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BRACE FOR A NEW CHAPTER OF HATRED IN SPORTS, THANKS TO KYRIE IRVING
As America prepares for explosive political rhetoric, the spillover already is contaminating the sporting landscape — with Irving channeling Kanye West in what should rise to a fireable offense
And away we go, sports transforming once again into a soundstage for sick activism, just as we were re-embracing the daily churn of fun and games in post-peak-pandemic America. I’ve never begrudged athletes and coaches their political views. I’ve always preferred they choose the appropriate time and place while leaving all hatred at home.
Yes: on the opinion page, TV news network or podcast of their choice.
No: on the sideline during the national anthem or in a press conference designed to inform fans about a sport or team, not as a bullhorn for one’s aversion to a sitting president or advancement of a political cause.
Never: Kyrie Irving on Twitter, piggybacking the very worst version of Kanye West while Elon Musk (gulp) inherits the site’s role of thought czar.
This being a chaotically divided country, with midterms approaching and another cluster-muck election two years off, I’m afraid any continuing hope of sports-as-escapism already has been hijacked. As sure as West’s mental derailment spilled antisemitic freight last week, you knew an athlete or two would climb right into his echo chamber. Irving, as a rejector of COVID-19 vaccines and a proponent of Earth-is-flat preposterousness, seemed a prime candidate to exacerbate what we don’t need in a nation drowning in hostility. Of course, he arrived on cue with his toxic dump.
As a Black man in a predominantly Black sport, playing in a league with a Jewish commissioner and several Jewish owners, Irving took to social media to promote an antisemitic documentary and book. The film, released in 2018, is called “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” and promotes antisemitic tropes, including accusations that the Jewish community worships Satan. In a week dominated by West’s hate-speech storm, Irving couldn’t have chosen a less sensitive time to tweet a link encouraging people to purchase the documentary. The man who directly deposits his very large paychecks was disgusted.
“I’m disappointed that Kyrie appears to support a film based on a book full of anti-semitic disinformation,” tweeted Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, the poor sucker whose existence is regularly haunted by Irving. “I want to sit down and make sure he understands this is hurtful to all of us, and as a man of faith, it is wrong to promote hate based on race, ethnicity or religion. This is bigger than basketball.”
It’s bigger than any civilized society, actually, and if Tsai hasn’t already opted to eat Irving’s $36.5 million salary this season and send him away, he must do the NBA and the Nets a favor and expunge the hater. Never mind how he’s disrupting his team with yet another arson job from the lunatic fringe. Kyrie also managed to interrupt the busiest month on the sports calendar, including an entertaining World Series, the professional and personal demise of Tom Brady, and everything else happening in the NFL, NBA, NHL and college football. This is what he does — he always makes it about him, without thinking of battered feelings, residual damage and his destructive impact on Kevin Durant, Steve Nash and one of the the league’s most underachieving teams … ever. Having already intercepted one news cycle, he eyed two more this weekend.
Describing himself as someone who respects all religions, he tweeted Saturday, “I am an OMNIST and I meant no disrespect to anyone’s religious beliefs. The “Anti-Semitic” label that is being pushed on me is not justified and does not reflect the reality or truth I live in everyday. I embrace and want to learn from all walks of life and religions.” He signed off as “Hela,” which means “Little Mountain” in the Lakota language of Native American culture. At the very least, Tsai should have suspended him on the spot. But there was Kyrie on Saturday evening, holding the Nets hostage again at Barclays Center, where they fell to 1-5 with a dismal, heartless loss to the nondescript Indiana Pacers. That’s right, another nightmare is happening on Atlantic Avenue, and it’s only a matter of time before Durant renews his summer trade demands as he suffers Irving and his partner in wasted basketball skill, wayward Ben Simmons.
Afterward, Irving addressed the furor with a combative vigor he rarely takes to the hardwood. “I’m not here to argue over a person or a culture or a religion and what they believe," he said after the 125-116 loss. “Nah, this is what's here. It's on a public platform. Did I do anything illegal? Did I hurt anybody? Did I harm anybody? Am I going out and saying that I hate one specific group of people? So out of all of the judgment that people got for me posting, without talking to me, and then I respect what Joe said, but there has a lot to do with not ego or pride of how proud I am to be (of) African heritage, but also to be living as a free Black man here in America, knowing the historical complexities for me to get here. So I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in. I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.”
Asked if he grasped why the film is perceived as antisemitic, Irving shot back, “It’s on Amazon, public platform. Whether you want to watch it or not is up to you. There’s things being posted every day. I’m no different from the next human being so don’t treat me any different. You guys (media) come in here and make up this powerful influence that I have over top of the adultery of, you cannot post that. Why not? Why not?”
He wasn’t finished. Returning to the locker room, he said, “I wish we felt the same about Black reproductive rights. And all the things that actually matter than what I'm posting.”
