Last week, Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Brooklyn Nets, missed the team’s media day at the Barclays Center. There was much speculation that Irving actually could not legally enter the building because of New York City’s proof-of-vaccination requirements, which, in turn, could preclude him from playing any games in cities with similar mandates. Irving, instead, chose to talk to reporters by video conference. When asked if he planned to play home games this season, Irving said, “Please respect my privacy regarding home games, what’s happening with my vaccination.”
Irving wasn’t the only N.B.A. player to express his vaccine hesitancy. The Washington Wizards’ guard Bradley Beal, one of last season’s leading scorers, also chimed in: “I would ask the question to those who are getting vaccinated, why are you still getting Covid?” Beal said.
The response was swift and thorough. “We have a rule that has to be applied, whether you’re famous, whether you’re not famous, whether you’re everyday working man or woman,” Mayor Bill DeBlasio said of Irving. “Get vaccinated because that’s what makes us all safe.” The writer and podcaster Jemele Hill appeared on MSNBC last week and said that Irving had missed an “opportunity there to talk to people in his community, not just the African-American community, but the Native American community, about vaccinations” (Irving is part Sioux) and that “this is costing other people jobs, because everybody doesn’t have the job security that he has on his own team.” On social media, the N.B.A. became the latest battleground for the continuing national argument about how we should respond to those who are still unvaccinated.
To be clear, I believe in the vaccines and that vaccine resistance is a public health emergency. And I believe that by not getting vaccinated, these players are creating unnecessary risk for those who come into close contact with them. But the objections to their behavior have been less about the epidemiological risk they pose as potential virus vectors and more about the message they might be sending out to the public and the responsibilities of public life. And that brings up a question: Do we care too much about what famous people think about the vaccines? Or, more broadly, do we care too much about what they think about everything?
Am I a role model or not?
“I am not a role model,” Charles Barkley famously announced in a 1993 Nike commercial. For years, that was the progressive party line when it came to professional athletes who had every bit of their personal lives picked apart and examined by hostile, often racist media.
I was thinking a lot about Barkley last week because it seems like some of the backlash to Irving comes at least in part from a shift that’s taken place in how some prominent athletes want to be seen by the public. It’s no longer enough to say, as Barkley did, “I am not paid to be a role model” and to reap the rewards of “wreaking havoc on the basketball court.” Athletes now want to be expansive brands that bleed into every facet of consumable life, even politics.
At the 2016 ESPY awards, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul — four of the biggest stars in the N.B.A. — stood on the stage of the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles with their hands clasped mournfully at their waists. Philando Castile, a Black school cafeteria worker in St. Paul, Minn., had just been shot to death by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Alton Sterling, a resident of Baton Rouge, La., had been wrestled down in front of a convenience store and killed by a police officer. The ESPYs, a usually limp bacchanal in which a stand-up comedian gently ribs superstar athletes, who, in turn, give little laughs and awkward acceptance speeches, had decided to join in on the national spirit of protest.
“Tonight is a celebration of sports,” Anthony said. “But in this moment of celebration, we asked to start the show tonight this way — the four of us talking to our fellow athletes with the country watching. Because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America.”
The four stars went down the line and all gave similar speeches on the need to speak out in the grand tradition of Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
All this was hailed as a great call to arms and a validation of the Americans who had walked out of their homes to local protests and exercised their First Amendment rights. It also created a stir in the advertising world, where I was doing some work at the time. Terms like “platform,” “conversation” and “systemic racism” began getting bandied about in creative meetings. Big brands, sensing some change in the air, at least in the hearts of their affluent, coastal customer base, began sketching out ideas on how to maximize a sponsored athlete’s “platform” for social justice-y profit.
This came to a head in the N.B.A. bubble in Orlando, Fla., when the league and its sponsors plunged headfirst into the George Floyd protests with solemn displays of players kneeling, all manner of Nike-sponsored Black Lives Matter messaging printed on their players’ backs, projected all over the court and crammed into every corner of your television screen.
It’s nice, perhaps even somewhat brave, that the N.B.A. decided to “take a stand” (another phrase from creative meetings), but as happens whenever any famous people decide to do anything vaguely political, there was an undue amount of attention placed on which N.B.A. players were kneeling and which players were wearing what social justice slogans on their backs. Protest coverage became celebrity coverage. That, in turn, fed into an odd, increasingly prevalent form of politically driven fandom, wherein the opinions of the celebrities you support also reflect on you.
