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What reporters can learn from Kyrie Irving calling them ‘pawns’

If the media wants athletes to be better, then we have to be better, too

One couldn’t be blamed for reacting to the most recent Kyrie Irving news cycle with a heavily sighed, “Boy, if he don’t get …”

The mercurial Brooklyn Nets point guard and his employer were each fined $25,000 by the NBA on Thursday for Irving’s refusal to speak to the media since the beginning of training camp on Dec. 1. Three days later, Irving released a statement that read, in part, “Instead of speaking to the media today, I am issuing this statement to ensure that my message is properly conveyed. … I am committed to show up to work every day, ready to have fun, compete, perform, and win championships alongside my teammates and colleagues in the Nets organization.

“My goal this season is to let my work on and off the court speak for itself.”

Irving, not letting his play do the talking, posted on social media Friday an apparent reaction to the fine:

“I pray we utilize the ‘fine money’ for the marginalized communities in need, especially seeing where our world is presently. [I am] here for Peace, Love, and Greatness. So stop distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art. We move different over here.

“I do not talk to Pawns. My attention is worth more.”

Oh, brother. Here we go again.

The easy way out for everyone – the media, NBA fans – would be to chalk this up to Kyrie being Kyrie, ignoring the substance of what the 28-year-old said in order to further criticize – or laugh at – his bloated ego and even more bloated hotepery. (Irving also quoted Malcolm X in his Friday statement.) Irving has repeatedly taken an ax to his reputation over the years, from his reported tumultuous relationship with his teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics to boneheaded public comments, the most controversial being his thoughts on the flatness of Earth.

But, as is the case with most things, this Irving situation is complex.

On one hand, Irving has an obligation to talk to the media. Not to get all slave-mastery, but the league has a $24 billion partnership with ESPN and Turner to broadcast games, and also has guidelines that require that players speak to reporters after games and practices. Irving knows this, as he is a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association. Irving may be annoyed by reporters and their questions, but the least he can do – the absolute least – is answer some questions for five minutes. (For the uninitiated, media scrums last only about that long.)

Irving makes the jobs of beat reporters harder by not answering their questions. Imagine if Irving didn’t speak to the media after his season-opening 50-point game last season on the one-year anniversary of the death of his grandfather. That career-defining moment loses a bit of its luster without Irving’s cooperation. Not to mention, there’s a risk other players would decide that they, too, don’t want to talk to the media. Cooperation with the media means you get Damian Lillard’s “Paul George got sent home by me last year in the playoffs” or LeBron James asking for some “damn respect.” Less media access is not ideal for anyone.

At the same time, members of the media, myself included, need to take a long look at ourselves as well. Irving didn’t decide to call us “pawns” out of thin air.

Before the advent of social media and player-backed media outlets, journalists owned a monopoly on coverage of athletes. When you wanted to learn about your favorite athletes and teams, or conversely, when athletes wanted to set the record straight on something, they needed the local sports reporter. Newspaper columnists were once considered among the most influential people in sports, because they helped determine public opinion on this player or that coach.

But over the last decade – notably when James went on national television to say he was taking his talents to South Beach – things changed. Where there was once the local and national reporter, and maybe a blogger here and there, now there’s James’ UNINTERRUPTED media platform, Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures and the Derek Jeter-backed Players’ Tribune, which broke the news of Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016, among other scoops. Plus there’s the athletes’ own social media accounts.

Players realized they didn’t need the media anymore. And could you blame them? Many of us abused the relative power we had as purveyors of news. We called Durant “Mr. Unreliable.” We turned James into a villain because he didn’t want to play for Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert anymore. We called Irving every four-letter word under the sun for questioning the circumference of Earth. Trolls on the internet and fans in arenas did the same thing, but we in the media are supposed to be better than that. The line between criticism and pure meanness was long crossed.

These are the consequences.

It’s easy to dismiss what Irving said because he’s the wrong messenger. We – society, not just the media – did the same thing over the summer when Irving rightfully questioned the league returning to play in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Because Irving, like millions of others in this country, hadn’t spoken up in the past about race and inequality, suddenly his opinion that the NBA would be a distraction from the social unrest was met with ridicule. For a Black man playing in a predominantly Black sport that’s covered by an overwhelmingly white press corps that downplays his dedication to social justice, it should come as no surprise to that same press corps that this Black man no longer desires to speak with them.

If the media (reporters, journalists, writers, bloggers, podcasters, analysts, commentators, etc.) wants athletes like Irving to be better, then we, too, have to be better.

If not, it won’t be a matter of whether or not we are pawns on a chessboard. We’ll find we’re the only ones playing the game.

Liner Notes

If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"