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Kyrie Irving Is Not A Role Model
Historians are going to look back and wonder just how the hell Kyrie Irving insinuated himself into the great debates of our time. His latest stance, a rejection of New York City’s vaccine mandate, has gotten the Brooklyn Nets star point guard high up into the news cycle. I keep thinking he’ll exit it but he keeps on circling back through like a sushi boat offering. Now the NBA season is debuting and Irving remains barred from participation, so this topic continues. And the longer it lingers, the more it appears to illustrate something about our current, silly state of affairs. It’s a (mostly) dumb story that reflects some core truths about the modern political media scene.
The goal of this post will not be to debate the potential merits of vaccine mandates or to analyze their civil liberty implications. I’m a vax-taker, but until I have a firm grasp on the degree to which the vaccine mitigates viral spread long term, I’m punting here. I’m reminded of the great scientist Richard Feynman, who used a plain paper cup to demonstrate the “O-ring” mechanical failure that felled the Challenger space shuttle. Feynman once said, “If you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it.” I’m a long way from there on most matters Covid. I’d hazard that, even after a year and a half of this, the same can be said for the generalized media. So, I’m taking a look instead at Irving’s bizarre status as human tug-of-war object between two warring factions who are animated by different types of insecurities.
Irving’s latest has gotten him co-opted as a momentary hero of the right. In one illustrative example, Ted Cruz tweeted, “Kyrie is showing incredible courage.” Before Kyrie’s anti-mandate position, Irving and all his idiosyncrasies seemed aligned with anything but the conservative sphere. He offered vocal support for the Standing Rock protestors who opposed a pipeline run through reservation territory (Irving is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to which his late mother belonged). He produced a television special about Breonna Taylor, and was harshly critical of police. Before that, he went plant-based and donated 200,000 vegan burgers to a food bank.
His attempt to undo the NBA playoffs of 2020, a postseason he was missing anyway due to injury, was framed positively in lefty outlets like The Nation. On January 21st of 2021, Dave Zirin gave Irving some seriously lofty comps, referencing Muhammad Ali and James Baldwin before saying of Kyrie, “His very existence exposes the empty homilies from the league about wanting players to ‘use their platform.’ He is himself, unmistakably, a free Black man, and that seems to be his greatest sin of all.”
Zirin was observing the NBA from afar, believing that the basketball media’s Kyrie-related misgivings were rooted in an opposition to liberation, as opposed to anything reality based. As corrupt as the NBA media is, sometimes it’s good to wonder if better informed people are, you know, better informed. Now, Zirin is the one focused on Kyrie’s sins, tweeting, “He is doing harm.” But Zirin is far from alone in hastily attempting to make Kyrie Irving into whatever avatar he wants him to be, based on not enough information.
Venture capitalist tycoon and controversy embracer Peter Thiel has applied the following formulation to our social media age: Courage is in far shorter supply than genius. However one feels about Thiel, that quote seems true, intuitively. An interconnected world has raised the stakes of taking certain stands. One takeaway from the premise is that it’d be nice if there was more courage to go around. But there are other implications beyond that one. For instance, with the courage supply so diminished, there’s a corresponding demand for it. The demand is such that many will idolize ludicrously false prophets, just out of desperation for a tribune. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and if angels fear merely venturing beyond their pearly gates, Fool Territory envelopes the earth.
During our courage drought, Kyrie Irving has been more or less the same guy. He flits from cause to cause, absent much commentary that could be regarded as trenchant, generously donating money on occasion. None of the aforementioned parties should have held Kyrie up as a prophet but they couldn’t resist. Perhaps you can blame the charismatic cojones factor here. Irving, who hit quite possibly the biggest shot in NBA history, has shown a willingness to boldly risk money, relationships, and reputation in pursuit of whatever he wants. Daring in a cowardly age happens to be a siren song to anyone whose cause overlaps, even briefly. So Kyrie’s fans of the moment insist on tying themselves to a man who seems relatively untethered.
Kyrie Irving’s current cultural prominence is quite funny to a lot of folks in and around the NBA. Here’s how people who’ve worked with him would describe Irving’s opinion-generation process: Sitting around in his free time, watching an endless stream of Instagram videos, without much discernment. Back when Kyrie was a “good” guy on the left, Zirin said of him, “It was Irving who has trolled the media by saying that he was a flat-earther, and then watched with a grin as people lost their minds.” Nope, according to those who’ve worked with him, he really believed that shit. He’s not an opinion version of Andy Kaufman, some performance artist who subverts conventions to reveal our bourgeois contradictions. No, he quite simply didn’t think there’s enough evidence to believe in the earth’s roundness.
