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ESSAY: The Brooklyn Nets, Kyrie Irving, and partnership

Brian Fleurantin takes another look at the Kyrie Irving situation in light of Tuesday’s developments, the Nets ban and the Shams Charania piece.

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Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

We’ve reached a critical point. On Tuesday, the Brooklyn Nets announced that Kyrie Irving will be away from the team until he’s “eligible to be a full participant.” Long story short, it means either he gets COVID vaccinated or the laws in New York State change regarding entry into venues like Barclays Center. As of this writing, it appears that neither will be happening anytime soon so we’re stuck here.

Later that day, sources close to Irving told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that he isn’t vaccinated because he wants to make a point about control and the unfairness of COVID vaccine mandates. From the sources that spoke to Charania:

Irving is not anti-vaccine and that his stance is that he is upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates. It’s a stance that Irving has explained to close teammates. To him, this is about a grander fight than the one on the court and Irving is challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood, according to sources with knowledge of Irving’s mindset. It is a decision that he believes he is capable to make given his current life dynamics. “Kyrie wants to be a voice for the voiceless,” one source said.

So, let’s stay here for a minute. Think back to the story author Matt Sullivan did for Rolling Stone about unvaccinated NBA players in late September. There, we heard from Irving’s aunt, Tyki, as she claimed Irving’s objections to COVID vaccination were moral and not religious. For as objectionable as most people found her quotes, she was front and center with her comments and was clear in what she was saying. When presented with the opportunity on Media Day to publicly explain why he wasn’t vaccinated or how he felt about all the reporting about his status, Irving passed and said “everything will get released at a due date once we get this cleared up.” That “everything” is as cloudy as ever and he hasn’t spoken to the media or discussed COVID on his social media accounts since that day.

If the sources in Charania’s story are to be taken at their word, then Irving is handling this situation in the worst way imaginable. When you’ve done as much as good as Irving has and spoken on the amount of things he has without backing down, these type of comments HAVE to come from you and you alone and not from sources close to you speaking to a reporter on a paywalled site and having them call you “a voice for the voiceless” and contradicting what your family member/ Executive Director of your foundation said on the record about why you’re not vaccinated. From what we know of Irving as a public figure, he isn’t one to back down and hold his tongue when he sees an injustice occurring, so the silence here amid conflicting, contradictory stories from people close to him is shocking and only adding to the confusion and frustration felt by the community.

When you and your NBA peers have willingly accepted the mantle of being leaders and the praise that comes with it, that comes with the additional responsibility of stepping up and answering when you face legitimate criticism. COVID has disproportionately harmed Black and Indigenous Americans, communities that Irving represent and care for deeply. Not being vaccinated and having people that speak for you cast doubt on vaccines that has helped save lives is allowing the very worst people to claim Irving as an ally even though his politics repulse them. When you’ve been out front speaking on political, moral, and social issues, you have to keep it consistent and speak about what you seemingly find objectionable about COVID vaccinations and why, even if most of us think your logic behind it is ridiculous.

Even good people who do great things for the world can make the wrong choice and when we think they do, we can call them out while acknowledging the positives they've contributed to elsewhere.

To borrow from CBS Sports’ Adi Joseph, the only person that should be explaining Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving.

Earlier in the day, Nets management had to explain their decision-making process on why he won’t be with the team. From the press conference discussing these developments, Marks said:

“When you make a decision like this, it’s one you don’t want to do hastily. Again, involve all the parties, think about the variety of all different outcomes. I think we all know what our objective is this year and how a decision like this maybe affects that ultimate objective.

“So, they’re never easy decisions, but at the end of the day, I think 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. We’re not looking for partners that are going to be half-time. I don’t think that would be fair not only on the team, and staff, and ownership, and fans. But, to be quite frank, not fair on Kyrie, either.”

Naturally, this situation has led to discussions and missives about player empowerment and its limits. The thinking goes that players have gotten too much power, they’re being irresponsible with it, and have started to abuse that power and run roughshod over the organizations they work for. However, I think that framing doesn’t really apply here.

Marks’ use of the word “partner” harkened back to Sullivan’s book, Can’t Knock the Hustle, and team Governor Joe Tsai saying of players: “They’re literally megastars - very, very powerful - so you can’t treat your players as employees anymore. They’re your partners in the business.”

Within that partnership comes the belief that the Nets ran this decision by two of the other members of the Big Three, Kevin Durant and James Harden. Marks made sure to shield the players from having to answer for this and put the responsibility at the front doors of Tsai and himself. It’s a subtle, but important thing. When you have to make an unpopular, controversial, and divisive decision, you as management have to step in and answer for it and have all the questions solely pointed in your direction. You get out there, address it, and keep the guys that do the heavy lifting on the court from having to figure out what to say, how they should discuss it, etc. Even within a partnership, certain decisions have to come from the very top as to not place such a burden on guys who have other important things to focus on.

Along with all that, if a member of the partnership like Irving is messing up and needs to get himself back up to standard, you can acknowledge his feelings on an issue while doing what you have to do in removing him from the situation without belittling him, calling him names, and hurling invective his way. Dumping on someone at their low point would get you applause and pats on the back in some circles, but have the unintended consequence of severing a relationship you’ve spent three years cultivating in others. It’s a bad spot to be in, but the players, coaching staff, and upper management handled it as best as could be expected given the circumstances.

As the Brooklyn Nets move into an eventful season, they’ll probably be doing it without one of their best, most important players. While the Kyrie Irving situation remains in flux, the Nets are moving on, at least for the time being. In the event circumstances change, he’ll be back and resuming his place in the organization as if he never left. Until then, the other partners in this thing of theirs will have to do without their friend and colleague. A difficult decision, but ultimately the right one.