NBA

NBA: Kyrie Irving, the covid-19 vaccine and the "plan of Satan"

A Rolling Stone article has lit the blue touch paper in the debate over vaccination in the NBA, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hitting out at anti-vaxx players.

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NBA: Kyrie Irving, the vaccine and the "plan of Satan"
Mitchell Leff Getty Images

After the coronavirus pandemic’s drastic effect on the past two NBA seasons, its influence will continue to be felt this year, as in every sphere of society, but the aim is to return to something much closer to normality: a more typical match schedule (82 games per team in a period running from October and June), fans in the stands and a less notable presence of protocols and controls in the day-to-day lives of the franchises. However, this campaign, 2021/22, is fast on its way to becoming known as the vaccines season.

Or should that be the no-to-vaccines season. A season dominated by the effect such a decision could have, on a sporting level, on a league that hasn’t forced its players to get vaccinated. It has mandated the vaccine for its workers, its referees, employees of the franchises, people who work close to the courts and the teams (TV broadcasting staff, for example)… But not for the players. And not all of them have got the vaccine. That could be a problem, possibly a very serious one, for the NBA… but above all for its teams.

The issue, which has gained in media coverage as the season has drawn closer, has now blown up once and for all thanks to a devastating Rolling Stone article by the acclaimed journalist Matt Sullivan, who has worked for The Athletic, the New York Times, The Guardian and Bleacher Report, and who has published a book on the Brooklyn Nets of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden. Sullivan has access to, and plenty of insight on, the stars of one of the most prominent teams in the growing crisis, one he describes in the following terms in the headline and subheading of his excellent piece: “The NBA’s Anti-Vaxxers Are Trying to Push Around the League - And It’s Working. Conspiracy theories in the locker room. Mask police in the arena. Superstars trying to avoid the shot. After bringing back the culture from Covid, basketball confronts its own civil war.”

As we approach the beginning of the preseason with the opening of the training camps, an issue that has been bubbling away since last season ended is now definitively front and centre. The reporter Shams Charania says 90% of the players have been vaccinated and that this percentage has grown considerably as the official preseason has got closer. And Rob Pelinka, the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager, has declared that the franchise will have 100% of the roster vaccinated by the opening night of the regular season, on 19 October, when the Lakers face the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center. However, there are other teams in which the situation isn’t as clear-cut, and that figure of 90% is below the percentage which, for example the NFL has reached.

Sullivan’s article underlines the NBA’s difficulties in imposing its agenda as soon as players have flown the flag of personal freedom, something which began with the players’ union’s rejection of a blanket vaccination requirement on 7 August. Conspiracy theories, the blind influence of religion and the counter-cultural vision of some of the league’s stars are combining to create a major problem, one that concerns the NBA, given the easy transmission of the Delta variant. Sullivan talks of the horror with which NBA executives explain that Irving, one of the players identified as having rejected the vaccine, and others harbour conspiranoias that talk of a grand plan to control the black population through the vaccine, and of a master computer to carry out “a plan of Satan”. The Moderna vaccine, they say, is used to place controlling microchips in the human body.

Irving’s aunt, Tyki, who runs his foundation and is part of his most trusted circle, spoke to Sullivan, proposing a scenario in which the star skips Brooklyn’s home games amid New York City rules requiring people to be vaccinated in basketball arenas. “There are so many other players outside of him who are opting out, I would like to think they would make a way,” she said. “It could be like every third game. So it still gives you a full season of being interactive and being on the court, but with the limitations that they’re, of course, oppressing upon you. There can be some sort of formula where the NBA and the players can come to some sort of agreement.” The article also quotes Jonathan Isaac, who is well known in the NBA for a radical religious stance that has already seen him position himself opposite the rest of the players as they expressed their support for the fight for social justice in the bubble in Florida. The Orlando Magic forward is another of those who don’t want to hear anything about science. “At the end of the day, it’s people, and you can’t always put your trust completely in people,” he told Sullivan of those developing the vaccines, stating his belief that non-vaccinated players are being unfairly treated.