The bubble did generate some stirring, important and courageous displays of dissent, most notably the decision of the Milwaukee Bucks to effectively go on strike after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. But once the games started up again after a brief stoppage, the messaging around police violence and racism felt workshopped, sanded-down and ultimately gestural. The point seemed more to be that these very famous people and this very public league were using their platforms, but once you got beyond the sloganeering and the civil rights montages, there wasn’t much the platform actually said or did. All this almost felt like an apology for the fact that during the most significant civil rights moment of these young players’ lives, the league was forcing its players to live in a bubble. The actual message of last summer could be found in the streets of America, and it needed no amplification from N.B.A. players at Disney World.
I am not questioning the sincerity of these athletes or even discounting the steps they took to make sure that some message — however vague — of justice was delivered. But it should be noted that during this year’s playoffs, nearly all of the social justice messaging was mostly gone. LeBron James seemed perfectly content to use his platform to promote his film “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and when asked about the vaccine, he said that he had taken it but that it was not his job to promote it. “We’re not talking about something that’s political, or racism, or police brutality,” James said. “We’re talking about people’s bodies and well-being.” The platform, in other words, only extends to issues that LeBron James cares about, which apparently does not include getting people vaccinated.
James is wrong, of course: The pandemic is political, as are issues of public health and people’s bodies. But he also shouldn’t have to become a spokesperson for every progressive idea, even one as vital and as seemingly obvious as vaccines. We can be frustrated at James or even write off his political bona fides. We can even decide to stop rooting for him because of his seeming nonchalance about vaccine messaging. But we should also acknowledge that it ultimately doesn’t really matter what he, or the N.B.A. for that matter, believes. Who cares!
Wait, but does anyone actually care?
The question of whether we should care about what a celebrity thinks about vaccines — we obviously shouldn’t — is of course different from whether we do, which is what people are talking about when they claim that athletes have a responsibility to the public. If every athlete had some significant population of people who hang on their every word, this would all be a bit more understandable.
The most compelling, well-known and probably relevant example here is Magic Johnson, who had a seismic effect on pretty much every aspect of the fight against H.I.V., from awareness to behavioral change to funding for research. He turned what had previously been seen as a gay disease into a universal concern; in his later years, he has also shown that a person can actually live with the disease and still lead a healthy and fulfilled existence.
Given Johnson’s outsize contribution to the fight against H.I.V., it does seem reasonable to believe that professional athletes — at least the very famous ones like Johnson — can change people’s minds and encourage them to engage in less risky behavior.
But is that actually analogous to today’s pandemic and celebrity culture? The evidence for whether celebrities influence people’s decision making around questions of vaccines is decidedly mixed.
This year, a team of researchers in Switzerland published a study on which public figures were most likely to get their messages reshared during the pandemic. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dr. Anthony Fauci ended up having the most effect. Of the other groups studied, “celebrity spokespersons were least effective.” (The two celebrities highlighted in the study were Tom Hanks and Kim Kardashian.)
It should be said: It’s hard to tell how much to make of social media resharing studies. And having little effect, of course, is not the same as having zero or even a negative effect. A different study found that Hanks’s early announcement that he had tested positive for Covid-19 did, in fact, lead people to take the virus a bit more seriously, especially when it came to their own sense of personal risk. So celebrities can affect public health at the farthest edges of the margins; this, I imagine, more or less corresponds with most people’s hold on reality.
But Kyrie Irving is nowhere near as famous as Tom Hanks. He’s also no Magic Johnson. I understand why N.B.A. players bristled when Laura Ingraham told LeBron James in 2018 to “shut up and dribble,” but I’m not sure supporting an athlete’s right to express a political opinion also means that we have to treat every single one of those opinions as if they are a matter of national importance.
