The Brooklyn Nets and their star player, Kyrie Irving, have continued an awkward dance this week: Irving doesn’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and Nets leadership desperately doesn’t want to keep him off the court long term. He can't play in New York due to local mandates, though, and the team is unwilling to let him play part-time. Meanwhile, the leading lights of the anti-vaccine movement are eagerly keeping tabs on the battle, clearly hoping Irving will be the figurehead for the battle against vaccine mandates they’ve been waiting for.
Irving has become the biggest COVID vaccine holdout in the NBA, but hasn’t outlined the specific reasons for his refusal. An incredibly embarrassing piece of stenography in The Athletic this week attempted to “clarify” his stance by speaking to people “with direct knowledge” of Irving’s decision-making. (These people sounded a lot like they work in public relations and were trying to spin his decision in a way that would not put the phrase “anti-vaccine” in headlines next to Irving’s name.) Those unnamed inside sources told the publication that Irving is “not anti-vaccine and that his stance is that he is upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates...To him, this is about a grander fight than the one on the court, and Irving is challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood,” in The Athletic’s tortured phrasing.
All of this is very exciting for the far right, as VICE News has reported: Characters like Candace Owens and Donald Trump Jr. have voiced their support for Irving’s refusal, even after excoriating other things he’s previously stood for, including support for Black Lives Matter and supporting the water protectors who stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline on Standing Rock Sioux land.
But it’s even more thrilling for the anti-vaccine movement and the broader movement of health conspiracy theorists around them, who would like more basis for their continued insistence that COVID vaccine mandates are an infringement on the public’s civil rights and/or a globalist plot to enslave the human race. If Irving were benched all season for a team with championship aspirations, it would make for a very convenient talking point, which is why, across fringe publications and toxic Telegram channels, his decision-making is being tracked and supported. The author and health conspiracy theorist David Avocado Wolfe called Irving “the smartest guy in the NBA,” while the pseudo-scientific “health” site Health Impact News, which frequently traffics in conspiracy theories and bogus claims, praised Irving for “giving up over $100 million” to refuse the shot. (That’s not correct, but the decision is an expensive one: Irving is ineligible to play as long as he refuses the shot, and reportedly stands to lose $380,000 for missing a pre-season game. He may lose up to $15 million this season, CNN reports.)
Health Impact News editor Brian Shilhavy likened the NBA to “slave masters” and wrote, “The real reason the NBA and Nets are making this decision, is that they cannot afford the PR nightmare that would ensue for allowing an 'anti-vaxxer' to tour to other NBA cities and become a beacon of light for those who refuse to bow to the Globalists and their eugenics agenda.”
Irving’s own silence about why he doesn’t want to get vaccinated has allowed various people to pin their own motivations onto his decision. In a lengthy Instagram live video, Irving offered some general reasoning, involving an opposition to vaccine mandates and to being told what to do with his own body.
“Pay attention to what’s going on out in the real world,” he said, in part. “People are losing their jobs to these mandates. People are having to make choices with their own lives, which I respect.” He implied that he’d been told he’d be able to get an exemption, adding “What would you do? If you felt uncomfortable going into the season when you were promised that you would have exemptions or that you didn’t have to be forced to get the vaccine?” He added, a moment later: “This is one body that I get here, one God body that I get here. And you’re telling me what to do with my body?”
"It's not about being anti-vax or about being on one side or the other. It's about being true to what feels good for me," he said. (Refusing to take a safe, effective vaccine at a cost of millions of dollars and making an enormous public show of it seems, of course, to meet a reasonable definition of side-taking and being anti-vax.)
The site Green Med Info, another hub for health conspiracy theories, shared a link to a summary of Irving’s Instagram comments on Telegram, praising them as “EPIC.”
This isn’t Irving’s first foray into out-there ideas: He previously generated controversy for suggesting on a podcast that the Earth might be flat, before apologizing. This time, Irving seems to be taking some ideas from a fringe Instagrammer, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Sullivan reported, “liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that ‘secret societies’ are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for ‘a plan of Satan.’” (The idea that vaccines are a “death plan” or a depopulation scheme for Black people is something that the Nation of Islam began promoting in the 1960s. While vaccine skepticism is not generally more common in Black communities, both Black and Latinx people are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and more likely to be hospitalized with the disease. That’s due in part to a suspicion of the medical establishment because of the United States’ toxic legacy of medical racism and experimentation against those populations.)
A Black conspiracy influencer named Behizy, who’s recently spent more time trafficking in false claims on Gab and Telegram that the 2020 presidential elections were stolen, offered more praise for Irving, writing, “If Kyrie Irving’s teammates have any integrity and honor left, they should join him. #HoldTheLineKyrie.”
The phrasing “Hold the Line” is not coincidental; it’s also what anti-vaccine personalities have been urging Southwest pilots to do. The airline canceled thousands of flights this week citing bad weather and staffing issues; as the Associated Press reported, conservative politicians and anti-vaccine groups quickly began claiming that the airline’s staff were staging a “sickout” protest over vaccine mandates. (Southwest denies this, though how convincing you find the denial is possibly a matter of perspective.) The hashtag #holdtheline quickly became a rallying cry to urge them to refuse to get vaccinated.
Chaos, strife, and division over vaccine requirements are ultimately what the anti-vaccine movement wants, and high-profile dissenters like Irving serve those goals. This is perhaps why it's focusing less on the comments of Irving’s teammates who got vaccinated without incident and quietly moved on to doing their jobs, without added risk to each other, their staff, or their fans. That includes James Harden, who said in a press conference this week, “Kyrie believes in his beliefs, and he stands firm and strong on that. And for us, we respect it. We all love Ky. But as far as us, we have a job to do.”