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Kyrie Irving needs to answer for promoting antisemitism

The NBA should consider discipline for his refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing


It’s time to draw a line with Kyrie Irving. His behavior is no longer quirky, eccentric, or even bizarre – it’s dangerous.

On Saturday night, Brooklyn Nets guard Irving refused all accountability for posting a link to a movie and book that spreads vicious lies about Jewish people. Instead of apologizing, or just avoiding the question, he became combative and defiant. “I’m not going to stand down on anything that I believe in,” he said.

Then came the scariest statement Irving has made to date, which is saying something given his history of spreading conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine quackery and the type of misinformation you might hear ranted through a bullhorn on a street corner.

“I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone,” Irving said. “I have a whole army around me.”

This warlike imagery comes almost four years to the day after 11 Jewish people were killed by a gunman who invaded the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The man accused in the shooting was active on social media, and often posted antisemitic material online.

No, Irving did not explicitly call for violence, and has said nothing to indicate he would go that far. He doesn’t have to. There are too many disturbed people out there who are willing to kill, who consider themselves foot soldiers in an army fighting threats that exist only in their own twisted minds. By posting a link to a book that falsely paints Jewish people as the enemy, Irving could be giving ammunition to the next killer. And even without bloodshed, all of society suffers when prominent people encourage the falsehood that one group, just because of its ancestry, is inherently sinister or dangerous. We as Black people should know that better than anyone.

Irving’s actions come amid the Brooklyn Nets’ disastrous 1-5 start to a season with championship aspirations. While Nets forward Kevin Durant denied that the situation was contributing to the team’s losses, it’s another huge distraction from a player who seems to bring drama wherever he goes.

To be fair, I doubt Irving would say he believes the lies espoused in the book and movie he posted, such as, “in earlier years, many Jews and European Scottish/York Freemasons have claimed that they worship Satan or Lucifer. Many famous high-ranking Jews and Freemasons have written books admitting to this.” I hope he would not back falsehoods like, “Using control of our money and the Mass Media, the European Jews gained control of our thinking …” These are just two of the antisemitic prejudices from the book, which I’m not going to name. The entire mess is detailed in the Rolling Stone article that broke the story.

What I think Irving was arguing about was his right to post anything he wants on his social media. “Did I do anything illegal? Did I hurt anybody? Did I harm anybody?” he said. At another point in the back-and-forth with ESPN reporter Nick Friedell, he denied that he was “promoting” anything by posting it.

But posting a link to this type of material does harm people. It reinforces an ancient ignorance that continues to inflict misery on countless people today. Just ask the Jewish kids who endure taunts about the Holocaust in school, or the Jewish families whose homes have been defaced with swastikas. Elevating these lies has real consequences, but Irving refused to accept that fact – one of many he denies.

Before now, Irving’s most troubling departure from science and reason was his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. That was dangerous, because it encouraged other vaccine opponents and made it more likely some would catch a potentially fatal or debilitating disease. But at least there is a vaccine, which most people take, to fight the coronavirus. There’s no vaccine for bigotry.

It’s also ludicrous for Irving to say that he’s not “promoting” the material when he posts a link to it on his Twitter account. The man has 4.5 million followers. His basketball brilliance has given him a “platform.” A platform raises things to greater visibility and prominence. Not only did Irving choose to elevate bigoted content on his platform, he refused to take it down. The tweet linking to the book and movie was still up Sunday afternoon. (Editor’s note: The post was deleted later that day.)

Before we get to how hold Irving accountable, a few more falsehoods should be addressed. I heard these type of crazy statements Sunday from members of Irving’s army who responded to one of my social media posts:

There’s a lot of truth in that book, why are you focusing on a couple of bad things?

Because even if that’s true, the book’s antisemitism would be like poison hidden in ice cream.

Why are you asking Kyrie questions that don’t have to do with basketball?

Because Black athletes, including Irving, have historically demanded to be heard on issues outside of their sports. You can’t have it both ways.

Why are you caping for Jews but giving anti-Black statements a pass?

Never that

Why aren’t you questioning (choose a billionaire) for saying (choose a topic)?

We are.

Since Irving is refusing to accept any accountability for his actions, here’s a suggestion:

The Nets should require Irving to attend a private meeting with people from the team, the NBA, the Anti-Defamation League, a respected Black scholar on the history of prejudice, and Nike, which is set to release the Kyrie 8 sneaker in November. The purpose would be to educate Irving – who clearly needs a lesson in how to conduct real historical research – on why his position is so dangerous. Give him a few days for self-reflection, and then ask him to take down the post that elevates antisemitism. If he agrees, issue a news release saying he has learned from the experience and doesn’t wish to discuss it any further.

If he refuses, the NBA should consider fining Irving and Nike should reconsider its relationship with him, similar to how Adidas ended its lucrative partnership with rapper Kanye West over his antisemitic statements. The league refused to tolerate racist statements by former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and it fined Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for transgressions including racist language. The NFL has a policy that allows discipline for reprehensible personal conduct; so does my own contract with ESPN. Free speech is something to be protected, but it’s not unlimited. Harmful and dangerous speech has consequences.

I recognize the complexities of the relationship between Black and Jewish people in America, who have been both allies and opponents in the ongoing effort to overcome the fiction of white superiority. But we have all suffered from the type of lies that were promoted by Irving’s post. He should answer for that.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.