‘They’ve Got Biden, We’ve Got Kyrie’: Top Anti-Vaxxers Turn NBA Stars Into Disinformation Heroes

Facebook and YouTube may have tried to ban them, but Covid’s conspiracy kings tell ‘Rolling Stone’ that vaccine-denying NBA players have re-empowered the far right

By Matt Sullivan | RollingStone Magazine | October 8, 2021

Kyrie Irving is living in the shadows of vaccine denial. The Brooklyn Nets superstar has also vanished from the opening of his team’s run at the NBA championship, apparently because he refuses to comply with a New York City law requiring proof of vaccination against Covid-19 at indoor sporting events, players included. He is banned from practice in Brooklyn; on the injury report for Friday night’s first preseason home game at Barclays Center, Irving was simply listed as “ineligible to play.”

Several NBA stars have gone viral this month for speaking out against vaccination mandates, emerging from a progressive sports league as unlikely heroes of personal freedom for the vaccine skeptics, Fox News, and the vampirous troll Ted Cruz. The public stances of these players, however, have spawned what researchers call a desperate and dangerous network effect: Several of the most prominent figures from the anti-vaccination community suggested to Rolling Stone this week that they’ve discovered a roster of replacement influencers from the sports world.

By co-opting players’ likenesses and DM-ing them junk science, the anti-fact fringe is actively transforming pro athletes into parasitic hosts for misinformation to go mainstream. Despite efforts from leading social media platforms to restrict what Facebook calls “misinformation superspreaders,” these Covid conspiracy kings may find in NBA players their new faces of the franchise.

“Most people who are saying what he’s saying would not be allowed to speak,” the longtime anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Rolling Stone, of Irving. “They would be de-platformed from Facebook, from Instagram. They would be silenced. They would be vilified, marginalized, and gaslighted. And these guys, it’s harder for them to do that.” (Full disclosure: In 2005, Rolling Stone published an article by Kennedy that pushed an incorrect theory that some childhood vaccines cause autism; the story has since been debunked and is no longer on Rolling Stone’s website.)

An analysis conducted this week for Rolling Stone by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found consistently increased engagement on social posts in support of vaccine-denying athletes from accounts linked to what researchers call the Disinformation Dozen. The nonprofit estimated in March that these influencers, including Kennedy, accounted for 73 percent of all anti-vax content on Facebook; the social network responded by shutting down their main accounts and penalizing their other ones, but Silicon Valley’s Covid police haven’t stopped the anti-vaxxers from reemerging to ally themselves with celebrities.

“The Disinformation Dozen are sort of saying, ‘They’ve got Biden, we’ve got Kyrie Irving,’ and they’re trying to see if they can use it to access Black audiences, young audiences, and basketball fans,” says CCDH chief executive Imram Ahmed. “This cancer is seeking to replicate itself in another organ of society. The hope is that it can be contained and doesn’t metastasize from there. But the worst thing that can happen is for players to react to nonsense — if they’re wrong, the price is paid in life.”

Before last week’s annual preseason NBA press conferences, Rolling Stone reported that a vocal minority of players had successfully resisted league mandates for vaccines, off-day testing, and clubbing without a jab, as a satanic conspiracy theory pervaded locker rooms. At the mic, Washington Wizards superstar Bradley Beal questioned the efficacy of the vaccine, which sent Ted Cruz straight for the hashtag dumpster fire of #YourBodyYourChoice. The Denver Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr., who had agreed to a contract worth up to $207 million two days earlier, said he’d had Covid twice and felt uncomfortable about getting a shot because of what he claimed was “a chance that you could have a bad reaction to it.”

Dr. Joseph Mercola, who tops the Disinformation Dozen, tweeted his applause to more than 325,000 followers this week for Golden State Warriors superstar Draymond Green’s rant against vaccine mandates as “very courageous” and for an appearance on Fox News by the Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac — who told Rolling Stone that he didn’t know why vaccinated people wear masks indoors — as “a refreshing voice of reason.” An article on Kennedy’s website about these and other NBA vaccine deniers outperformed its usual posts on Facebook, according to data from the social-tracking tools CrowdTangle and NewsWhip.

The NBA league office has maintained its 100-percent support of the vaccine for all staffers, and says that 95 percent of players have received at least one dose amid training-camp pressure from teammates, executives, and updated Covid protocols clamping down on the lifestyles of the unvaccinated.

Mercola, the anti-vax godfather, tells Rolling Stone that NBA officials “are ignorant and lying about natural immunity — just as the federal government is doing.” (In fact: The CDC says previously infected people without vaccines are more than doubly at risk of reinfection than those who have been vaccinated, while Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. government will “discuss seriously” a widely misrepresented study tracking natural protection for those who have already gotten Covid.) “The mandates are not about immunity,” Mercola continues in an email. “They are about control and obedience.”

Since vaccines started becoming widely available in February, Rizza Islam had been up to five Insta