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Kyrie Irving is 'making a big mistake' but there are 'bigger fish to fry': Len Elmore

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Len Elmore, Former NBA Player & Columbia Senior Lecturer, and Dr. Robby Sikka, COVID Sports and Society Workgroup Chai, discuss Kyrie Irving's decision to stay unvaccinated, despite his contract with the Nets reportedly being in jeopardy.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: NBA star Kyrie Irving's days may be numbered with the Brooklyn Nets. "The New York Post" reporting the team has not discussed an extension with the player. He is now in his third year of a four-year contract. This comes after Irving refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine, essentially ruling him ineligible for the upcoming season, which begins next week.

Let's bring in Len Elmore. He's former NBA player and Columbia senior lecturer. We've also got Dr. Robby Sikka. He's COVID Sports and Society Workgroup chair. Len, let me start with you. It's great to have both of you on.

As a former player, I just want to get your thoughts on this debate that's been playing out. Clearly, the NBA is working around mandates that are existing in the individual cities they're playing. In New York, you're required to get a vaccine to play indoors. What do you think this does for the team? But more importantly, how do you see it as a former player?

LEN ELMORE: Well, I think that choices have consequences. And Kyrie Irving has incurred the consequences for his stance. But I think from a player standpoint, and we look at it not necessarily from a business perspective, although that's important. I think Kyrie's position contradicts everything he and other NBA players have said and stood for regarding social justice.

According to the CDC, the Black community has incurred the highest death rate per 100,000 from COVID, more than any other ethnicity and three times that of white people. And the ingrained racism in the United States separates Black folks from quality health care and creates economic disparities which prevent access to quality nutrition and health education.

And all of these have had an adverse impact on Black death rates. So when Kyrie says that he's doing what's best for him, considering the dynamics, his platform, his influence, and his voice, that's not a laudable statement. The first thing we're taught in civics class is that with individual rights comes responsibility.

So in my opinion, this statement is one of arrogance and selfishness. And it obviously needs to change. And I think other players are starting to put pressure on him for that change.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And Doctor, I suppose when we think about where we're at in this pandemic, there are some people who might point out, look, weren't we just trying to get to herd immunity, and isn't that what this is about? And you saw the vaccination rates there on the screen. I suppose there might be some people out there listening and watching Kyrie make this decision and say, aren't enough players vaccinated? And I suppose the flip side of that would be, isn't it probably not fair to then change the rules for some players and not others? But I mean, what's the medical take around all this?

ROBBY SIKKA: Well, that's a really good question, Zack. And thanks for having me this morning.

I think the important thing to remember here is that we're still in the throes of this. And Dr. Peter Hove has talked about we could have another spike in Texas. And we're at 80% of our peak hospitalization here in Minnesota right now. So we're not through this.

And treating individuals who aren't vaccinated, we have to have rules and guidelines and accountability, as Len alluded to. I mean, in the end, we have 2,000 people who are dying each day across our country from a preventable disease. And I think we have to have rules and expectations for people that are going to protect public health.

This is less of a personal choice and more about public health, more about the general welfare. And for individual athletes who are out there around kids, around at-risk individuals, I think it's about providing the same level of support that they provide for you as a fan. It's about providing that same level of concern for them because you're around them.

You're there, giving them high fives and giving them autographs. You have to value their health in the same way that they value you as a basketball player and you as a human being.

AKIKO FUJITA: Len, how do you think other teams in the league respond here, not necessarily to questions around the vaccine, but more to Kyrie Irving? As we said, he's in the third year of a four-year contract. He's had personal issues in the past as well, not necessarily with the Nets but when he was with the Boston Celtics too. You think his days are numbered in the league? Or do you think other teams could pick him up?

LEN ELMORE: Oh, absolutely. He is an extraordinary talent. And while the Nets have done a pretty good job of essentially protecting themselves-- they're ridding themselves of a distraction that could cost them more money. And they're placing the team's interests ahead of an individual's. And I think that message has been sent to players throughout the league.

They fully understand the team's position. But some would say-- and I would kind of agree rhetorically-- why are we singling out Kyrie Irving? Yes, he's a star basketball player. NBA fans have had a huge emotional investment in their favorite players like him. And that's why so many irrationally come to his defense.

But he's just one person taking a discordant stance. In the bigger picture, we ought to be angered and decrying situations like a large number of America's police forces, where in the last year, police officers who frequently come in contact with the public are dying at a rate times more than they're dying from criminally-inflicted gunshot wounds. Yet their unions are balking at mandates that they should be fully vaccinated.

Threats of walkouts and resignations are used to blackmail the public into keeping them from getting vaccinated. Compare Kyrie Irving to that, and I think the latter is the type of hypocrisy and entitlement that should be news. Kyrie Irving is one person who's making a big mistake. And I know he's a celebrity. But there are much bigger fish to fry out here.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And Doctor, I suppose, when you look at the bigger picture, as Mr. Elmore there is laying out, I mean, obviously, it matters. These decisions maybe kind of spiral and impact a lot of people. But I mean, what have you seen? I suppose we've seen vaccination rates continue to rise.

I mean, as a doctor watching it all play out, I mean, how worried are you that the spillover effect could be larger than just one person and one team here?

ROBBY SIKKA: Well, I think as a country, we need to start to talk about long COVID more than we talk about mortality associated with COVID. We know that there's individuals who have long-term implications from COVID. The Biobank study from England talked about long-term memory implications. And we know that there's a lot of other things that are associated with COVID that haven't been associated with other viruses.

So we really need to start to have real conversations about what are the real public health implications. And we need to start to prepare ourselves for the fact that this is the most educated population in the history of the world in terms of health care. We need to learn how to handle misinformation.

And I applaud you guys for trying to get the right information out each day on your broadcast. That's what we need more of. We need the right information getting out to mainstream media to the mainstream population, so that there's new voices out there. And encouraging people in the same way LeBron James shared his very personal decision about getting vaccinated, that's great.

Make it personal. Share who you are when you have that platform. It's OK to ask questions. But you have to be willing to take that information back and process it and share the why. And I give LeBron a lot of credit for how he handled it.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah. LeBron very open about saying that he was, in fact, skeptical early on. But he says he did his research and chose to get vaccinated. Len Elmore, former NBA player and Columbia senior lecturer, and Dr. Robby Sikka, COVID Sports and Society Workgroup chair, it's good to have both of you on today. Really appreciate the time.

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