I dipped my toe in controversy yesterday, not because I have any particular feelings about basketball, in general, or the Nets, in particular. It was because I, being Jewish, could say something that a non-Jew would have been ripped to shreds as a hater for saying. Yes, it was about a basketball player named Kyrie who rode the Kanye (Ye?) West’s antisemitism train into suspension, and possibly the end of his career.
Here’s the weird thing. I have never, to my knowledge, watched Kyrie Irving play basketball. I assume he plays well or he wouldn’t be in the NBA, but beyond that, he means nothing to me. To be honest, I’m not exactly an aficionado of Ye either and wouldn’t be able to name a song of his or, until I googled it, tell you what his sneakers looked like. But I digress.
What I know about Kyrie Irving is that he refused to give a clear answer to the question of whether he’s an antisemite.
Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who was suspended indefinitely in the fallout of his social media posts promoting an antisemitic film, will have to meet with Jewish leaders and with the team before he can return to play, General Manager Sean Marks said Friday.
The comments came a day after the team announced it had suspended Irving without pay for at least five games because he “refused to unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs, nor acknowledge specific hateful material” in the film he posted about last week.
He’s been suspended from play and his contract with Nike (he must be good if he has Kyrie branded Nike sneakers) “effective immediately.” What gave rise to such a reaction?
Last week, Irving posted a link on Twitter to an antisemitic film and posted a screenshot of the movie’s online rental page on Instagram. As fans, team leaders and even N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver called for Irving to apologize, Irving resisted until after he was suspended Thursday.
The link was about an antisemitic “documentary.”
The documentary, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” was written and directed by Ronald Dalton Jr. and released in 2018. Dalton also released a book with the same title. On Thursday, Irving tweeted a link to a site where users can rent or buy the documentary. He also shared a screenshot of the site on Instagram.
Apparently, Kyrie Irving has something of a history of embracing nutjob theories, from Alex Jones to vaccines to the earth being flat. But this time, it landed on Irving hard.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the N.B.A. Hall of Famer, chastised Irving for sharing Jones’s video, writing on Substack that “Kyrie Irving would be dismissed as a comical buffoon if it weren’t for his influence over young people who look up to athletes.”
This captures the problem that gave rise to my controversial twit.
It’s a shame that Kyrie Irving is antisemitic, but he’s a basketball player, so who cares how he feels about Jews?
He shouldn’t have been suspended by the Nets. As abhorrent as antisemitism is, Irving shouldn’t be punished for having “wrong feelings” about others.
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) November 4, 2022
I received many replies that reflected Irving’s position as a team ambassador with a duty to conduct himself off the court in a manner that wouldn’t bring approbation to the Nets. What Irving did was a public relations fiasco for the team. and consequently warranted a harsh reaction. And, indeed, these replies are correct. But that didn’t address the point I sought to make.
Sports figures, like singers, dancers and actors, aren’t our priests or pundits. What should make a person who is both tall and able to put a ball into a hoop the sort of person young people (or any people) listen to for their views on culture, politics or, frankly, anything but basketball? Our culture of celebrity has caused us to impute an unwarranted level of importance to the words of people whose high public profiles exist only because they can sing really well. In what conceivable way does that make their views on any subject more meaningful than anyone else’s?
Before his suspension, Kyrie Irving tried to fudge the question of whether he was antisemitic by dodging it. As many pointed out, there was only one acceptable reply to the question of “Are you antisemitic?” That answer is “No.” Irving refused to say that until after his suspension.
Hours after the team announced his suspension, Irving apologized in a late-night post on Instagram, saying, “To All Jewish families and Communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize.”
He didn’t cause me any pain, not because of what he said or didn’t say, but because I didn’t care how he felt about Jews before and still don’t now. I appreciate, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, that without “his influence over young people” he would just be a “comical buffoon” who was really good at playing basketball. The problem, then, isn’t so much Irving as the “young people” who look to a basketball player to decide whether or not to hate Jews.
A lot of people hold some pretty stupid, awful, dumb and hateful ideas. They’re not special, although many have amassed some rather surprising influence by spewing them, whether on twitter, podcasts or cable television. They gain followers, sycophants and fanatics because of the idiocy that emits from their yaps, and the distinction is that their “claim to fame” is what they spew, whom they hate and the lies they spread. Since this is their stock in trade, they have earned whatever disdain their words generate.
But a basketball player doesn’t get drafted for his intelligence, cultural or political insights or social purity. He’s just a basketball player. We need to stop expecting anything more of basketball players than putting balls in hoops. And should a basketball player hold an ignorant, offensive or crazy view, we should be able to shake our heads at the “comical buffoon” while cheering for him to sink a three-pointer at the buzzer, because that’s the only reason anyone goes to see him.