SHAME ON NBA AND NETS FOR FLIP-FLOPPING ON KYRIE IRVING’S HATE
Suddenly, days after condemning a perpetual troublemaker for supporting an antisemitic film, Adam Silver and Joe Tsai are caving to pressure and facilitating Irving’s ill-advised return to basketball
If discretion is the better part of valor, also know this about Adam Silver: Flip-flopping is the residue of fear and a function of hind-end protection. In a matter of days, the NBA commissioner has transitioned off his hellbent mission to condemn Kyrie Irving as an antisemitic sympathizer. Remember his pique after Irving tweeted support of a movie containing Jewish-hating tropes — “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” — last month?
We’d never seen Silver, who is Jewish, so publicly incensed. “Kyrie Irving made a reckless decision to post a link to a film containing deeply offensive antisemitic material,” he wrote in a statement last week. “I am disappointed he has not offered an unqualified apology and more specifically denounced the vile and harmful content contained in the film he chose to publicize.”
Now, facing backlash from LeBron James and the National Basketball Players Association, Silver is retreating from what seemed a campaign to remove Irving from the league. After what he called “a direct and candid conversation” with the league’s most incendiary player, the commissioner suddenly is choosing diplomacy in a free-speech debacle that calls for long-term consequences. “I personally, based on what he said directly to me, have no doubt that he’s not antisemitic,” Silver said Thursday at a sports industry conference in Washington. Later, he told the New York Times, “He’s someone I’ve known for a decade, and I’ve never heard an antisemitic word from him or, frankly, hate directed at any group.”
What? Why the abrupt reversal? Didn’t Silver once lead the charge to remove a team owner, Donald Sterling, for racist comments? Hasn’t Meyers Leonard, still serviceable as a veteran big man, been effectively banned after shouting a Jewish slur during a Twitch gaming session? Firm disciplinary precedents have been established, yet the commissioner is easing the vice grip on a hater whose sins have been a pox on the league for years. Sometime next week, if not earlier, expect Irving’s return to the Brooklyn Nets, despite owner Joe Tsai’s harsh, indignant rebuke last week in suspending Irving for “at least” five games without pay: “Such failure to disavow antisemitism when given a clear opportunity to do so is deeply disturbing, is against the values of our organization, and constitutes conduct detrimental to the team. Accordingly, we are of the view that he is currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.”
Suddenly, in suspicious lockstep with Silver, Tsai doesn’t think Irving is a bad guy after all? Is he now “fit” to be associated with the Nets? Really? In just a few days, an egregious offender ALREADY has cleansed his mind and changed his life — as he coldly advised a reporter during a contentious press conference two weeks ago? Do Silver and Tsai think we’re stupid? Have we ever seen a corporate flip-flop on a critical matter more wishy-washy and cowardly? “It's clear to me that Kyrie does not have any beliefs of hate toward Jewish people or any group," Tsai tweeted Friday, a day after he and his wife, Clara, met with Irving. “The Nets and Kyrie, together with the NBA and NBPA, are working constructively toward a process of forgiveness, healing and education.”
Dizzy? Me too.
Disgusted? Me too.
As usual, the NBA is making a business decision when, in truth, the league should be making an uncompromising example of Irving. At a time in America when antisemitism and all forms of hate speech are on the rise, Silver is doing the world a disservice and letting him slide for sheer financial reasons: He’s sheltering his league from a cultural uprising at an inopportune moment, amid vital discussions with the NBPA about a new collective bargaining agreement. A mutual CBA opt-out deadline looms on Dec. 15, and while there’s no current danger of a work stoppage, Silver realizes anything but an immediate resolution of Irving’s status could cause trouble.