Thankfully, players who come down on the other side of the argument are making their voices heard, too. The Turk Enes Kanter, who is now back at the Boston Celtics - a franchise which Sullivan’s article points to as one with “multiple players unvaccinated” - revealed that he is talking to players who are reluctant to get vaccinated on religious grounds: “If a guy’s not getting vaccinated because of his religion, I feel like we are in a time where the religion and science has to go to together. I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys - I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’” NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was vaccinated in public to try to raise awareness among the African-American population, has hit out at NBA players who turn down the vaccine. “There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research,” he told Rolling Stone.

A particular problem in San Francisco and New York

While Irving looks to be firmly in the anti-vaxxers camp, Sullivan acknowledges that he hasn’t managed to get clear information on the two other chief stars at the Nets, Durant and Harden, who - as mentioned above - play in a city where the rules on vaccination are stricter. The same goes for San Francisco, a city where the Warriors don’t know what to do with Andrew Wiggins, who continues to reject the vaccine. Like New York, San Francisco requires people to be vaccinated if they are to enter an enclosed, high-capacity venue. That means Warriors, Knicks and Nets players who aren’t vaccinated won’t be able to play home games, a total of 41 out of 82 throughout the season. After the NBA denied his request to be exempted from the San Francisco vaccination requirement for religious reasons, Wiggins is facing a loss of $350,000 for every night he is absent from the court, adding up to a potential overall bill of $15.8m. For his team, it would be a major mess to have him available some days, and unavailable others. It’s a problem that would be even worse in the playoffs, where, what’s more, a covid outbreak could threaten the outcome of a franchise’s season.

Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman published an article a couple of days ago in which he spoke of NBA teams’ concerns over the vaccination issue. A 90% vaccination rate is 15% higher than the average among adults in the US, but it still leaves up to 70 unvaccinated players, he said - an average of around two per franchise. Weitzman, too, notes that this is a particular problem for the Warriors and the two teams from the Big Apple, who wouldn’t be able to field their unvaccinated players in home games. Or for one team from the Big Apple, at least; the Knicks’ general manager, Scott Perry, has confirmed that 100% of the roster has been vaccinated.

At the Nets, the situation is trickier, given that Irving is seemingly one of the average of two who haven’t received a single dose yet. With such a big star under the microscope, it’s a very delicate matter for one of the big favourites for the NBA championship. The Nets’ general manager, Sean Marks, discussed the issue without naming names: "Regarding if they could play today [...], there would obviously be a couple people missing from that picture. I won't get into who it is, but we feel confident in the following several days before camp everybody would be allowed to participate and so forth. I think we all understand what’s at stake. We’ve had very candid conversations.” Unvaccinated players in San Francisco and New York would not be able to play or train when their teams are at their respective bases.

In Weitzman’s piece, an anonymous team executive explains the desperation with which they have watched every strategy fail: they tried to put on talks with scientific experts for players who were hesitant or outright rejected the vaccine; they tried pointing out the ways it will make their lives easier: vaccinated players won’t have to undergo nearly as many checks, will be subject to fewer protocols and restrictions and won’t have to go into quarantine if they come into contact with the virus, as long as they test negative. For the unvaccinated, that period of self-isolation will be seven days, although the NBA is still working out its definitive protocols with the players’ union, and Sullivan says the anti-vaxxers are out to earn concessions such as no testing on days off for the unvaccinated, too, and making social-distancing rules on the road only a recommendation rather than an obligation.

Franchise bosses have also tried the financial route: not being in the playoffs, for example, would deprive players of a significant extra bit of cash and deny them exposure in the most important part of the season, when many big contracts are earned. But nothing has worked on those who remain a steadfast ‘no’. With two days to go until the beginning of the training camps, it’s an issue that is growing in importance and is starting to become a truly serious one for the NBA.