Can We Please Not Compare Kyrie Irving to Muhammad Ali?

Ali refused to take the lives of others in Vietnam. Irving is putting the lives of others at risk, whether he wants to admit it or not.

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets handles the ball on the court against the Boston Celtics
Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets handles the ball against the Boston Celtics.
Steven Ryan/Getty

Indefinitely barred from practicing or playing with the Brooklyn Nets because of his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine, NBA superstar Kyrie Irving took to Instagram Live on Wednesday night to explain why has not gotten vaccinated.

What followed was a rambling 20-minute speech from the 29-year-old where he indicated that his refusal to get vaccinated is some sort of effort to stand up for non-NBA players who have lost their jobs or faced other hardships due to their own refusal to get a widely administered vaccine that was designed to help end a global pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide and is still wreaking havoc.

“Just know that I’m rocking with all those that have lost their jobs to this mandate, and I’m rocking with all those that chose to get vaccinated and are choosing to be safe, as well,” he said. “I’m on both sides of all this. I support and respect everybody’s decision. I chose to be unvaccinated and that was my choice, and would ask you all just to respect that choice. I am going to just continue to stay in shape, be ready to play, be ready to rock out with my teammates and be part of this whole thing.”

At some point while Irving, who said his refusal to get vaccinated was a matter of personal freedom and that he has no intention of retiring, was speaking, former NBA player Stephon Marbury compared the star point guard to Muhammad Ali.

While Marbury didn’t elaborate, it is probably safe to assume he was comparing Irving taking a stand against vaccine mandates to Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam and losing his boxing license and risking prison because of it.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said of his decision to be a conscientious objector. “Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Ali and Irving both took a stand. The difference between the two is that Ali refused to go take the lives of others in Vietnam whereas Irving refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine (and implicitly influencing others to do the same) is putting the lives of others at risk. Ali’s actions were selfless and bold. Irving’s are selfish and confusing.

While there’s no way to say for certain whether The Champ would have gotten vaccinated against COVID-19 were he still with us, his widow Lonnie Ali did get the jab and urged others to do so. “I understand the historical reasons why many Black communities and minority communities don’t get vaccines, but it’s important that we get this one. I hope that these vaccines are being distributed equally in areas of minority communities in community health centers,” she said in March.

Despite the extremely justified concerns she referenced, Mrs. Ali got the vaccine. And, based on what he said when he was alive, it seems a solid bet Ali would have laid aside any misgivings he might have had and gotten the vaccine for the greater good.

Which isn’t to say that Irving has to do the same and think of others before himself. The same freedom that allowed Ali to choose not to fight in Vietnam and then take his medicine for not doing so is the same freedom that allows Irving not to take the vaccine.

The freedom to not conform and stand up for what they believe in is the same. What Ali and Irving are doing with it is not. Let’s not compare them.

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