So, this is not a voracious reader or even an astute curator of online videos. The NBA people who’ve worked with him don’t regard him as a leader. They don’t regard him as a charismatic revolutionary. They don’t even regard him as decently informed. And this is all fine for a pro basketball player still in his 20s. Many athletes don’t become fully formed adults until after they retire, when the music stops and they must forge an identity beyond their all-consuming high-status jobs.
But given what is known about Irving (and it’s long been known), you have to wonder how the hell this guy became so important to American political thinkers. Somehow, when he’s spoken on serious matters in the 2020s, few outside the NBA world have laughed. So in this way, Kyrie Irving, absurd as he is, happens to be symbolic of something. But what is it? What’s with the depth fans insist on seeing in Bouncy Gardiner?
One lesson is that the left is angrily possessive and the right is opportunistically insecure. Blue world has hailed fury upon Irving in the aftermath of Kyrie’s vaccine takes, with the rage only a lover scorned can muster. Don Lemon of CNN demanded that Irving “suffer the consequences” of his actions. Joy Reid of MSNBC ripped Irving, calling him a “pawn of the alt-right,” among other insults. It’s notable that our prestige media apparatus has heaped more blame onto Kyrie Irving for spreading Covid than they have the nation of China, but that’s another topic for another day.
The right, in contrast, never went at Irving much in the past, even if Irving clearly wasn’t their friend. That’s because the right takes as given that most prominent athletes, especially Black athletes, aren’t fond of them. This assumption fosters a thirsty dynamic where, should the right get even a crumb of ideological overlap from a Black athlete, they oafishly fall all over themselves to claim common cause. Kyrie Irving was waving at someone behind America’s right, and America’s right is embarrassingly waving back with all the subtle panache of a wacky inflatable tube man at a car dealership.
It’s hilarious. Conservatism’s newest noble representative believes that the storied NBA logo should be replaced because Jerry West, he of the “wrong” race, was its inspiration. It doesn’t matter that the logo is simply a silhouette, depicting no ethnicity in particular. Our current heir to Rush Limbaugh believes that its existence is an affront because “BLACK KINGS BUILT THE LEAGUE.”
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with simply stating that you happen to agree on some narrow issue with a person you usually disagree with, but America’s conservative pundits can’t quite stop there. They must praise the very core of the man, even though he’s not a clear thinker and he’s guaranteed to spurn them eventually. Rightist firebrand Candace Owens says of Irving,
People that stand up for their beliefs in the face of brainwash, media propaganda and a worldwide peer pressure campaign are the kind of people that you should to look up to. Kyrie Irving is someone to look up to.
Ya, good luck with that lodestar. The right’s overall desperate, obsequious courting of Kyrie is more evidence of a wayward movement, divorced from principles or strategy. It’s also just sad on some level. They’ve so little cultural cachet that they’re willing to pretend that oblivious passersby are fellow travelers.
The left’s possessive, angry rejection of Irving reveals a similar dysfunction, albeit from a different perspective. Why should American progressive pundits give a shit if Irving is rejecting their priors? He’s just one guy, after all, hailing from the 4% of NBA players who are confirmed to be anti-vax.
Part of it might be a historical political truism, one that animates both sides on this issue: Black voters favor Democrats at roughly 90%. There’s a low rumbling angst in Democratic strategist circles on what happens if this robust ratio ever tumbles, with David Shor articulating reasons for a recent decline in this share. I don’t think celebrities have much to do with what makes this ratio move, but there are influential people who really worry over such things.
The media left is generally, neurotically obsessed with “platform.” Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency on the heels of exhaustive free advertising from CNN, there’s been a creeping sense that you can’t trust normal people to make up their minds. No, the famous among us must constantly message the correct sentiments to these rubes, and any celebrity who deviates has to be crushed. The idea that you live and let live a little? Allow folks to make their own choices, given that they have an abundance of informational resources? That’s old news.
And so Kyrie Irving sits within the eye of this particular storm, these shrieking winds that blow in opposite directions. Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s host for all seasons, sputtered incredulous rage at Kyrie last week, yelling:
And how is that going to work out for you, Kyrie Irving? You’re going to disappear from the game of basketball. Who the hell is gonna be interested in what you have to say when you have proven that you can’t be trusted enough to do your damn job?
The answer still might be “many,” which is pretty ridiculous if you ask me, but I can’t deny that Kyrie has a demonstrated knack for news cycle dominance. For some time, there’s been very little sound rationale for why we should look to Irving for any sort of guidance, and yet here he is, still provoking a focus. The primary concern for Nets fans is his playing status. The primary concern for Dem-aligned media is his capacity for leading people astray. The primary concern for Republicans is how he might become their unexpected symbolic hero from a demographic they never win over. And do you know what Kyrie Irving might be doing right now, as all these people obsess over him? It’s quite possible that he’s scrolling through Instagram videos. The world is bereft of bravery, true, but it might be even shorter on attention span.