I was asked to be a guest on Marc Lamont Hill's "Black News Tonight" program to discuss Kyrie Irving’s Instagram Live address.
I don’t think the conversation went exactly how it was planned, and I know that a lot of people may take issue with the comparisons I made throughout this discussion, but I stand by every word I said.
Watch the full segment of our exchange below:
Here's the transcription of the conversation in its entirety.
Marc Lamont Hill: The Brooklyn Nets have barred Kyrie Irving from all team activities. This was in response to his unwillingness to take the COVID-19 vaccine. They also will not be extending his contract at the end of the season. The point guard decided to go to Instagram live last night. He had some stuff to say, take a listen.
Kyrie Irving on B-roll: "It's just really about being true to what feels good for me. I'm still uncertain about a lot of things that, and that's okay. If I'm going to be demonized for having more questions and taking my time to make a decision with my life, then that's just what it is."
Joining me now is former NBA player Etan Thomas. He is the author of "We Matter," "Athletes and Activism." Etan, thank you for of joining me. How do you feel about this Kyrie situation? I mean, this is something that obviously has never happened in NBA history before. You got a guy who, maybe at the peak of his powers, helped put together one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, and he's not going to play because he doesn't want to get the vaccine. And the NBA is beholden to the New York state laws or New York city laws that say that he can't play unless he gets vaccinated as a New York employee. So he's sitting this one out for so far. What do you make of it?
Etan Thomas: I mean, it's interesting. I've been listening to a lot of commentary and reading articles over the last week or two, discussing Kyrie. And there's a lot with it. It's interesting. I noticed that a lot of the same people who praised athletes for using their platform and using their positions to stand up for what they believe in, now are sounding a little bit like "the right." They sound a little Laura Ingraham-ish. You know what I mean? To be honest with you, a lot like Tucker Carlson almost, in the ridicule part. Now, we don't have to agree with Kyrie, but just the description [of him]... I've been kind of amazed to see the way in which people are using words like stupid and foolish and ignorant and everything. And I'm like, "Wait a minute."
That's what Sean Hannity does; we don't do that. So, that's one of the main things I've seen, I've really been disappointed in. We expect it from the right; that's what they did with Colin Kaepernick. Or they purposely misrepresented what Kyrie Irving's stance was, what Jonathan Isaac's stance was, Bradley Beal — all the people who said that they were hesitant to take the vaccine. And you heard Kyrie say it in the clip, demonized them. I've got to tell you honestly, Marc, I was kind of disappointed to see that because again, that's what the right does. That's what I expect from Fox News, not from a lot of the people that I heard it from.
Hill: So specifically, the Laura Ingraham reference you're talking about is when she told LeBron to shut up and dribble. And so the idea is: Don't speak about politics, don't talk about anything, just play basketball. And we said, "Oh, wait a minute. That's wrong. Players have a right to use their platform and talk." But to your point, Kyrie's using his platform to talk. We just don't like what he's saying. Some people and myself included, I don't like what he's saying, but I wouldn't call him stupid, I just don’t agree with him.
So he goes to IG Live and he says: I'm not going through the media, I'm not going to go call up Stephen A. Smith, I'm not going talk to Jemele Hill. No, I'm going to do my IG Live directly, people are going hear from me. He said, because he's been “demonized,” he wants to be heard and understood. Did he make his point on IG Live? Did he say the things that needed to be said?
Etan: I mean, he said that he wasn't retiring, which was reported all throughout the media. They said that he was going to quit and hang it up rather than take the vaccine. And he said, no, that's not true. The thing that I like about the players nowadays is — because it's not like when I was playing, we didn't have social media — they can go right to their own platform like Kyrie Irving did and say: No, everything that person reported is untrue. All of their anonymous sources, I don't know where they got them from, but that is not how I feel. And that's the part that I respect about this generation, because they're doing this so much more often. Now again, do we have to agree with what Kyrie Irving is saying? No, but do we have to demean him and belittle him and demonize him because of that? That's the part that we can't fall into that category.
And like I said, that's the Laura Ingraham category. That's the Bill O'Reilly category. And I've seen too many... I mean, we expect certain things from Stephen A. Smith. Since you brought him up, you mentioned Stephen A. Smith. We expect certain things from him. He's performative, he's going to talk very loudly. And ESPN is going to pay him even more money to talk even more loudly. That's what he does. But, Stephen A. Smith aside, why would Kyrie Irving go to some of these same reporters who've been demonizing him? I don't see why he would. So now people are saying, "Well, what is his clear message? What is his clear stance?" Well, if you really want to make somebody's stance or what they're saying seem really doubtful or demean them or discredit them, you'll do what is happening a lot in media today, all day on all different talk shows after Kyrie made his statement on Instagram Live. But the point is what he said is: I am not retiring. I'm not anti-vaccine, I'm still working through this process. I would like to play. Those are the main key points that should be the main takeaways out of everything that he said.