And he doesn’t need labor trouble with lucrative new TV deals on the horizon. Silver is demanding massive rights-fee spikes from media partners ESPN and TNT — think at least twice the amount, if not three times, of the nine-year, $24 billion windfall that expires after the 2024-25 season. If he pushes for a league-wide ban of Irving, the resulting turmoil would dominate the regular season and lead to more crossfire from James and other prominent players. In recent days, they’ve spoken out about Tsai’s original stipulation that Irving satisfy “a series of objective remedial measures that address the harmful impact of his conduct.” Now, with his hall pass, will Irving casually show for one ho-hum chat with Jewish leaders, then blow off the other so-called conditions? James has his back, you see, possibly with an ulterior motive. If the Nets choose to cut their losses, prioritize future assets and trade Irving, might LeBron — who is going on 38, stuck in a 2-10 mess and looking at a grim career twilight — somehow talk the Lakers into acquiring Kyrie in a crisis-for-crisis deal involving Russell Westbrook’s expiring deal?
Understand the raw truth about the NBA. Adam Silver and the owners don’t run the league. James, Chris Paul and the most influential superstars do. When Black players compose 74 percent of the 30 rosters, Silver can’t keep a foothold on Irving’s neck without a protest — remember, Kyrie is serving a three-year term as union vice president. Never mind the Sterling rub-out. Never mind the Leonard rejection. Kyrie Irving, the toxic disruptor who sabotaged the Nets when he ignored a COVID vaccine mandate and often blows off games for no valid reason, will be back soon in an arena near you.
“Kyrie’s rights,” the Players Association said in a memo, “have been protected at every turn.”
“I told you guys that I don’t believe in sharing hurtful information. And I’ll continue to be that way but Kyrie apologized and he should be able to play,” James tweeted. “That’s what I think. It’s that simple. Help him learn — but he should be playing. What he’s asked to do to get back on the floor I think is excessive IMO. He’s not the person that’s being portrayed of him.”
Said New Orleans guard and NBPA president CJ McCollum, who also thinks conditions for Irving’s reinstatement were too punitive: “It's a lot to ask of someone who's already said they're sorry, who's already showed empathy, who's already given his money. He's continuing to figure out ways to learn more and unite people against hate. But they are asking for a lot. So hopefully they're able to find a happy medium and get him back to play.”
So a forced apology and a few lost game checks, for a man making $37 million this season, are supposed to suffice as punishment? What world are they living in? Oops, forgot, star athletes live on their own planet. If Irving is back after a handful of games, what happens the next time an NBA player resorts to hate speech? Will the same institutional double-standard apply? Of course, it will. No one cares about the future of Meyers Leonard, who is White and never has caused trouble in any other way. But Irving, an all-time knucklehead, is allowed to skate.
Shame on Silver for backing down like a defender about to bowled over in the lane. He speaks from both sides of his mouth, now claiming, “Whether or not (Irving) is antisemitic is not relevant to the damage caused by the posting of hateful content.” So, one can promote flagrantly antisemitic content without being antisemitic? Has the commissioner been abducted? He expects us to swallow this hokey justification? Silver also thinks we’ll buy his bunk that the blame should be shifted to Amazon Prime, which made the movie available on its site. “I think Amazon has to make decisions as well," he said, adding, “My first instinct wasn't that something, to me, that is so frankly vile and full of hate speech would be contained within Amazon Prime.” Bet he wouldn’t say that if Amazon Prime was bidding for NBA rights.
He’s letting others do his dirty work, such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The shoe company has severed its relationship with Irving, worth more than $11 million annually. “Kyrie stepped over the line," Knight said. “It's kind of that simple. He made some statements that we just can't abide by and that's why we ended the relationship. And I was fine with that.”
Yet, even Knight hedged. “I would doubt that we go back to him,” he said, “but I don’t know for sure.”
If ever an athlete deserved to be booed and hissed — from tip-off to the final buzzer, every game — it’s Kyrie Irving. Now that the storms engulfing the Nets have subsided a bit — wisely, assistant coach Jacque Vaughn was hired as head coach over workplace-harassment-tainted Ime Udoka — Tsai probably will let another week pass before a West Coast trip is completed. Irving might return for a home game against Memphis on Nov. 20, just in time for the holidays, in a New York City borough with a sizable Jewish population.
Happy Thanksgiving, Brooklyn.
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.