tried storming the Barclays Center with signs that read “Stand With Kyrie,” they’ve climbed to within striking distance of the Eastern Conference’s top spot. Even without their star guard — who previously seemed essential to their long-term success — they looked like strong candidates for an NBA Finals appearance. All it took was a new COVID variant and wave of infections for the team to realize that near-certain glory was only a sharp reversal of pandemic-safety principles away.

The shift was especially dramatic for its lack of pretense. No one is even pretending like the decision to let Irving play is about anything more than competitive advantage. Nor has the fact that he received a positive or inconclusive COVID test less than 24 hours after the announcement prompted the team to reconsider.

The fact that the decision doesn’t require Irving to do anything differently, including getting vaccinated, isn’t a unique indictment of the NBA or its franchises, though. The NFL has performed all kinds of logical gymnastics to keep anti-vaxxers on the field. (Fake vaccine-card acquirer Antonio Brown, who seems to have finally lost his roster spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after taking off his shirt, throwing it into the stands, and leaving the stadium in the middle of a game this weekend, is probably the most glaring recent example.) In fact, Irving aside, the NBA has been exceptionally good about getting its players vaccinated despite their labor union, the National Basketball Players Association, rejecting a mandate. The most recent reported rate is 97 percent.

What the Nets’ decision seems to illustrate instead is a broader attitude toward the role of COVID in daily life. The pandemic continues to rage in the absence of anything resembling full-scale cooperation on bringing it to heel. In localities nationwide, priorities have shifted, generally speaking, from beating the disease to learning to live with it. Precaution is only as tenable as profit and personal convenience dictate.

It’s a form of surrender, to be sure. But it’s mostly possible because so many people have done their best to make sure COVID isn’t killing way more people than it is. We’re in the midst of the pandemic’s most contagious strain yet, and widespread vaccination has mitigated the death count considerably. Were fatalities or hospitalization more certain, Irving might be branded a walking moral catastrophe. Instead, he can punt the work of getting vaccinated to others, wait until everyone gives up trying to change his mind, then resume his regular activities — which have the added benefit of earning him millions of dollars — with the full-throated support of the same Nets organization that, mere days earlier, had tacitly maintained that his behavior was too dangerous to expose others to.

We should get used to such exceptions if we haven’t already, as the NBA’s most obstinate anti-vaxxer takes the court this week. And as the U.S. COVID death count ticks steadily toward a million, it remains confoundingly unclear whether this country can survive a deadlier test of the inclination of some of its citizens.

The Brooklyn Nets Caved