The announcement that unvaccinated NBA superstar Kyrie Irving would be rejoining his team after he sat out in protest of the vaccine mandate came as a strong wave of COVID-19 was taking the country — and professional basketball league — by storm.
Whether due to the delta variant or the newer, apparently exponentially more contagious omicron variant, dozens and dozens of NBA players are following the league’s Covid protocol and quarantining away from their teams. It was in that context that Irving has struck a deal with the Brooklyn Nets to only play games that are on the road. New York City’s vaccine mandate for large employers meant Irving, who refuses to be vaccinated, hasn’t been able to practice or play with the team.
“We arrived at this decision with the full support of our players and after careful consideration of our current circumstances, including players missing games due to injuries and health and safety protocols,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said in a statement on Friday. “We believe that the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster. We look forward to Kyrie’s return to the lineup, as well as getting our entire roster back together on the court.”
Those “current circumstances” Marks mentioned are the seven Nets players who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are under the NBA’s Covid protocol. As one of the league’s best teams who may not want to have the COVID-related absences affect their standings, it would behoove them to compromise with Irving, a perennial NBA all-star.
However, it may not be as mutually beneficial for Irving, who is increasing the likelihood he becomes infected or at least exposed in a league where at least 84 of the estimated 500 players were following the league’s Covid protocol as of Friday night.
The move seemed to be universally panned, with criticism mainly being aimed at Nets management.
Washington Post sports reporter Michael Lee said he was confused by bringing Irving back right now.
“Cramming to understand how Nets fans are supposed to be excited about Kyrie Irving’s possible return when the organization decided the best time to toss aside its principles & bring back an unvaccinated player as a part-timer is during the biggest covid outbreak to hit the NBA,” Lee tweeted.
Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News suggested the risk of bringing an unvaccinated player into a league where at least 84 players were affected by COVID-19 as of Friday outweighed any possible reward. Not to mention, he added, “Irving’s return reek of negligence from an organization both whose owner and general manager staunchly opposed the idea of a part-time player at the beginning of the season.”
The announcement of Irving’s pending return came days after he posted a video on social media showing him putting on a pair of his signature Nike sneakers, a move that many took as a signal that he was preparing to return to the NBA after sitting out the Nets’ first 29 games of the season.
The NBA is also reacting to the apparent league-wide outbreak. In an effort to avoid any games from being canceled or postponed because of the pandemic, the NBA is considering adding a new rule that would make teams “required” to add one player to its roster after at least four other players were under COVID-19 protocol.
“Teams would be limited to three replacement players, but the new plan would, overall, require teams to maintain enough depth so that the league wouldn’t be forced to cancel or postpone games because some teams didn’t have the league-required eight healthy players,” ESPN reported.
Either way, it seems that the current blend of COVID-19 variants that has overtaken the country has proven to be resistant to vaccines, according to a new study from South Africa, from where it is believed the Omicron variant began. However, Omicron so far has proven to be much milder than the effects from the delta variant.
Bottom line: It. may be time for the NBA to return to its “bubble” format of quarantining players two seasons ago after the pandemic first hit the U.S.