Sports and Society: New York’s problematic solutions to sports and pandemic

Vaccine mandates protect people. That has been the position of the New York City government since ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio began the private sector mandate in December. Last week, that position stayed the same in theory. Unless, apparently, you’re Kyrie Irving. Or Aaron Judge. Or Anthony Rizzo, Jacob deGrom or any rich and powerful New Yorker with enough pull to get an exemption.

Mayor Eric Adams announced last Thursday that the city’s private sector vaccine mandate would be amended to include an exemption for athletes and performers, conveniently going into effect before the NBA Playoffs and the MLB’s Opening Day. Irving, Judge and other top-level athletes are suddenly above the rest of the city’s workers. Last week, when I demanded that administrators and experts prioritize clarity and consistency in further COVID-19 mitigation efforts, a hypocritical, plainly elitist revision that prioritizes the wealthy was not exactly what I had in mind.

The new plan sends a clear message about the city’s priorities in working toward the “new normal:” COVID-19 measures only apply to those who do not pose a public relations threat to the city, which, conveniently, is most ordinary people. 

The absurdity of this policy goes way beyond sports, but it cannot be understood without acknowledging the stranglehold athletes can have on politics when they choose to take a hard line. Prestigious athletes that serve as New York cultural ambassadors and celebrities have essentially opened the entire system up to legal challenges on the basis that exemptions are granted arbitrarily. 

This massive land mine could destroy the entire city’s COVID-19 mitigation infrastructure and was brought about by a few athletes with enough patience to cross their arms and dare the city to ban them from playing, which would hurt the teams’ respective chances of winning and enrage fans. If Irving can win out against one of the largest cities in the world, what’s to stop other powerful groups from demanding exemptions to private sector vaccine mandates? 

The only thing worse than a set of confusing restrictions are a set of measures that clearly favor the lobbying elite. The new policy is disastrous for the Adams administration and for any remaining sense that we are all in this together. For NYC, the pandemic is over for those who can afford it. 

For athletes, this is the ultimate victory in validating their position as true members of the American power elite. New York City is essentially declaring that the actions and priorities of its elite athletes carry enough weight to force a liberal administration to adopt an oligarchical vaccine policy. Player power is formidable, but Adams could and should have stood up to the intransigence of certain New York athletes. The fact that he didn’t, though, proves the force of American athletes has risen to that of a true political insider.