In much the same way the pandemic has made clear certain unbecoming personality traits of your friends and neighbors — how exactly do you go back to smiling in the school pickup lane at a parent you now know won’t wear a mask in the freaking grocery store? — it has also minted some new villains in the world of sports. The most obvious example is Aaron Rodgers, who went from social-justice advocate and beloved Jeopardy! guest host to divisive cultural warrior after refusing the vaccine and blatantly lying about it to the media and fans. Sports got the sort of buy-in on vaccines — the WNBA was 100 percent vaccinated by June 2021 — that would have been the envy of every hospital in the country. That made it easier to mock the few athletes who were publicly skeptical or resistant of the vaccine, from Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley to New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, as outliers. I’ll confess: It was fun to point out to my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old sons that they were brave enough to get a shot and Rodgers wasn’t.
But as much pleasure as we might derive from dunking on the likes of Novak Djokovic, who allowed Rafael Nadal to pass him as the all-time leader in majors titles because he doesn’t believe in modern science, we have reached a juncture where penalizing vaccine holdouts has become less about public health and more about punishment for the sake of punishment. And at this point, it’s not just the usual vaccine-skeptical dead-enders making this point. Last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who wanted a vaccine mandate for his league’s players but couldn’t get the players association to agree, said on ESPN that New York City’s rule barring Irving from playing games in the city, either in Brooklyn or at Madison Square Garden, “doesn’t make sense to me.”
The law in New York … the oddity of it to me is that it only applies to home players. If ultimately, that rule is about protecting the people in the arena, it just doesn’t make sense to me that an away player who’s unvaccinated can play in Barclays while the home player can’t. To me, that’s a reason they should take a look at that ordinance. … my personal view is that people should get vaccinated and boosted, I can imagine a scenario where Brooklyn, being part of New York City, with a new mayor now who wasn’t in place, Eric Adams, when that original ordinance was put in place. I could see him deciding to change along the way and say it’s no longer necessary to have a mandatory vaccination requirement, particularly one that only affects home players.
Mayor Adams, for what it’s worth, says he agrees that the rule is “unfair,” but says he’s unlikely to change it because it could send “the wrong message.” While you can understand his thinking — having Irving back to playing full time might signify a total return to normalcy that he might not entirely want his city’s residents to fully embrace just yet, at least not officially — it does not amount to a solid justification. I’m as irritated by Irving, Djokovic, Rodgers, and the like as you are. But I also don’t quite get why they can’t play.
Let’s look at Irving’s situation. The NYC restrictions, keep in mind, do not ban unvaccinated players from playing in New York City. If Michael Porter Jr. or Jonathan Isaac — two other high-profile unvaccinated NBA players on teams other than the Nets or Knicks — visited MSG or or Barclays this year, they could play with no problem. (It is a coincidence that both are out with injuries for the rest of the season.) It’s only unvaccinated players employed by NYC teams, a group that currently comprises only Irving, who can’t play home games. It’s a bizarre rule, when you think about it. If Irving played for any other team in the NBA other than the Warriors (who must comply with San Francisco restrictions) or the Raptors (who must comply with Canadian ones), we would never talk about his vaccination status at all.
But it’s really about more than that. Because Irving is unvaccinated, he is tested regularly — though the NBA has stopped saying just how regularly. This distinguishes him from his inoculated brethren, who are no longer tested unless they show symptoms. You know every game Irving plays that he at least recently tested negative. You can’t necessarily say that about vaccinated players, who, as we’ve known for quite a while, can spread COVID too, if less easily than the unvaccinated. Kyrie could conceivably be one of the safest players in the league to have on the court.
And that’s not even accounting for the dramatic fall in cases over the last month, nationwide and especially in New York City. As Silver said in his interview, “Being here in the New York market, feeling it particularly in the last week, many of the masking restrictions are being lifted. You can feel it in the city.” As more and more restrictions are being lifted, what, exactly, is being accomplished by keeping this one? One that the mayor himself admits isn’t fair.
So if this wave of COVID is receding rapidly, and Irving is still getting tested enough to ensure that he couldn’t pass on the virus to any of his (overwhelmingly vaccinated) fellow players, , what is the point of keeping him out of the stadium, exactly? Just so we can laugh at him? Adams’s supposed rationale — that he wants to model good behavior for the rest of the city — sounds good, but we seem well past the “vaccine-hesitant people will be persuaded by the consequences unvaccinated athletes face” stage. On Wednesday, Adams indicated that he was ready to turn the page:
The case of Djokovic, who, for all the frustration with Kyrie, has been an infinitely more infuriating anti-vaxxer, is not that different. Yes, Djokovic either lied about having COVID-19 or participated in a photo shoot after testing positive — either one pretty bad, though the Australian authorities deserve plenty of blame for the way things shook out. Djokovic has now said he won’t play in Wimbledon or the French Open if they require vaccination. (Like Irving, he’s currently hamstrung by government regulations rather than his league’s: Some of the countries hosting his tournaments aren’t letting unvaccinated people across the borders at all.)
As tempting as it is to say “Sounds good!,” one still has to wonder what keeping the best player out of the biggest tournaments is supposed to do, particularly if he’s tested during the proceedings, which he would be. It doesn’t keep any other competitors safer. It doesn’t slow the spread of the already-slowing virus. It doesn’t encourage anyone who hasn’t gotten shots to get one. All it does is punish Djokovic.
Which, again: I get it. Screw that guy! But is Schadenfreude a good enough reason to keep this policy afloat? It’s very possible that, by May, there are no longer vaccine requirements to enter sporting events in New York City. Surely Kyrie can play in the playoffs then, yes? How about September, with the U.S. Open and Djokovic?
Watching Djokovic play in a major after all the chaos his vaccine hesitancy has caused would be annoying (it’s already somewhat annoying that he’s playing in a lower-level tournament), as would seeing Irving lead the Nets in the playoffs. It would feel like they got away with all their bullshit. But sports has moved on from COVID, as the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game have made clear. The rest of society — even the cautious slice of it — is headed that way too. So maybe it’s time to let the unvaccinated athletes do the same. Know that it hurts me as much to say this as it hurts you to hear it. But it’s true.