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christopher l. gasper

Defying a vaccine mandate does not inoculate athletes from the consequences

Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving (above) is now allowed to play home games after New York Mayor Eric Adams loosened the rules, but Irving's defiant stance hurt the Nets all season.John Minchillo/Associated Press

One of the backbones of American society is personal freedom. However, too often people mistake freedom of choice for freedom from the consequences and repercussions of that choice. Professional athletes aren’t immune from that common conflation.

Some, like Kyrie Irving, bask in that misplaced notion.

We’re still not completely free from the clutches of COVID complications. Even with masking mandates and proof-of-vaccination requirements being relaxed, COVID influencing sports contests is not past tense. The other V-word in sports besides victory is vaccination. Who got the shot and who didn’t? Epidemiology rivals advanced analytics.

A different kind of shot selection could hinder your Boston Celtics, the hottest team in all of North American pro sports, in the playoffs. A preview of the potential problem was on display Monday night in Toronto, where the Celtics were missing three starters besides injured big man Robert Williams (torn left meniscus).

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For unvaccinated NBA players, road games against the Raptors represent a different kind of traveling violation. In Canada, you can’t enter the country unless you are fully vaccinated. No exemptions for athletes; Canada eliminated them on Jan. 15. So, if the Celtics, winners of 24 of their previous 28 games, faced the Raptors in the playoffs, they could be without some key players.

There were reports during preseason that the Celtics had multiple players who had not been vaccinated.

I reached out to the Celtics for clarification on whether all of their rotation players would’ve been eligible to play in Toronto if otherwise healthy.

“Per league and team policy, we don’t comment on the vaccination status of our players,” said a team spokesman.

Missing Monday night with nebulous injuries/explanations were stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and venerable forward Al Horford. All vital cogs in the Big Green Machine that has steamrolled the league over the last two months.

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The Celtics listed Tatum, who previously said he’s vaccinated, and Brown with knee soreness. Horford, who sat out Sunday’s game for personal reasons, received that same designation again.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both missed Monday's game against the Raptors in Toronto.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

It could all be a coincidence. It’s the second night of a back-to-back late in the season. Both Tatum, who contracted COVID twice, and Brown were on the injury report for the Minnesota game before each dropping 30-plus points. Brown said after the game that his knee was bothering him when joking about catching a Marcus Smart alley-oop off the backboard for a slam.

Horford has four children. It’s entirely plausible he could have a personal situation that’s preventing him from playing.

However … Brown and Horford (twice) both contracted COVID this season and could be in the natural immunity camp. Brown, who nearly missed the season opener because of his bout with COVID, was ambiguous in his answers preseason when asked about his vaccination status. Horford’s vaccination status also is unclear.

Being without multiple starters for up to three games of a playoff series against the plucky Raptors would be a major blow that could derail a championship chase, especially if Time Lord, a ticking time bomb of durability, can’t return to full form.

That’s a recipe for an early exit.

Speculation on the immunization status of athletes is an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic. Unvaccinated players set to face the Raptors in the play-in round or the playoffs — Toronto started Monday sixth, just above the play-in line — are banking on the Canadian government caving like New York Mayor Eric Adams and removing prohibitions for the unvaccinated.

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That leads us to the cause célèbre for unvaccinated athletes, Irving.

He has become a poster child and martyr after taking an openly defiant stance against vaccination requirements, to the detriment of his career and team. Originally, the Nets told Irving to sit out the season because he wasn’t eligible to play home games under New York law. They relented and let the former Celtic join them for road contests Jan. 5.

Now, he’s a conquering hero and freedom fighter after he waited out Adams and his NYC-based private employer vaccination mandate to be eligible for home games in time for the playoffs.

Kyrie Irving is back in the lineup on a full-time basis for the Nets.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Never mind that Irving’s absence tanked Brooklyn’s season to the point that the Nets are slated for the play-in tournament. Oh, no, chalk up another win for basketball’s resident nonconformist nonpareil.

Irving called Brooklyn’s 119-110 home loss Sunday to the Hornets “historic.” The opinionated point guard made himself sound like a cross between assassinated Black Panther activist Fred Hampton and Mahatma Gandhi for his stance.

“The point of this season for me was never to just take a stand,” Irving told reporters.

He went on: “I’m standing for freedom, So, that’s in all facets of my life. There’s nobody that’s enslaving me. There’s nobody that’s telling me what I’m going to do with my life, and that’s just the way I am.”

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Yes, comparing getting vaccinated against a virus that has disrupted the world and killed more than six million people to chattel slavery seems level-headed.

Irving is right, though. He’s free to do what he wants. It’s just that he wants that freedom without strings.

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts went in a different direction than the NBA’s resident contrarian. Bogaerts decided to get vaccinated this offseason.

Bogaerts’s decision is significant. He’s the leader and longest-tenured player on a team that has generally been one of the most resistant in MLB to COVID inoculation. The Red Sox were one of six teams out of 30 in MLB that didn’t reach the 85 percent vaccination threshold last season to waive enhanced COVID protocols. Ace Chris Sale is still among the unvaccinated.

The Sox are slated to play 10 of 19 games against a loaded division rival Blue Jays team in Toronto. Missing players could be the difference between making the playoffs and not in the deepest division in baseball. Last year, the Sox finished just one game ahead of the 91-win Blue Jays to make the postseason.

Perhaps that’s why erudite chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who models out every scenario, was insistent that new big-money signing Trevor Story be available for every game. ESPN reported that Story not being vaccinated was a potential hold-up in finalizing his six-year, $140 million deal before he relented.

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According to ESPN, Trevor Story's vaccination status nearly held up his new deal with the Red Sox.Chris Tilley for The Boston Globe

A couple of shots for $140 million seems like a fair tradeoff. You can’t put a price on individual “freedom,” except Story sort of did. (Plus, unvaccinated players forced to sit out forfeit payment and service-time accrual.)

Athletes are like the rest of us — citizens, free to make their own choices.

The problem is that sometimes they’re used to their talents and fame insulating them from the full consequences the rest of us must face from said choices.

Canada has its freedom too. The freedom to keep its land glorious and free from unvaccinated athletes, no matter how talented or well-intentioned they are.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper.