When I first heard about the latest Kyrie Irving controversy, I shrugged and basically ignored it. I’ve long been tired of Kyrie’s off-court baggage going back to his flat-Earth days and was hoping this most recent outburst would be given similar weight by the public and quickly dismissed. The NBA and the Nets were clearly hoping the same, as they did not initially come down very hard on Irving and, instead, put out generic statements against anti-Semitism, without confronting Kyrie.
Alas, Irving seemed unable to acknowledge that Holocaust denial is odious and has given quasi-defiant press interviews in which he did not apologize and the story has stayed alive. Now, he is suspended at least five games and until such time as he does these six things:
-Apologize and condemn the film he promoted.
-Make a $500,000 donation to anti-hate causes.
-Complete sensitivity training.
-Complete anti-Semitism training.
-Meet with the ADL and Jewish leaders.
Since the story won’t die, I reluctantly throw in my two cents as well and try to answer questions from all angles. [full disclosure: I’m Jewish and find Holocaust denial to be hateful and unequivocally horrid].
Did Kyrie do something wrong in posting the video?
Yes. Promoting a film that traffics in virulent anti-Semitism is wrong. Even if Irving had no intent to focus on that aspect of the film or does not believe that part of the film, the views are wrong and overshadow any other point he was trying to make.
Did Kyrie’s prior issues with the Nets make the discipline worse?
Probably not but due to any Nets love for Irving. Kyrie’s prior issues in Brooklyn are many and can be reviewed here. I have to think that the Nets may be sick of Kyrie but they didn’t use this as an excuse to attack him. If anything, they gave him multiple shots to fix the situation before resorting to suspension. The kid gloves approach was not because they love Irving and more likely because the Nets desperately want to keep Kevin Durant happy and this saga has already annoyed KD.
What about Kyrie’s free speech rights?
Unless the NBA and the Nets are considered government actors, the First Amendment isn’t relevant to this dispute. Kyrie is not free from business or societal consequences of his speech if others feel it is offensive [yup, our lovely culture wars have jurisdiction to this controversy].
It’s arguable whether the NBA or the Nets are mortally offended by Irving’s conduct but they rightfully are concerned that fans will be offended and that this will hurt business to no good end. Kyrie’s behavior certainly made it unlikely that I would want to root for him or buy his products. Given this fair and objective concern, the NBA and the Nets have a right to protect their brands against this behavior.
I get that Kyrie did something wrong but aren’t the NBA and Joe Tsai hypocrites? What about supporting China?
Doing business with China is a problem for all American companies and the NBA is no different. It would be nice if more American businesses would condemn Chinese repressive behavior but that’s not relevant to Kyrie’s controversy. Would it be better if the NBA didn’t attempt to address any bad behavior just because they haven’t figured out what to do with China? In fact, growing a backbone here may actually help in other instances.
Are the NBA players hypocrites for speaking out against Sterling and Sarver but have not nearly been as forceful against Kyrie?
I don’t think so. The players were quite vocal when Donald Sterling and Robert Sarver were in the barrel and have been much quieter now. It took a week for LeBron James to acknowledge that Irving’s post was hurtful but LBJ did give a clear statement. It would’ve been nice if the players would’ve reacted a bit more quickly but players aren’t generally going to attack their co-workers for obvious reasons. LBJ’s late statement was pretty strong when you consider the context.
Putting aside that fact, Irving’s post was ignorant but pales in comparison to decades of racist behavior of Sterling and Sarver. Hopefully, Kyrie doesn’t go down that path and he has no prior public instances of such behavior.
Is Kyrie being treated more kindly than other players?
Here’s a sampling of a few other players who courted political/racial controversy:
-Last year, Meyers Leonard off-handedly used a Jewish slur while filming a live feed of a video game. The slur was wrong clearly not pre-meditated. Leonard apologized immediately but was fined $50,000 and suspended a week. Despite the contrition and the fact that the Jewish community forgave him, Leonard has not been signed by another NBA team yet.
-On the other end is former Bull Craig Hodges, who was a third/fourth guard with the Michael Jordan Bulls. He didn’t do anything wrong that would warrant suspension but the NBA clearly didn’t appreciate his viewpoints. He was politically active and would exhort MJ to do more for the African American community. In 1992, when the Bulls visited the White House, Hodges wore a dashiki and brought a letter urging then President Bush to help poor and minority communities. No team signed Hodges after the 1992 season ending his career.
-In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for refusing to stand for the National Anthem. We did a deep dive on this issue back in 2016 during the Colin Kaepernick protest. To briefly recap, Abdul-Rauf felt that standing for the Anthem went against his faith, which angered fans and caused him to get suspended until a compromise was made (he would pray during the Anthem). Abdul-Rauf lasted a few more years but wasn’t the same player afterwards.
-Enes Freedom (nee Kanter) has repeatedly and vocally attacked the NBA for not doing more to address the terrible plight of the Uyghurs in China. Freedom, who is 30, hasn’t been signed this year yet.
It’s not fair but a player’s ability dictates whether he will survive a controversy. Leonard and Hodges were back-end players and any baggage (however light) was enough to knock them out of the NBA (though Leonard might make it back possibly). Abdul-Rauf was a good player and was not explicitly drummed out of the NBA, though his path got harder afterwards. Freedom was a solid regular but there is little chance that owners will take a chance on a loud voice who is a bench guy.
Kyrie is far more accomplished on the court than any of them. He will likely sign somewhere after the season, though his market was already pretty weak relative to his ability.
Will Kyrie ever apologize and take the remedial steps that the Nets have demanded?
Who knows? I find it hard to believe he will make a clean apology but it’s also not likely that the Nets can suspend him indefinitely. Any path towards reconciliation can be found in how his flat-Earth stuff played out. Let’s quickly review the timeline:
-In February 2017, Kyrie appeared on the Richard Jefferson/Channing Frye podcast and said: “The Earth is flat. … I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.”
-In September 2017, Irving slightly backtracked and told the Toucher & Reach radio show that: “All I want to do is be able to have that open conversation. It was all an exploitation tactic. It literally spun the world—your guy’s world—it spun it into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works. It created a division, or, literally stood up there and let all these people throw tomatoes at me, or have somebody think I’m somehow a different intellectual person because I believe that the earth is flat and you think the world is round. It created exactly that. It became like, because I think different, does that knock my intellectual capacity or the fact that I can think different things than you? That was the intent behind it. Do your own research, don’t come to me and ask me. At the end of the day, you’re going to feel and believe the way you want to feel. But don’t knock my life over that. When I do something, I know my intent. And it proved what I thought it would.”
-In late October 2017, Irving appeared on Geno Auriemma’s podcast and said: “[t]he whole intent behind it, Coach, it wasn’t to bash science. It wasn’t to like have the intent of starting a rage and be seen as this insane individual. When I started seeing comments and things about universal truths that I had known, like I had questions. When I started actually doing research on my own and figuring out that there is no real picture of Earth, not one real picture of Earth—and we haven’t been back to the moon since 1961 or 1969—it becomes like conspiracy, too.”
While Kyrie’s stance on this issue was ill-informed, it didn’t really hurt anyone. Or did it? In late September 2018, Kyrie apologized for his flat-Earth stance at a Forbes summit. Irving said “[a]t the time I didn’t realize the effect. I was definitely at that time, ‘I’m a big conspiracy theorist. You can’t tell me anything.’ I’m sorry about all that. For all the science teachers, everybody coming up to me like, ‘You know I have to reteach my whole curriculum!’ I’m sorry. I apologize. I apologize.”
Other than the presence of anti-Semitism now, flat-Earth controversy tracks very similarly. In both cases, Irving insists he knows something and it is not receptive to the holes in his position. Apparently, a bunch of science teachers convinced him he was wrong in the instance of flat-Earth.
But who will play the role of the science teacher in the current controversy? Unlike flat-Earthers, here, Kyrie strongly links his post endorsing the movie to his personal identity. He has a strong emotional stake in this dispute. Irving clearly views an apology as a partial repudiation of this identity. How do you thread this needle?
Meeting with Jews who have been victim of anti-Semitism might help. In addition, in other contexs, Kyrie understands red lines in terms of offensive words and behaviors. On April 10, 2021, the normally placid Irving was ejected for a heated argument with the Lakers’ Dennis Schroeder. Irving was enraged when Schroeder called Kyrie the n-word (apparently in a trash talking way and not intending to say something racially insulting but Kyrie did not accept this lingo). In addition to fighting Schroeder, Irving posted the following:
“The N-word is a derogatory racial slur! It will never be…
-a term of endearment
NEVER FORGET ITS FOUL AND TRUE HISTORY! Throw that N-word out the window, right alongside all of those other racist words used to describe my people. We are not slaves or N’s.”
This is a commendable stance. Someone must explain to Kyrie that Jews view Holocaust denial (or minimization) as similarly hurtful. Hopefully, Irving sees the connection and comes around on this point.
How will this affect the Nets’ season?
The Nets appear desperate to take another shot at a title so any sincere apology will probably be enough to get Kyrie back on the roster. A title run seems remote based on the terrible start to the season but the Nets are willing to do anything to try.
It seems that, either way, Irving’s tenure with the Nets won’t make it past April 2023. As for KD, he will have to be traded or the Nets will have to show enough progress to convince him to be happy with a quasi-rebuild like the Warriors did after he left town. Given how close Durant is to Irving, this scenario seems unlikely.