The curious, viral case of Jonathan Isaac
Irving’s anti-vax beliefs don’t stray all that far from the usual, unhinged stuff you hear around social media. (Irving, according to a Rolling Stone report, apparently “liked” some posts from a conspiracy theorist on Instagram who claims that vaccines had been programmed to connect Black people to a master computer.) But on Sept. 27, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac spoke at length, in measured tones, about his own vaccine hesitancy. “I’m not anti-vax, I’m not anti-medicine, I’m not anti-science,” Isaac said. “I didn’t come to my current vaccination status by studying Black history” — most likely a reference to people who cite the history of the Tuskegee Study as a reason to reject the Covid-19 vaccine — “or watching Donald Trump press conferences.” Isaac went on to say that a vaccine should be a choice and that it should be made “without bullying, without being pressured, without being forced into doing so.” He also spoke about already having had Covid, which he said provides him with natural immunity. (A recent C.D.C. study showed that vaccination offered higher protection against the disease than a previous infection, but some states, including Ohio, have proposed exempting previously infected people from vaccine mandates. All evidence seems to indicate that the vaccines will still help people with natural antibodies against serious illness.)
Within a day, Isaac had become the cause célèbre of the right. Will Cain, a host on “Fox & Friends,” tweeted “Jonathan Isaac is more educated, intelligent, and speaks with more moral clarity on this issue than the reporters that condescendingly cover him and the morons who mock him on Twitter.” The next day, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted: “I stand with Kyrie Irving. I stand with Andrew Wiggins. I stand with Bradley Beal. I stand with Jonathan Isaac.”
There are a couple of points to make here. The first is obvious: Every part of this pandemic has been politicized, and as a result, the words of even mildly anti-vax non-stars like Isaac can appear to spread much farther than those of LeBron James, so long as they line up with the message a politician or a partisan news outlet wants to put out in the world.
But the virality of Isaac’s statements also highlights one of the counterintuitive effects of social media. There have been few recent experiences shared as collectively as the Covid pandemic, which has affected almost everyone around the globe in some way (albeit to varying degrees). And yet social media — which is after all just a collection of statements from individuals, with varying affiliations and capacities to influence — has had the strange effect of leading us to process everything through the lens of personal responsibility and morality. Every bad tweet can become a referendum, not only on the moral failures of the tweeter, but also on a loosely defined, sometimes apocryphal population of people who act upon every word the person says.
This situation can go terribly for the anti-vaxxer, as it did recently for Nicki Minaj and, I suppose, Irving, but it can also reward those who go against the consensus, especially if they’re particularly skilled at seeding in little talking points that might win over an audience. Before his appearance on media day, Isaac tweeted his distrust of the press, presumably in response to the Rolling Stone article that named him, along with Irving and Beal, as anti-vaxxers: “True journalism is dying! I believe it is your God given right to decide if taking the vaccine is right for you!”
If Isaac wants to become a media-bashing, vaccine-skeptical crusader or whatever, I’m sure he will have an open invitation to every right-wing talk show in the country. I can’t really think of a more appealing spokesperson for those who want to push vaccine-hesitant messages than a deeply religious N.B.A. player who seems to have a gift for saying things that sound thoughtful, even if only on the surface, which, in turn, will make him a lightning rod for the sorts of progressives who like to seek out opinions they disagree with and make a big deal about all of them. Will Isaac change people’s minds and swing them from mildly vaccine hesitant to fully anti-vax, though? Probably not.
By the way, if you’re interested in how the N.B.A. thinks about vaccination, 95 percent of the league’s players are vaccinated, a rate far higher than found in a large majority of industries. That makes the undue focus on a few stragglers even more bizarre — this isn’t some significant portion of the league rebelling against a vaccine mandate. This is just a few guys sharing their opinions and weighing whether they want to have to sit out a lot of games. That’s it.
What to make of all this?
Barkley was right. The athlete shouldn’t have to be a role model, even if he desperately wants us to think of him as one. This doesn’t mean that an athlete can’t affect social change — Colin Kaepernick and the activism of the W.N.B.A.’s players are counterexamples — but it seems pretty clear at this point that today’s professional athletes and celebrities just don’t make for great political spokespeople. It’s OK to just ignore them from time to time — maybe even most of the time! — and not create the conditions where someone like Isaac can potentially fashion himself into a popular figure of political resistance.
More broadly, we should resist the assumption that every celebrity’s opinion must stand in as some referendum on the issues of the day. We live in a country where 35 percent of the eligible population still has not been fully vaccinated. It is a public health emergency that requires big, maximalist thinking and not the fleeting, yet ultimately powerless outrage we might feel at a celebrity with catastrophic opinions. Sometimes, they’re just not that deep.
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