The Times headline is “Most N.B.A. Players Are Vaccinated, but Skeptics Speak Out.” It would be interesting to see what the second part of that looked like, but that’s not really what’s happening. Ninety percent of NBA players and 100 percent of coaches and refs and front office folks have gotten at least one jab, and good for them, enduring a minor inconvenience to keep themselves and the people around them safe. A few players, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Jrue Holiday, have even taken the extra step of cutting pro-vaccine ads. The vaccine skeptics, meanwhile, are on the record but either evasive or incoherent.
Kyrie Irving, volume beliefs-haver: “Honestly, I’d like to keep [my vaccination status] private. 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. I think I just would love to just keep that private, handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with the plan.”
Jonathan Isaac: “I am not anti-vax, I’m not anti-medicine, I am not anti-science… But with that being said, it is my belief that the vaccine status of every person should be their own choice. Completely up to them without bullying, without being pressured, without being forced into doing so. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m uncomfortable with taking the vaccine at this time.”
Andrew Wiggins: “[I’m] just going to keep fighting for what I believe, whether it's one thing or another, get the vaccination or not get the vaccination, who knows, like I'm just going to keep fighting for what I believe and what I believe is right. What's right to one person isn't right to the other, you know, vice versa.”
Of the three, Isaac comes off the best only for his honesty, whatever that’s worth. In a world of mendacious villains, a religious zealot laying bare his own ignorance and selfishness is refreshing—for a second or two, before you think through the consequences of the choice he so thoroughly owns. Kyrie and Wiggins are just as bad as Isaac, and cowards to boot. It’s tricky to figure out what famous athletes owe us, the proper ratio of give and get for people who didn’t ask to be the center of attention just for being great at their sport, but who also obviously enjoy fame’s perks—not least of all leveraging their notability to sell us shoes and insurance and soft drinks.
The vaccine stuff is exceedingly straightforward, because getting vaccinated is not strictly a personal choice. It’s a decision that affects your friends, colleagues, and random passersby on the street. It is much more like paying your taxes than buying a home. An obligation, barring some extraordinary circumstance. And when you don’t meet your obligations as a member of society, especially when you have a considerably larger platform than most people do, you deserve to be questioned and bullied and harassed and cajoled. You deserve every bit of flak you catch. You are not entitled to just keep it private. It has reached the point where it is now other people’s business.
There are much broader forces at play here, some of them undoubtedly operating upon Kyrie and the vax-agnostic gang’s minds. The mainstream media go-to phrase is eroding trust in institutions, which is insidious framing out of the officer-involved shooting school of grammar. Public trust in institutions—governments, journalistic outlets, the American Vatican of corporate executives—has dwindled to practically nothing in recent years due to decades of sabotage, corruption, cynicism, and incompetence. It’s not something that has happened. It has been allowed to happen; it has happened in many cases by design.
This isn’t an issue for NBA players, but if you’re one of the many Americans who lives paycheck to paycheck, and can’t afford a surprise expense of any real size, maybe you’re hearing that the vaccine is free but you’re unsure, because in your experience no medical procedure has ever been free. There is always—sometimes weeks or months later—a bill, occasionally an alarmingly large one that doesn’t seem to align at all with the scale of the treatment you’ve received. So maybe you skip the vaccine, for fear of being charged a figure you can’t pay. That’s not trust passively eroding. It’s a kind of intelligence, a recognition of how the American medical system works, who decides its function and who benefits from it. It is an industry that extracts funds and only incidentally, incompletely treats its customers. Why would they help you out for free? When has that ever happened before?
If Kyrie or Wiggins or Isaac want to lead a discussion about that kind of thing, by all means: fire away. Let’s talk about dilapidated public programs, politicians who only look out for themselves, media that exists to run interference for its corporate sponsors, a fissuring reality seized upon by opportunists trying to make a buck. That’s not what they’re doing. They’re barely talking past their own noses, essentially saying I don’t want to do this thing and you can’t make me. In fact, it’s offensive that you’re even asking me about it. There’s a really good chance that petulance, more than anything else, is the motivating factor. Especially with Kyrie, who is married to his own difficulty, at times affecting the tone of the worst kind of college freshman, the guy in the seminar everyone hates, who is constantly just playing devil’s advocate. He frequently confuses genuinely interrogating conventional wisdom—which should be interrogated!—with facile protest. Lots of his opinions, some of which are bracingly progressive almost by accident, amount to nothing more than no, it’s not. It is immensely frustrating, his signature blend of revolutionary sentiment and abject laziness. You can’t take him seriously, but also have to, because he’s an important person.
Whether players who haven’t yet gotten their vaccine shots play in certain games or not doesn’t interest me. Kyrie could screw up a Nets title run. Wiggins might get traded out of vax-mandatory San Francisco. We’ll see what happens; the season is still several weeks away. What concerns me is that Kyrie and Wiggins and their ilk’s blithe selfish stance on this issue speaks to one of the biggest problems of our age: that we are far too deep in our own stuff, wholly unable to help each other. You get only what you have the leverage to negotiate, and cooperation is for suckers. Everything, even decisions that might hurt other people, is hand-waived away as a personal choice, and that’s the end of it.
But of course that’s not the case. It’s not up to you, where you stop and the rest of the world begins. Insisting, objecting, puffing on your bubble pipe: it doesn’t erase your moral debts. This obviously doesn’t bother the vaccine skeptics. And we have no way to hold them accountable, or even make them make sense. On Monday they thanked everybody and walked away from the microphones, having cleared nothing but their own throats.