Former #NBA player and author @etanthomas36 joins @marclamonthill to discuss #KyrieIrving. "A lot of the same people that praised athletes for using their platforms and using their positions to stand up for what they believe in now are sounding a little bit like the right." pic.twitter.com/0hhPm6NwEi— Black News Channel (@BNCNews) October 15, 2021
Hill: So, and again, you raised some important points here, Kyrie Irving absolutely clarified it. He's not retiring. That was something we'd heard if he was going to retire. If he got traded, some people said he was going to retire not to get vaccinated. He took that off the table. He said he is not anti-vaccine, meaning he's open to the possibility of being vaccinated. That's an important point. But there were some other things he said that weren't clear.
He said he was doing his research, he expressed that he was vaccine hesitant, but it's not entirely clear to me. What will lead him to make a different choice? In other words, what does he need to find out in order to feel comfortable getting the vaccine? If he is willing to get one. Wouldn't training camp be the time? Wouldn't the preseason be the time? The season starts in [four] days. If he hasn't gotten it yet, when is he going to get it? These are the types of questions I think he didn't answer very clearly. I mean, did you walk away with a sense of whether or not he's going to get the vaccine or not?
Etan: I walked away thinking that he was still working through the process, like a large portion of this country is still working through it. You look at the vaccination numbers per state, they’re somewhere in the 50s, some are in the 60s; we have a large portion of society who are still working through that process. I just think it's interesting that we... okay, so right now the NBA is 95% vaccinated. 95%. So you look at different states all across the country. Nobody's at 95%, but we expect the NBA to be at 100%? Why? Because we want our basketball? The only thing that matters is for NBA games to start and for everybody to be vaccinated, I think that's a little bit of an unfair expectation to have for NBA players. They're working through the vaccine concerns and questions just like the rest of the country.
But one of the things I do want to say Marc, is I want to hear more criticism toward the different people and demonization toward the different groups who are unvaccinated — like the NYPD, like the LAPD, like the Chicago Police Department. All these police departments all across the country that have said not that they're not working through their research, not that they're working through the process. They said, "We are not getting the vaccine *period*." And those are at high numbers. You have only 60-something percent of the NYPD who are actually vaccinated, but we're worrying about Kyrie? And these are people who literally are coming into contact with Americans every single day, and a lot of them, they don't want to wear masks. So, just to put it into perspective, we're making a lot over, what, one player per team that isn't vaccinated in the NBA? I mean, I know people want basketball, but we got to put it into perspective.
Hill: Well, I think it's about basketball, but it's also about what it means for a public figure and a celebrity to advance a position, or seem to be advancing a position, that some people find troublesome. So I think it's both. I think there's some selfish basketball stuff going on, then I think there's the public platform piece of it. We're going to keep this kind going about Kyrie Irving, about vaccine hesitancy and what it all means for the Black community.
Y'all, Kyrie confuses me. I mean, I'm going to start with you [Amin], since we're bringing you into the convo. In the IG Live, he said that he was being "a voice for the voiceless." Who is the voiceless in this analysis? I'm not disagreeing, this is a sincere question. Who is the voiceless here? What is his thought process? And why is he doing it?
Amin Elhassan: Your guess is as good as mine, as to who the voiceless are. He talks about people who are losing jobs because of a vaccine mandate, but that represents a sliver of the population. Also, when he says I'm a voice for the voiceless, this was a man two weeks ago, who had an opportunity on NBA Media Day; they call it "Media Day" because you have the attention of all the media. And there are questions about his availability, whether he was going to play or not due to this municipal regulation, it's not an NBA regulation. This is a New York City regulation.
And when asked about it several times, his response was, Well, this is a private matter. I don't want to discuss a private matter. Brother, you can't talk about "I didn't have an opportunity to speak for myself. They spoke for me. I didn't say anything," when there was a day dedicated for you to speak on this matter. And you chose to opt-out. You chose to say, I have nothing to say, because this is my own private business, when you knew damn well it wasn't your private business. Regardless of whether everyone else was going through it, we knew the NBA said, "Hey, if your local municipality says you cannot play in these games if you are unvaccinated." Instantly, that ceased to be a private matter and became at the very least an NBA public matter. A matter of the media had a right to ask about, a matter that he had an opportunity to expound upon. He chose not to. So when he chooses several weeks later to dress up this whole, "I really didn't have a chance. And they spoke for me." It kind of screams ingenuous.
