Four years after he challenged social norms and science by admitting he believes that the Earth is flat, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving is once again generating headlines -- and controversy -- with his refusal to get the Covid-19 vaccination, even though he risks losing millions as a result of his stance.
Irving, 29, is part of a group of current NBA players -- which includes Golden State Warriors star Andrew Wiggins, the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal and the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac -- who have chosen not to get vaccinated as the NBA 2021-22 season is about to unfold during the ongoing pandemic. Irving and Wiggins play home games in New York and San Francisco, respectively, and those cities have vaccine mandates in place which Nets and Warriors players must comply with in order to play indoors at the teams’ home arenas, Barclays Center (Nets) and Chase Center (Warriors).
“I’m a human being first. Obviously living in this public sphere, it’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie,” Irving said during a video call with reporters on the Nets’ media day earlier this week. Irving was not permitted to be in-person for the event because of his unvaccinated status.
“I would love to just keep that private. Handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan,” Irving said.
The NBA cannot force players to get vaccinated. Any such mandate would require agreement between the league and the Players Association. (Ironically, the Duke-educated Irving is a vice president on the union’s executive committee). But the league flexed its muscle in another fashion Wednesday, taking aim at the vaccine resisters’ bank accounts.
“Any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement.
Irving earned about $35 million last season and is slated to earn $36.6 million in this, the last year of his contract. Irving earns more than $400,000 per game with the Brooklyn Nets. Wiggins is scheduled to earn $31.5 million this year. For every game Wiggins misses, he’ll forfeit more than $350,000 in pre-tax salary.
Messages sent to the NBPA and executive director Michele Roberts were not returned. But NBA owners and GM's are taking a wait and see approach to the looming conflict.
"Our hope is that our roster that we envisioned earlier this summer is all available for all the games," said Nets GM Sean Marks to SiriusXM NBA Radio. "That's our hope. When it comes to Kyrie, that's a private matter that he's gonna deal with, and we'll address at the right time. But again, we've made our stance pretty clear. I know that New York City has made their stance clear. And it's about us supporting our players and making sure that we're all abiding by those protocols, and out there and hopefully achieving our ultimate goal."
During the Golden State media day Warriors GM Bob Myers said, "In regards to any specific individual's vaccination status, I'm not gonna comment on that. It's personal, it's private. What I would say is that I'm optimistic come the first game here at Chase (Center), we'll have a full complimented team, as far as who's healthy and who isn't. I'll just leave (it) at that."
During the same media session Wiggins, 26, bristled after fielding numerous questions about his decision to refuse the vaccine, opting for an age-old tactic of blaming the media.
“I’ll say something when I’m ready. The only thing the media has done, is kind of make it bigger than it has to be,” said Wiggins. “I work on my time.” (The NBA denied Wiggins a religious exemption).
Beyond the threat of losing salary, however, NBA players who have decided against the vaccination have already opened themselves up to public scorn and verbal scolding across the country and around the world -- whether it be NBA Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scathing remarks in a Rolling Stone interview, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez using a parliament session to seemingly criticize Irving or New York City mayor Bill de Blasio pleading for the Nets star to get the vaccine.
“I'm a fan of Kyrie,” de Blasio said in a CNN interview. “I would just appeal to him, get vaccinated. Your fans want to see you. We all want you back. Your teammates want you back.”
Abdul-Jabbar, 74, the NBA’s all-time leader in points scored, vented in a Rolling Stone interview that the league “should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team.”
And while Willis Reed said Abdul-Jabbar’s suggested punishment is a bit “extreme,” the Hall of Fame Knicks center advocated that everyone -- the NBA community and beyond -- should be vaccinated, regardless.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a medical issue. I think if you’re going to be in contact with people, you need to be vaccinated,” Reed, 79, told NBC News. “I’ve had all of my shots. And I’m not doing anything! But I want to make sure I’m protecting myself and everyone I’m around. The shot, it don’t hurt but a little bit.
“The vaccination has been very successful in America, and around the world. I don’t know why it’s got to be a controversial situation. But it turned out to be that. And that’s unfortunate,” Reed added. “Vaccination is the key thing that everyone should do.”
Former NBA greats voicing their opinions may be one way to effect change, but the league is not getting the same outspokenness from some of its biggest current stars, like the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, a former teammate of Irving’s in Cleveland.
“As far as speaking for everybody and their individualities and things they want to do, that’s not my job,” James, 36, said during the team’s media day.
Dr. Scott Braunstein, the medical director for Sollis Health Los Angeles, and who has been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, said he was concerned why players like Irving would still be resistant to getting vaccinated at this stage, when the U.S. coronavirus death count is nearing 700,000.
“Obviously, it’s very concerning, because whether you want to be or not, these NBA players are looked upon as role models,” said Braunstein. “Players have a lot of exposure, and you’re putting all these people at increased risk if you’re not vaccinated. Players sometimes have a sense of invincibility. Athletes in the prime of their careers, they may feel that’s a reason not to get vaccinated. But these players aren't seeing what we’re seeing -- young, healthy men and women on ventilators, or experiencing long-haul Covid symptoms. That sense of invincibility is not helping matters.”
Irving eventually apologized to science teachers in late 2018 for his earth-is-flat beliefs, but in 2021, he is making no such overtures. It remains to be seen whether he’s in a Nets uniform October 24, the team’s home opener against Charlotte.
“Obviously, I’m not able to be present (at team media day),” Irving said on the video call. “But that doesn’t mean that I'm putting any limits on the future for me being able to join the team. And just please respect that, my privacy.”