One of the problems with martyrs is that it isn’t all Christians vs. Lions – clear-cut cases of the system crushing the individual.
Also, as a general rule, martyrs are not the sort of people you’d have a ton of fun hanging out with. They tend to be flakes and weirdos.
It’s easiest to like martyrs from our distant past. In real time, they don’t usually invoke a lot of sympathy.
For example, NBA star Kyrie Irving. He is a beneficiary of extreme wealth. In the currency of our times – fame – he is even wealthier. He has unfiltered access to an enormous and receptive audience. It’s hard to think of someone with more advantages.
Yet somehow, Irving has managed to turn himself into a victim.
Two things can be true at once here.
First, that Irving is now the most talked-about holder of a belief that is antithetical to our civil society – that individuals are empowered to make their own choices, even when those choices are dangerous to the well being of the group.
Second, that Irving is a martyr of conscience.
There are degrees of martyrdom. Nobody’s setting large exotic cats on him in front of a hooting mob. But if we go by the dictionary definition – one who undergoes great suffering on behalf of any religious or any other belief or cause – Irving is a martyr. Because if someone had promised to pay me nearly US$35-million and then took it away, I would consider my suffering pretty great.
At issue here is – what else these days? – Irving’s unwillingness to get vaccinated. On Tuesday, the Brooklyn Nets will start their season without him.
If he was some scrub, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But Irving is one of the most electric players on one of the most expensively assembled super-teams in sports history.
By absenting himself, he is screwing up the NBA’s grand narrative (though subbing in a far more Shakespearean one than “really good players are really good”).
Why won’t Irving get vaccinated? Great question. It’s unclear.
In a recent Instagram Live, Irving monologued about his hesitation without managing to say any definitive thing.
“I’m not gonna be used as a person in this agenda,” he said. “I’m not. I’m not even gonna speak on that. It should not be divided among all of us. It should be understood and respected.”
What does that mean exactly? No clue.
Irving is that rarest of birds in sports – an actual non-conformist, as opposed to a guy who plays one on TV.
Irving’s non-conformism goes past the fun kind that sneaker manufacturers love, into the sort of non-conformism they invented the subterranean parts of the internet for. He’s also an evidently bright guy with a searching mind. Maybe too searching.
At best guess, Irving’s problem with the vaccine is that he doesn’t want to do what he’s been told to do. Though he hasn’t directly said any way-out stuff about microchips, mind control and Bill Gates’s Illuminati Jamboree, there seems to be a little of that in there, too. Like the man, it’s complicated.
Again, two ways of looking at it.
On one hand, just get the vaccine. It’s not about you, your comfort, respect or anyone’s agenda. It’s about protecting your neighbours. If you want to be truly free, build yourself a compound in Antarctica and go down there and infect the penguins. God knows you have enough money.
On the other hand, in a world full of craven apologists and phony outrage, there is something vaguely admirable about a high-profile figure who simply will not be budged.
Edmonton Oiler Duncan Keith offered all the same half-baked rationales for refusing the vaccine, but only after deciding he preferred his salary to his ideals.
Irving is sticking to his principles. You don’t have to like them to respect the commitment.
After a whole lot of to-ing and fro-ing, they seem to have arrived at a reasonable compromise. Irving gets to stand on his beliefs; the NBA gets to make a point; everyone involved is still super-rich; a million thumbsuckers, including this one, are written; all involved constituencies get to feel smug about having proved their point; the lustre of basketball’s brand gets shined on every side of the political spectrum. From the lizard men who run our governments to the dippiest hippies, this really is a league for everyone.
But if a winner must be declared, it’s Irving.
History loves a radical, even one who is radically wrong. As long as they haven’t done actual evil (and, often, even if they have) someone will feel a powerful urge to redeem them. How often does one person get to be a rock star, then switch gears mid-career to become a quasi-religious figure? It’s a nifty trick.
The further out there you are, the more you will appeal to the youth of subsequent generations. Because you were the person who wouldn’t give in.
That is a powerful statement in our civil society, which is an organization designed to get a bunch of people to do things they don’t want to do. What else is a democracy but millions of people giving in to the life-altering opinions of others, over and over again?
Irving gets to make a stand because he lives in a political organism that is looking out for his best health interests, even when he won’t do the same favour back. If enough people felt the way he does, no one would play sports for a living. Like the rest of us, they’d be too busy bashing each other’s brains in over the last can of beans. I’d love to hear more from Irving on that idea.
But that is a much deeper conversation, one sports and the people who play it have no interest in having.
That’s the real problem with the growing intersection of sports and politics. The entertainment industrial complex is designed to provide simple perspectives to complicated and pernicious problems. The more complicated the problems, the simpler the answers become. Eventually, maybe inevitably, it’s just two sides yelling at each other.