Hill: So Etan, what do you say to that? I know you've been somewhat generous in your reading of the Kyrie Irving situation. Whether you agree with him on vaccines is a different issue. You're saying he's being somewhat unfairly assailed. that he's being demonized by folk and that some people on the left have been treating him with the same animus at the right treat black athletes telling him to shut up and dribble. But what Amin is saying is, "Wait a minute, he had an opportunity to talk. He was coy. He was difficult to reach. He bucked at the reporter's questions." He said, It's a private matter. It's a personal matter. Are you going to play? It's a personal matter. Are you going to get vaccinated? It's a personal matter, etc. What do you say to that? Has he been forthcoming? Has he even been a voice for the voiceless?
Etan: Well, I have a little bit of a different take on it. I did see where he said it was a personal matter. And I think he does have the right to be able to say that because they wanted specifics that he was not able to give them at that time, because he was still working through his process or whatever that process was in order to be able to either take the vaccine or not take the vaccine. And that's what he said. He said he was working through that. So when the reporters tried to ask in different ways about a timetable ("When do you think, by training camp?"), he just cut it off and said, It's a personal matter. But I don't think that that gives the media the right to fill in the blanks.
And that's what happened after that. Then, they had anonymous sources that were all incorrect. Then, they had reporters, journalists, commentators saying on-air and writing, "Okay, he's going to retire. He's going to refuse the vaccine. He's anti-vax." Now, I will agree that he didn't specifically answer those questions the first time, but he had to go and correct people this last time because of all of the incorrect reporting that was done. Now, the thing that happens is, when a lot of the media gets called out for reporting something that was incorrect, they immediately take offense. And we don't have to talk about the specific reporters because he was very specific on the people who said that he was going to retire and misreported that over and over again; he made it clear that was incorrect. The people who said that he was anti-vax, and he said that they were incorrect. And so, a lot of times when there's different things coming out and different narratives coming out, then it does kind of muddy the waters. Then, people are like, "Okay, well, where is he then?" Well, he's been where he's always been. He didn't say any of those things. He's just answering the incorrect things that were put out. And for that, I don't fault him at all.
Hill: But, just in fairness as a journalist, I can tell you there's been times where... I've done backgrounds. I've done one-on-ones. I've done off-the-records. I've done all kinds of interviews with athletes, politicians, etc. And they say one thing to me in my face, then they go out to the press conference and say they've been misrepresented, they've been lied on, etc. So I don't want to assume that because Kyrie said he didn't say it, that means he didn't say it. I also don't want to assume that the media's right, because the media also misrepresent the players say all the time.
But I don't want to take Kyrie's word as gospel. Before we go y'all, Stephon Marbury was all up in the comments on the IG. And one of the things he did was compare Kyrie Irving to Muhammad Ali. What do you make of that comparison? Is he doing something bigger than himself? Is he making a sacrifice for the people? Amin, I'll let you answer anytime, and give the last word.
Amin: I'll go real quick on this one. Muhammad Ali fought against an unjust war against other colored people in another country that had nothing to do with him or other people of color in this country, who were treated like trash, who were called all sorts of names and then expected to defend this country on behalf of its stellar background or resume. Kyrie Irving is standing up for people who are scared of science. I mean, even if you have questions about whether or not this vaccine is good or applicable or whatever, the idea that this could be compared to forcing people to go to war against people who have no quarrel with them. To me, that was one of the biggest face-palm moment, that Stephon Marbury would ever compare what Muhammad Ali did to what Kyrie is doing here...
This is what I didn’t get a chance to say because we ran out of time.
Kyrie Irving is neither Muhammad Ali nor is he Candace Owens, he is Kyrie Irving. Everyone wants to make him something and lay claim to him, and I get that. The Right is working tirelessly to co-op his message and all of the NBA players' messages. (I wrote an open article to Jonathan Isaac a few days ago warning him of this.)
But Kyrie is just Kyrie, and I really wish people would stop trying to turn him into something else. No, we don’t have to agree with him, and yes, if there is a mandate — which there is in New York — it’s either he takes it and plays, or he doesn’t take it and doesn’t play. Only certain people like the NYPD get exceptions. That’s unfortunate, but that is the society we live in.