Opinion: Brooklyn Nets send wrong message by allowing Kyrie Irving to participate in road games

Two months ago, the Brooklyn Nets made a bold and, at the time, commendable decision to play without unvaccinated All-Star Kyrie Irving if he could only be a part-time participant.

"We’re looking at putting a group of people out there that are going to be able to participate fully, and that’s what this comes down to," Nets general manager Sean Marks said Oct. 12.

A New York City mandate prevents unvaccinated Nets and Knicks players from playing games at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.

The Nets put public health and safety above victories. And the Nets, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference, proved they didn’t need Irving to win games.

It was a decision that also made science a priority. In a statement, Marks added, "We have decided Kyrie Irving will not play or practice until he is eligible to a full participant."

COVID IN THE NBA: Cases rising but league not planning pause in season

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Unless Irving decided to receive the vaccine or New York City altered its stance, the only other way Irving would play this season relied on the Nets changing their mind.

That’s not what is what’s happening now, and the Nets will allow Irving to play in road games.

The optics are horrible.

At a time when COVID cases are rising and a highly transmissible COVID variant has reached the NBA, the Nets decided to bring an unvaccinated player onto the roster. An unvaccinated player who entered the league's health and safety protocols on Saturday.

Kyrie Irving has not played for the Nets since last season's playoffs.
Kyrie Irving has not played for the Nets since last season's playoffs.

Even Nets opponents can be empathetic to the team’s plight. In addition to injuries, nine Nets, including Kevin Durant and James Harden, are in the league’s health and safety protocols because of COVID outbreak, and Durant’s minutes are piling up, a situation Nets coach Steve Nash called "not sustainable or safe."

"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," Marks said in a statement on Friday. "We look forward to Kyrie’s return to the lineup, as well as getting our entire roster back together on the court."

Marks said the decision was made after discussions with coaches, players and staff.

It is an unfortunate backtrack and sends the wrong message. When faced with a predicament, the Nets abandoned principles.

Those words Marks spoke in October about the Nets not wanting a part-time player and how it wouldn’t be fair to "the team, staff ownership and fans, but to be quite frank, not fair on Kyrie either when you’re putting somebody out there who potentially can’t get the right ramp-ups and build-ups and so forth and look as good as he or the team should" no longer apply.

Situations change. Everybody gets that. The Nets are missing at least 10 players for Saturday’s game against Orlando and have had to sign players to 10-day contracts. They don’t have roster space to sign a free agent, and they used their hardship exception to sign Langston Galloway. On Saturday, Brooklyn signed two more players to 10-day contracts.

It’s a predicament. But the players in health and safety protocols will return after a 10-day isolation period or two consecutive negative COVID tests at least 24 hours apart. The Nets could endure without bringing Irving back, and some of those players will return before Irving can play since he has to test negative for five consecutive days before rejoining the team.

They had a convenient out to get Irving back on the court, and they used it. Also, it’s not surprising a win-at-most costs philosophy won out. Championship windows open and shut with frequency. The Nets have a window now. It can close at any time.

But another aspect of Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated has bothered me. I tried to understand his point of view. Then, The Athletic wrote a story with an anonymous person saying Irving's refusal to get vaccinated in part was so that he could be a voice for the voiceless. The anti-vaxx community is hardly silent.

You know who needs a voice? The hundreds of thousands of people of died from COVID before a vaccine was available and who likely would have appreciated a chance to take a vaccine that helps prevent serious illness and death.

I think of the workers in the early days of COVID at meat processing plants who toiled in undesirable conditions at low wages in the name of profit — many of whom got COVID and some of whom died.

President Joe Biden said this week, "For the unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death." Hospitals are bracing for another stressful test on infrastructure even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, "vaccines protect everyone ages 5 years and older from getting infected and severely ill, and significantly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death."

There’s a way to reduce the burden of COVID. And yet the Nets and Irving have pushed that aside.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nets send wrong message by allowing Kyrie Irving to play in road games