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NBA star Kyrie Irving, a staunch supporter of all things police reform, social justice and Black equity, has become an unlikely hero to the right-wing, anti-vaccine crowd after getting benched over his decision to not get inoculated against COVID-19. And those who once called the star player an ally are not happy about it.
The Brooklyn Nets announced Tuesday that their star point guard would have to sit out the rest of the season for as long as he refrains from taking the most effective treatment for the deadly virus. The decision will cost Irving as much as $380,000 for every game he misses, cutting significantly into the more than $33 million he was expected to make this season. This was music to the ears of conservatives who jumped at the opportunity to use the Black man’s star power to further the legitimacy of vaccine hesitancy and anti-mandate rhetoric.
“Kyrie just sacrificed more than Kaepernick ever did!,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Tuesday, somehow comparing Irving to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started a global movement by kneeling for Black equality during the national anthem and gave up his career in the process.
“Black people need the freedom to be able to kneel at games during the national anthem, but they do not need the freedom to choose what substances are injected into their arms,” Candace Owens tweeted. “BLM has their priorities straight.”
Given Irving’s well-documented history of supporting progressive causes and charity, right’s sudden affinity for him is strange. In 2020, he donated $1.5 million to WNBA players sitting out the season in support of Black Lives Matter and paid the tuition of students attending historically Black colleges. He bought a home for George Floyd’s family and stood with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as a vocal opponent of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
It’s what makes conservatives’ sudden support so frustrating, Judith Brown Dianis, the Executive Director of the Advancement Project National Office, told VICE News.
“The right-wing will always co-op Black people for their own agenda, finding these small open doors to use us.”
“The right-wing will always co-op Black people for their own agenda, finding these small open doors to use us,” Dianis said. “This is the tactic of the right-wing, white supremacy part of the Republican party. It’s always looking for a Black person to be able to grab other Black people into their agenda.”
Irving’s decision and the NBA’s protocols around the COVID-19 vaccine have been a lightning rod of controversy in some corners of the Black community. Michael Jordan, arguably the sport’s most popular player, told NBC’s Today that he is a “firm believer in science” and that he is “in total unison with the league” and their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 moving forward. In an op-ed written for Jacobin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Irving’s stance “irresponsible.”
Abdul-Jabbar wrote that Irving “continues to reject the expertise of prominent immunologists without reason, contributing to vaccine hesitancy among people in the Black community, who are dying at twice the rate of white people. His lack of regard for Black lives doesn’t deserve acceptance, nor does his lack of regard for the health and welfare of the NBA community.”
Chanelle Helm, a lead core organizer of Louisville Black Lives Matter, said that her organization has advocated for the vaccines and all other alternatives that prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But pitting Irving against allies like Kaepernick is a form of slander in the broader movement around issues like police reform, Helm said, and shows a continued callousness towards what should matter most at this moment in history.
“Neither one of those two, Kyrie and Colin, asked to be brought up in that manner. It’s really just disgusting,” Helm said. “I think that’s my frustration. They’re doing whatever they can to make these divides, and that’s evident when in their critique, in their commentary, in who they choose to praise, they’re not giving any solace to the folks we have lost to this pandemic.”
Irving doubled down on his choice to not take the vaccine on Instagram Live Wednesday night.
“Pay attention to what’s going on out in the real world. People are losing their jobs to these mandates. People are having to make choices with their own lives which I respect,” he said. “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? This wasn’t an issue before the season started.”
Reginald Thomas Brown, chair of the board of social justice organization Vocal NY in New York City, was one of the first 30,000 volunteers in the clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine. As a Black person, Brown hoped to reduce vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. Now he hopes Irving will reconsider his view on mandates.
“Ask him if he fastens his seat belt when he drives or gets on a plane. Ask him what he does when he gets to a red light,” Brown said. “All of these are mandates. I mean I understand not wanting to be told what to do, but just about you. It’s about the entire planet we’re talking about.”
Brown said that Irving should consider that his platform carries a lot of weight in the community.
“I understand the hesitancy,” Brown said. “But you’ve probably already had the polio vaccine and the smallpox vaccine. And I'm sure you probably don't know what the ingredients of that were. If you’re taking any kind of medication, you have no idea what’s in there. Why is this any different?”
“The right are just looking for anything to justify what they’re doing and will attach themselves to whatever they need to to attract attention,” Brown said.
Regardless of where Irving stands on the COVID vaccine, Dianis just hopes he ends his silence on how the right has used his name.
“If you feel like you’re being used for their disinformation campaigns, then you should speak up and stop that. Our responsibility should be to say I am not your puppet, I’m not your spokesperson, I’m not your poster child,” Dianis said. “He’s going to make a personal decision. But to me it’s also a matter of not doing harm to our community. So when you make that personal decision, don’t be used in the process for something that can hurt us more.”