NBA’s Kyrie Irving saga is an abdication of leadership, a blow to the brand

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While the NBA was engulfed in an unquenchable controversy, set by the league’s favorite arsonist, who would prefer to watch it all go down in flames, the most empowered professional athletes in the world sat and watched.

In the days after Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to a propagandist film heavy with antisemitic themes, his outspoken peers said nothing. While players could have stepped up and shown how to be allies, the very kind they expected from their White coaches and peers in 2020, they did nothing.

Their collective silence, coupled with their union’s statement (52 toothless words from the National Basketball Players Association), revealed the worst about potential and exclusivity run amok. And we have seen this problem through all walks of life. The thin blue line that will protect even a thug simply because he wears a badge. The politicians who would stick with their party’s talking points rather than show basic human sympathy for violence enacted on an elderly victim. And now of course, the band brothers who will fight together against racial discrimination and hate speech as long as the perpetrator isn’t one their own.

Irving is his own molotov cocktail, infused with unmerited hubris and crippling ignorance. And he hurled himself directly at the league. He created the worst kind of PR that allowed years of goodwill to be scorched by hypocrisy.

The NBA and its players have done tremendous work by using the league as a vehicle to promote issues such as voting in the Black community and shining a spotlight on Black businesses. They spoke out against the killing of Trayvon Martin because they looked at his young Black face and saw their own sons. They wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts because those haunting last words from a Black man dying at the hands of police could have been their own.

But as a so-called “progressive” league, their advocacy shouldn’t end with only the causes they can relate to and the crises they care about.

On the morning of Oct. 28, after Irving’s tweet had been going viral through the night, the first thing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver should have done was call Irving, who was just a borough away, into his office in Manhattan. It took a week for Silver to publicly address the biggest threat to his league.

Surely, Silver, who is Jewish, had to have been awake these past few weeks and noticed the cancellation of Kanye West. After West made antisemitic remarks, corporations raced each other to be the first to distance themselves from him. The response to West by global brands such as Gap and Adidas should have been top of mind for Silver, who as long as he’s in charge will be tasked with growing the business of the game. So what else could have been more important last week than breaking the in-case-of-emergency glass and extinguishing this fire set by Irving?

There was once a time when the NBA, under then-commissioner David Stern, fined a player (JR Smith) for posting a photo of a scantily clad woman to his Twitter account. That sophomoric decision cost Smith $25,000, a smidgen for a millionaire athlete but enough to send a message that if you’re going to be a representative for this global enterprise, there is a standard to bear.

But Silver dallied. Perhaps he was waiting on the dysfunctional Nets to do the right thing, but they were busy firing coach Steve Nash, the only adult in the room, and figuring out a way to spin the hire of Ime Udoka, whose leadership skills are shaky at best .

Silver should not have waited. But the players, who run this league, were all too quiet as well.

It should have been easy for the NBPA to call Irving by his name and denounce the antisemitic movie he promoted to millions of followers in the same sentence. Instead, it released a vanilla statement — Sesame Street’s episode on race went harder than anything the NBPA offered — and the players remained either silent or not nearly as forceful as they have been on other topics.

Kevin Durant, Irving’s friend and teammate, spoke Friday about the matter. By his word choice, however, Durant seemed more concerned about the team issuing Irving a suspension of no less than five games (the proper steps, albeit days after the offense). Durant never called out Irving for his actions.

“I ain’t here to judge nobody or talk down on nobody for how they feel, their view or anything,” Durant said. “I just didn’t like anything that went on. I feel like it was all unnecessary. I felt like we could have just kept playing basketball and kept quiet as an organization. I just don’t like none of it.”

It’s never a good thing when a follow-up tweet has to be sent to clarify remarks, and Durant tried to do just that: “I don’t condone hate speech or anti-semetism [stet], I’m about spreading love always. Our game Unites people and I wanna make sure that’s at the forefront.”

On Friday evening, after Durant and the Nets handed the Wizards a 128-86 loss at Capital One Arena, Washington opened its locker room for reporters. One by one, we walked closer to the stall where Deni Avdija was sitting, shirtless, and looking down at his phone. Avdija, the only known Jewish player in the league, knew why the crowd was gathering. He agreed to answer some questions but first wanted to get presentable and put on more clothes. When Avdija couldn’t find a shirt, he asked a nearby staffer for one. Then teammate Daniel Gafford, who overheard the request and was buttoning up his own shirt right next door, draped a gray warmup tee over Avdija’s shoulder.

In that micro moment, Avdija had someone looking out for his best interest. An ally. But in the days following Irving’s tweet, where were those allies?

While Irving played with matches, players watched the fire grow. They traded their power for a distorted code of silence, making their union and league look impotent. They may have wanted to stay out of Irving’s mess, either for their own self preservation or to help their peer, but this desire to protect the chosen few at all costs will end up irreparably damaging the brand.

They looked weak by remaining on the sides, choosing to save their peer’s reputation rather than to protect the league. Despite seeing themselves as thought leaders, they shut up and dribbled.

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