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'It’s going to be ugly and it’s going to be the next big fight' - The NBA's anti-vaxx problem

Dave Zirin discusses the scale of the issue on the latest edition of Behind the Lines.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Updated Sep 28th 2021, 8:39 AM

THE CORONAVIRUS VACCINE is causing the latest major rupture in American sport, with reports breaking over the weekend showing some NBA players at odds with the league over a potential vaccine mandate. 

Rolling Stone reported that players are willing to submit to scaled-down testing and mask wearing, but would not agree to a mandatory vaccine. Per the Rolling Stone report, between 50 and 60 NBA players have yet to take the first dose of the vaccine. 

While the NBA haven’t made the jab mandatory for players, New York State has, by decreeing that elite athletes wishing to perform indoors must have taken a Covid vaccine.

Brooklyn Nets’ All-Star Kyrie Irving has become central to this story: he is the vice-president of the players’ union and has ‘liked’ false and conspiratorial social media posts related to the vaccine. The Rolling Stone piece quotes the player’s aunt, who says Irving may protest the New York ruling by sitting out every third home game this season. 

Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation, and has spent his career writing about the intersection of American sport, politics, culture and society. He joined us on the latest edition of Behind the Lines to discuss his new book, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.

  • Dave Zirin is the latest guest on our sportswriting podcast, Behind the Lines. To get access to the full interview along with the 87-episode series archive, subscribe at members.the42.ie. And for a limited time, you can get €5 off an annual membership by using the promo code BTL. 

While it is widely acknowledging that sports people have a right to protest injustice, I asked Dave whether he felt they also had a responsibility to do so. He replied that broadly, he did not believe they had to do so, though makes an exception for certain moments. 

“There are moments when speaking up becomes a moral duty. It’s like the old expression by a historian in the US, Howard Zinn: ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’ When the train is moving, you have to say something. At that point, the obligation grows. So obligation is not a static thing.” 

The killing of George Floyd was one such moment, says Dave, and now we have arrived at another: vaccines. 

“It is a serious problem, and one that requires a lot of debate”, says Dave.

“People who are on the same side on questions of fighting for racial justice – like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kyrie Irving – are at loggerheads with another. Kareem says it is an absolute outrage that these players are not getting vaccinated and they should be banned from the sport, with Kyrie Irving liking posts that speak to this hyper-conspiracy about microchips being designed to kill black people.

“Let me be clear about this: the reason those kinds of conspiracy theories have purchase is the United States has historically been a racist society and its use of medicine has been in some cases barbaric. But this is not one of those times. 

“This is a profound public health crisis and it is an act of solidarity to get your vaccine. It’s anti-solidarity to say, ‘What about my right to infect others?’ That’s just libertarianism on steroids.” 

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How does he see it playing out?

“It’s going to be ugly. It’s going to be the next big fight. You are going to have the NBA  saying ‘players have to be vaxxed’, you’ll have the Union calling for that not to be the case.

“It’s confusing, it’s not good for the league, not good for the players, not good for the Union. To me, I don’t blame the players as much as I blame that we live in a country that has no culture of public health, scant culture of solidarity, and we’re suffering for it. 

“We have already been suffering for it, but now it’s going to be writ large on one of the most important pop cultural institutions we have.” 

To listen to the full interview with Dave Zirin, subscribe at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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