The league wasn’t interested in his ramblings, releasing a statement Saturday night: “Hate speech of any kind is unacceptable and runs counter to the NBA's values of equality, inclusion and respect. We believe we all have a role to play in ensuring such words or ideas, including antisemitic ones, are challenged and refuted and we will continue working with all members of the NBA community to ensure that everyone understands the impact of their words and actions.”
Adam Silver’s problem is self-inflicted. He always has encouraged players to seek empowerment, but too often, the ideal backfires. It does when stars plot to form superteams, as Irving did in joining hands with Durant and James Harden, who demanded out and was traded for Simmons. The Nets experiment is a colossal failure, at the same time the Los Angeles Lakers are crashing thanks to the superteam whims of LeBron James and the front office. Silver would love to eject Irving from the league, I’m sure. He can’t — without an ugly union battle that Silver should pursue nonetheless. The Nets could remove him, but they are at his mercy, needing his offensive flurries to make a playoff push. I’d prefer they dump him and not reach the postseason. At some point, a moral victory takes precedence over a basketball season.
Asked by ESPN reporter Nick Friedell why he posts flammable tweets, including one that advocated an Alex Jones conspiracy video, Irving snapped back. “Can you please stop calling it promotion? Don’t humanize me up here. … I can post whatever I want,” he said.
“Kyrie,” Friedell interjected, “you have to understand …”
“I don’t have to understand anything from you,” said Irving, suggesting the reporter would post the exchange so he could “be famous again.”
This is one disturbed fellow, Kyrie Irving.
His coach, the beleaguered Nash, at first tried to brush off the episode. It’s standard operating procedure for job survival, but at this rate, he’ll be a dead man walking if he doesn’t fix the mess soon. He might have a better shot of curing cancer. “I don't think our group is overly affected by the situation. We've had so many situations over the last two and a half years that I think we kind of built an immunity to some of it," Nash said. “I also think our guys aren't that familiar with the material. So if we get a minute to breathe and get a deeper understanding of what actually are the details here then we will, but right now I think guys are trying to focus on the (season). I think the organization has stepped up and made a strong statement on their beliefs.”
By night’s end, Nash was beside himself. “It was a disaster," he said of the loss. “How else do you say it? I didn't see the will, didn't see the desire, or the connectivity necessary to get stops and get rebounds. ... We just got to make a bigger commitment and it's got to mean more and we got to care more.”
Durant also grumbled after a players-only meeting. “It was a shitty night. Excuse my language, it was a bad night,” he said. “We're pissed.” How long before he lashes out at Irving? Or, in a time when no theory is far-fetched, are they conspiring to get Nash fired? Remember, Durant demanded that Nash and general manager Sean Marks be dismissed when he made his summer trade demand in person to Tsai.
“We have to look deep," Nash said. "Deep inside ourselves and what we want to do. What do we want to accomplish? Do we want to give up on this because it's been difficult early or do we want to stay the course and start to build something? We've had a lot of really good days here early in the season and we've lost a couple games and it's shook our mentality, shook our mentality hard. And we're not seeing the same competitive spirit, same purpose, and if we don't clean that up it's not going to get better. It's the only way to get out of difficult positions is to have character and competitive spirit.”
Are they tuning out his message? “They're hearing it," Nash said. “They're arguing with each other about missing coverages and the lack of communication out there. Just too many errors. Too many errors on top of lack of effort at times. Sometimes it's not even about schemes, it's about fight.”
Even the World Series is infected by the foul American mood, thanks to the greed machine at Fox Sports. The network didn’t have to accept anti-immigration ads from far-right Citizens for Sanity, which ran on the network during two National League Division series and described immigrants as “drug dealers, sex traffickers and violent predators.” But as Rupert Murdoch seeks to combine News Corp. and Fox Corp. and create a conservative-driven monster, keep in mind that his son, Lachlan, continues to control Fox News and Fox Sports. The ads fit his right-leaning stance. If he nixed the commercials, he’d catch hell from his Fox News audience.
So, the ads aired during Games 1 and 2 of the Series. Major League Baseball claimed to be helpless, telling The Athletic, “Networks make the decision on what political ads to run. MLB does not believe it should be in the role of censoring political advertising.” A copout, don’t you think?
Said Manfred, per the Los Angeles Times: “Fox is a great partner of ours. I don’t think it’s fair to them to get into private conversations that we may or may not have had.” Especially as Fox feeds MLB mouths.
Get used to it. If sport has boomed into the biggest economic generator in American entertainment, more political ads will run in the months and years ahead. In a revenue-daffy climate, networks prefer to air the far-right commercials, pocket the money and take the heat.
Sports can do no wrong in the eyes of tens of millions in this country. Fans are hooked. Gamblers are addicted. They might be uncomfortable when Kyrie spews hatred, or an offensive TV ad butts in on their enjoyment of Phillies-Astros, but they won’t do anything about it. They’d have to turn away, flick off the remote, to make impact. Instead, they’ll just deal with it and wait for the pizza delivery man, while more enlightened folks wonder what happened to our escape from real life.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.