Kyrie Irving’s Anti-vax Stance Has Earned Him a Cheering Section on the Right

Throughout Kyrie Irving’s time in the NBA, the current Brooklyn Nets star point guard has used his platform to promote several amusing but nonsensical conspiracy theories. During a 2017 interview, Irving confirmed that he is a flat-earther––a stance that he later suggested was intended to provoke an “open conversation,” ultimately advising everyone to “do your own research” on the earth’s shape. And even as more than 700,000 in the U.S. have died in the ongoing pandemic, Irving, who refuses to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, appears to be in the “do your own research” crowd. Irving’s “personal choice” against the vaccine could result in his spending the entire upcoming NBA season off the court, as the Brooklyn Nets will not allow him to practice or play with the team until he is vaccinated. 

There are a number of outspoken anti-vaxxers in the league’s ranks, but Irving, as the biggest star among them, has the most to lose. In a statement to reporters on the matter, Irving asserted that his opposition to the vaccine is a privacy issue. “Everything will be released at a due date and once we get this cleared up,” Irving said late last month. “I’m a human being first. And obviously, living in this public sphere, there’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie. And I think I just would love to just keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan.” (On Tuesday, unnamed sources claimed to The Athletic that Irving is ”not anti-vaccine” but is ”upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates.”) If Irving puts his anti-COVID-vaccine stance ahead of his team for the whole season, it could result in his losing more than $17 million, or roughly half of his annual salary with the Nets. 

Over the past few weeks, Irving has received very little sympathy in the national sports media, with many top commentators panning him for abandoning his team in favor of his own interests. “I’m sorry, if you can’t take a vaccine that over 6.2 billion people in the world have already taken, trying to claim that you think there’s some kind of conspiracy going on,” ESPN host Stephen A. Smith said during a CNN interview last night, “and you want to be that defiant and leave the rest of your team hanging…as far as I’m concerned, the hell with you.” 

Still, Irving is winning over fans on the right, as the conservative media has now lifted him up as its new darling in the revolution for “medical autonomy.” Among his newfound supporters is Senator Ted Cruz, who called on the Houston Rockets to trade for Irving, given that employee vaccine mandates are banned in Texas. In a subsequent comment, Cruz accused the corporate media of trying to silence and coerce Irving. “‘If tyrannical politicians demand you take an injection, you have NO MEDICAL PRIVACY RIGHTS. You are a sheep & you must meekly comply,’” Cruz tweeted. “This is disgusting, condescending & wrong. Kyrie is showing incredible courage.” And while Cruz has frequently denounced the league and its star players for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the Texas Republican let all of the NBA’s anti-vax players know that he is on their side. “I stand with Kyrie Irving. I stand with Andrew Wiggins. I stand with Bradley Beal. I stand with Jonathan Isaac,” he wrote. “#YourBodyYourChoice.” 

Cruz later went on to share a post written by right-wing radio host Jesse Kelly, who linked Irving’s stance to a group of Southwest Airlines pilots who Tucker Carlson claimed all called out sick over the company’s planned adherence to a federal vaccine mandate. (Southwest’s incoming CEO, Bob Jordan, said the walkout rumors were “flat-out not true.”) “What’s happening right now is significant. I promise you The System is scared,” Kelly wrote. “We’re FINALLY seeing real pushback from parts of the country The System didn’t expect. This will catch on. Cheer for Kyrie Irving. And Southwest Airlines pilots. They’re starting something.” However, Kelly was quick to let his followers know that he does not support Black Lives Matter even if he is supporting anti-vax NBA players. “I stopped watching NBA when it was taken over by #BlackLivesMatter communists. And I don’t like Kyrie Irving,” he added. “But I’m an adult who understands we’re in a fight and don’t have time to wait for the perfect vessel to fight these people. We take what we’ve got.” 

Jason Whitlock, a sports commentator and host at Glenn Beck’s Blaze network, also likened Irving’s situation to the Southwest Airlines controversy, tweeting, “Too bad Kyrie doesn’t work for Southwest Airlines. He’d have co-workers with balls.” In a bizarre follow-up column, Whitlock, who is Black, then praised Irving for “coming out of the closet” and joining the “Black men [who] are escaping the cages that the matriarchy, the LGBTQ movement, and liberal orthodoxy constructed to tame, house, and emasculate us over the last six decades.” 

Similarly, Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade made sure to point out Irving’s race as a way to question whether Black Americans would continue supporting Joe Biden in light of the federal vaccine mandates he has passed, saying, “Kyrie Irving in New York is not going to be able to play unless he gets vaccinated. Does President Biden want to take on his base, the African American base that propelled him to the White House?” he asked at the beginning of the month. Kilmeade’s colleague Will Cain, who cohosts the weekend edition of Fox & Friends, expressed his shock earlier this month that players in the “woke” NBA are now “going against that grain…standing up for critical thinking and individuality and standing against popular thought.” On Newsmax, host John Bachman described Irving as “standing up for medical autonomy, just like a lot of these pilots are supposedly doing at Southwest,” while Corrin Clark, a guest on the network, said on Tuesday that she is “glad that some of these athletes are speaking out. These are the least at risk for COVID, and they’re actually losing their jobs because they won’t get a vaccine that wears off in six months.” Though Newsmax host Rob Finnerty let the audience know his personal disdain for Irving––who is an open advocate for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement––by calling him “one of the least likable guys in the NBA,” the conservative pundit also noted that he does “support him 10,000%” when it comes to his stance on the jab “because it’s not American to be required to get a vaccine.”

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