NBA: Nets' Irving returns as leagues takes softer stance toward unvaccinated athletes

Rory Carroll, Reuters

Posted at Jan 06 2022 09:26 AM

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) dribbles the ball while Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Trevor Ruszkowski, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters.
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) dribbles the ball while Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Trevor Ruszkowski, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters.

Kyrie Irving, who had been barred from playing for the Brooklyn Nets this season after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, will suit up for the team late on Wednesday in what critics say is the latest example of sports leagues giving in to their unvaccinated star players.

The Nets said before the season that Irving could not play with the team until he was vaccinated, proof of which is required to attend games at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

The seven-time All-Star will make his season debut in Indiana and will in essence be a part-time player for the championship contenders as he is unable to compete in home games.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was fined this season for flouting COVID-19 protocols and suggesting he was vaccinated prior to contracting the virus.

He was fined $14,650 but not suspended and is the frontrunner to win his fourth MVP award for the 13-3 Packers, who are the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the second consecutive year.

On Wednesday, he called an NFL-award voter "a bum" for saying he would not vote for Rodgers based on his character and off-field issues.

World number one Novak Djokovic, who has voiced doubts about the vaccine, was handed a medical exemption to defend his title at this month's Australian Open, which prompted a backlash in the country, which has endured the world's longest cumulative lockdown.

On Wednesday he was denied entry into the country after touching down at a Melbourne airport when his visa was revoked.

"This is a total abdication of responsibility on the part of the leadership of all of the men's professional sports out there," said Victor Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and an expert on sports economics.

"It's a total lack of leadership and quite frankly, I think it's appalling.

"This is something that impacts, that endangers the safety of other players, both on their teams and other teams, and the leagues do nothing about it."

Djokovic being denied entry into Australia means the Australian Open will take a huge reputational hit while not even getting the player they wanted, he said.

"Talk about an unforced error," he said.

Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at U.S.-based Pinnacle Advertising, said it is all about the money that comes with winning.

"The Packers can't get to the Super Bowl without Rodgers. Djokovic is the biggest draw in men's tennis. And while the Nets are winning without Kyrie, they badly need his minutes with Kevin Durant pulling a much-too-heavy load," he said.

"It probably also helps that while Omicron is running rampant, the severity of cases and numbers of deaths seems to be dropping.

"Winning can't cure COVID, but it sure makes it healthier for anti-vaxxers." 

(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles Editing by Toby Davis)