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Ricky Clemons

The Brooklyn Nets superstar point guard Kyrie Irving embarked this week on one of the most quixotic and impractical playing schedules since former 76er and Net Eric Money played for the two teams during the same game in 1978.

While Money’s quagmire was caused by a lot of technical fouls and some questionable officiating, Irving’s dilemma is rooted in New York City’s regulations on COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace. As of December 27, 2021, workers in New York City who perform in-person work or interact with the public in the course of business must show proof they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and unvaccinated people are barred from entering their place of work.

These regulations have forced the unvaccinated Irving, a seven-time NBA All-Star known for his pinpoint passing and mind-boggling drives to the hoop, to sit out home games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center – along with games across the East River in Madison Square Garden. Irving, however, can play in road games in cities without a vaccination requirement. (Except in Toronto versus the rival Raptors because vaccination is a requisite for entering Canada.)

What is most frustrating about this situation –besides that Irving, along with forward Kevin Durant and guard James Harden, form the backbone of a team that could win the Nets first NBA championship – is that New York’s vaccination requirements do not prevent unvaccinated players from other teams from taking to the hardwood when they come to town.

This means that the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac would be able to play in games in New York City despite his open stance against taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Or when the Denver Nuggets come to Brooklyn later this month, Michael Porter Jr. – who has said that he doesn’t feel comfortable taking the vaccine – would be eligible to play (if his back heals).

New York City’s vaccine requirements were implemented in good faith and meant to keep workers safe, something that is especially important as the city deals with a major surge in cases due to the Omicron variant. But allowing unvaccinated players from visiting teams to play while keeping a crucial member of a championship caliber team at home is forced to sit out is not coherent governance nor does it make any sense from a public health perspective.

The city needs to offer Irving and the Nets a workaround to this draconian and yet contradictory requirement. For example, it could require professional athletes who are unvaccinated to be tested a certain number of times before each game that is played within the five boroughs. This would not only ensure that a player is COVID-free, which is especially important with the drastic rise in breakthrough infections caused by Omicron, but also guarantee that all athletes taking the hardwood, the diamond, the ice, or the mound in New York City are not infectious.

This tactic would take a high level of coordination between the city and major sports leagues, but the logistics of this tactic are scalable and pale in comparison to the degree of synchronization the NBA needed when operating the league in their bubble.

One key aspect of all great basketball teams is the cohesion that comes from playing together game in and game out. It’s knowing that your teammate will be in the exact spot where you send that no-look pass, that they will crash the boards when an opponent drives into the paint, or that they’ll find the open man for a corner three when being double-teamed. These are just some of the moments in the game where Kyrie Irving excels, but even a player of his ability can’t form that continuity with his teammates playing only away games.

There is a better way to resolve this issue with Irving – one that works for the team, the city, the public’s health. Mayor Adams, there’s only one question that remains. That is, are you game?

Ricky Clemons is a lecturer of sports management at Howard University. He is also author of the book, INBOUNDS The Evolution of Black College Players in Professional Football.

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