Kyrie Irving's vaccine stance could push limits of player empowerment

The black card labeled player empowerment had its bill returned with a red mark on it for the first time in nearly a decade after increasingly testing the limits of what can be expressed or exposed.

Kyrie Irving played a long game of chicken with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Nets called his bluff in a move that displayed an organizational backbone, telling Irving in a statement and with an actual voice his presence will not be determined by his schedule, but theirs.

Either that or Kevin Durant played Jack Nicholson's part and ordered the code red. Irving’s word salad, false promises and eye-rolling explanations finally fell on unconvinced ears as the Nets exercised some common sense — and likely, caught Irving off guard.

And quietly, Ben Simmons showed up in Philadelphia after seemingly vowing he never would again, even though that relationship running its course feels much easier to diagnose than Irving with the Nets.

It’s pushback, in a way.

Neither Irving nor Simmons are the sole headliners for their respective franchises. And Simmons believes he has a case for being done wrong by management and his coach, thus taking a hard stance on his attendance and hoping his truancy would result in a transfer to a new gym in a new city.

He blinked — for now.

It wasn’t that the 76ers stood firm and refused to deal a player with four years left on his deal. The franchise took the unprecedented stance of withholding paychecks and calling Simmons’ bluff, while simultaneously asking for the moon and stars in return for his services in the market.

This untenable situation still has more twists left to turn, as Simmons still has to deal with the locker room in Philadelphia for the time being.

The locker room’s voice in Brooklyn was made loud and clear as Nets general manager Sean Marks made a point to note Durant, James Harden and Joe Harris, among others, were involved in the decision to essentially deactivate Irving until he gets vaccinated — if he chooses to. Those names were not mentioned by accident, sending a message to Irving a line has been drawn with his peers. It’s not too long ago Harden was acting out in Houston before getting his way, and even he seems to be saying, “Hey, Kyrie, this is extreme.”

Kyrie Irving with his hands on his hips and looking down at the court near midcourt and the Brooklyn Nets logo.
Kyrie Irving is standing alone, unable to practice or play with the Brooklyn Nets because of his COVID-19 vaccine stance. How far can he push the bounds of player empowerment? (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The blessing and curse of the NBA is so much rides on the actions and perceptions of the top 1%. Most players can be shuffled around like disposable pieces, but the NBA is the so-called league of player empowerment. Over 95% of NBA players have been vaccinated, but since some notable employees have been hesitant or downright refused to take the vaccine, the picture looks different.

Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t yet spoken on the matter, although it’s suspected he will in due time. And best believe he’s hearing from team ownership groups around the league who are waiting for the next round of collective bargaining to exercise their version of unintended consequences.

But in the moment, such trivialities don’t matter.

Irving is wealthy and dazzling, but puzzling and nonsensical far more than he is insightful. His career has been full of consistent inconsistencies, yet he yearns for the respect and admiration of his peers and the public at large.

He has become a basketball martyr in his own mind and a tool for the disingenuous in addition to being the ultimate distraction for a team that needs to build some sweat equity for their upcoming journey.

Even if its mere formality, there’s an assumption of professionalism players must exude. That’s assumed well before the belief everyone in a locker room is operating with the same goal in mind, independent of salary or status.

And Irving’s refusal to be vaccinated, even for the sake of his teammates, forced everyone’s hand. He had no reason to believe the absolute power wasn’t absolute because players like him — gifted, young, accomplished, charismatic — didn’t get what they wanted and when they wanted it.

For the past decade it has been par, but the guard rails have extended farther — players exercising the power their talent affords, teams bending because that’s what the moment called for. Anthony Davis made it known he wanted out of New Orleans, and although it got ugly and petty on both sides, he went to his desired destination: Los Angeles.

How the sausage got made is often forgotten through the passage of time, and even that was simpler by comparison.

Irving doesn’t want to operate by a different set of rules, it seems he wants complete autonomy — and for someone like him, that can look like anarchy.

When Irving — or someone as proxy for the Nets guard — says part of his anti-vaxx stance revolves around being a voice for the voiceless, nobody has surmised those people are voiceless because they’re corpses or on life support in COVID-19 wards.

So there’s bound to be pushback.

The pendulum shouldn’t be swung back the other way from employee to employer, no way. But there’s a level of respect that must be exhibited for those who commit themselves with you and for you, spending in upward of nine months together.

Some around the league believe this is the first step toward the Nets trading Irving if the circumstances don’t change. The surplus of talent the Nets employ — acquired through Irving’s influence, it should be noted — gives the organization the freedom to move him along if it should find a partner.

The executives polled by Yahoo Sports believe it can be done, but the phrase “special circumstances” was used more than once — especially with the belief he could retire if traded.

“I don’t know if I’d touch him, but you have to look at it, for the sake of your team,” one high-ranking executive said.

There was no way to predict the circumstances during the last normal round of free agency and last full season. The worst thing anyone could’ve foreseen was coach/player strife or an occasional tiff in the locker room. Not a deadly pandemic that would cost over 700,000 lives or a vaccine that could be as political as it is life-saving, or the fact it seeped into the normal cadence of the NBA’s culture.

Taking on Irving requires to expect the unexpected, which should also be applied to this ever-evolving era of player empowerment. There’s always someone willing to absorb the risk — until there isn’t.