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Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets handles the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Two of the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center on June 07, 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

Shut Up and Drivel

Once a target of conservative scorn, Kyrie Irving is now a hero to those who want to remain unvaccinated.

A quote often attributed to Groucho Marx before he was born and after he died goes like this: "These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."

Whether the famed comedian really said it or not, it feels vaguely "Marxist"—as in the Groucho variety. Principles, like sponges, can be fungible in the wrong hands.

A laissez-faire attitude toward vaccination during a pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans is not admirable.

But that's life, isn't it? One day, you're Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics defending his right to protest police brutality; the next, you're Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets refusing to obey New York's mandate to get vaccinated to keep your multimillion-dollar annual salary.

Same guy, different days generating furious push back and praise. It reminds you of what Groucho Marx probably didn't say: "These are my principles…"

Fox News' Laura Ingraham famously scolded LeBron James for daring to express political opinions—especially those that were contrary to her own. "Shut up and dribble," she screeched at James, who was then with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was an update of her acidic comment "shut up and sing" aimed at the Dixie Chicks years earlier after they criticized then-President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

She singled out James for being "barely intelligible" and "ungrammatical" because he insisted on being outspoken about Colin Kaepernick while also criticizing Donald Trump.

"It's always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball," Ingraham said, sneering at the notion an athlete's opinion was worth anything.

Irving called Ingraham out for attempting to marginalize his colleagues for expressing opinions that she felt Americans weren't obligated to respect.

The more Irving and his colleagues insisted that professional athletes had the right to be heard on the most important issues of the day because they were citizens, too, the more they were mocked on social media as "semi-literate millionaires."

It was also around that same time that Kyrie Irving took a detour from defending every athlete's First Amendment rights to testing it in the most absurd way imaginable: questioning whether the Earth was round.

"This is not even a conspiracy theory," Irving said on a podcast. "The Earth is flat. … It's right in front of our faces. I'm telling you, it's right in front of our faces. They lie to us."

Presumably, Irving has flown on enough luxury planes and commercial airliners to know better than to take Flat Earth Society notions seriously, but there he was, a Duke University alum, espousing pre-scientific gibberish because he'd fallen down some rabbit hole on YouTube.

This time, the ridicule he got was bipartisan, even though he said his comments were only meant to generate discussion. In June 2018, he backed away from his flat Earth fundamentalism a bit to say he wasn't entirely sure whether the Earth was flat or round. He was round Earth agnostic.

"I do research on both sides," Irving said, resorting to the strained tautology that he would fall back on during his vaccination folly a few years later. "I'm not against anyone that thinks the Earth is round. I'm not against anyone that thinks it's flat. I just love hearing the debate."

Just to be clear—there has been no serious debate about whether the Earth is round since the Greek mathematician Pythagorus settled the matter over 2,000 years ago. Irving had simply fallen under the influence of a persistent conspiracy theory that has continued to flourish wherever "open minds" unbothered by thousands of years of science congregate.

Though millions continue to believe it, it's a dumb American myth that Christopher Columbus and his crew ever believed there was a possibility the world was flat when they set sail in search of new maritime trade routes to Asia.

Acknowledging the fact that he's a role model to minority kids already at an academic disadvantage in this country, Irving apologized eventually for entertaining flat Earth theories, but the jocular way in which he did it made people think his heart wasn't in it.

"To all the science teachers, everybody coming up to me like, 'You know, I've got to reteach my whole curriculum?' I'm sorry," he said in a press session intended to clear the air. "I apologize. I apologize."

Suspicion of Irving's sincerity is reinforced by something he said during the height of the controversy when he was trying to deflect from his lack of intellectual seriousness:

"Even if you believe in that [Earth is flat], don't come out and say that stuff," he said. "That's for intimate conversations, because perception and how you're received, it changes."

Fast forward to these sad, pathetic pandemic times, when more than 3 billion people worldwide have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccination and billions more are clamoring for it. Here in America, where it is most accessible, COVID-19 vaccination has become a political litmus test.

There are a variety of reasons for this obstructionism, ranging from fear of being injected with a "tracker" by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates to the belief that COVID-19's deadliness is being exaggerated for political reasons. Before YouTube cracked down on anti-vax videos, it was full of "testimonies" that the shots "magnetize" recipients and "change" their DNA.

Another persistent conspiracy theory that many of the refusenik NBA players who are following Irving's lead may have bought into is that vaccines are part of an elaborate plot to sterilize and kill Black people who have allegedly failed to learn from the lessons of the Tuskegee Experiment.

LeBron is vaccinated but refuses to use the same leadership capital he expended on supporting Kaepernick and protesting police brutality to influence his fellow players or the millions of vulnerable, gullible Black Americans who believe the conspiracy theories.

James says that getting vaccinated is "a personal decision" best left to the individual. There's no hint of any understanding that there is a larger social dimension to the decision.

By refusing the vaccine, Irving is forgoing as much as $15 million in salary this year now that he has been cut from practicing or playing with the Brooklyn Nets.

For separating himself from his team and his livelihood, Irving has been applauded by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter, and Tucker Carlson and Brian Kilmeade on Fox.

Irving is now beloved in conservative places where he was once scorned because he refuses to do something that would potentially spare him from a horrible death if he were to contract the coronavirus.

After surrogates insisted that Irving wasn't an anti-vaxxer, despite refusing to get a shot that would make it possible for him to continue making millions, he spoke for himself this week.

"Do what's best for you, but I am not an advocate for either side," Irving said in a statement. "I am doing what's best for me. I know the consequences here, and if it means that I'm judged and demonized for that, that's just what it is. That's the role I play."

Irving told skeptics and admirers that he wants to be a "voice for the voiceless." The voiceless are apparently those who will lose their jobs because they refuse to follow either government or private sector mandates to get vaccinated. He insists he's neither for or against vaccines and that he's only "pro-freedom."

A laissez-faire attitude toward vaccination during a pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans is not admirable. It is morally incoherent, especially when Black people are disproportionately victims of this kind of selfishness and irrationality.

Irving once "researched" whether the Earth was flat and remained skeptical of its roundness as recently as 2018. That is not an impressive track record—even if Laura Ingraham finally approves.

Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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