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What Kyrie Irving's suspension says about the NBA


One of basketball's biggest stars was suspended indefinitely this week after tweeting a link to an antisemitic film. Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving refused to say he has no antisemitic views. He declined to apologize until days later after his team suspended him without pay. Some have criticized the Nets for taking nearly a week to act. Former star Charles Barkley said the league dropped the ball. And yet in recent years, the NBA has made social justice a big part of its brand. So what happened here? We're joined now by Kevin Blackistone. He's a sports commentator for The Washington Post and professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Kevin Blackistone, thanks for joining us.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: So for people who haven't been following the ins and outs of this story, can you just walk us through briefly what happened?

BLACKISTONE: Sure. Kyrie Irving, who's one of the most exciting players in the league but has always surrounded himself with some sort of drama, really surrounded himself with drama this time that got him in real trouble. He posted to his social media followers - and that's about 20, 21 million people - a link to a film that is considered antisemitic. And when he was called out on it, he was not contrite. And eventually, the Brooklyn Nets decided to suspend him from the team for five games. And the latest thing that they've asked him to do if he wants to return to the court is to take some remedial steps, which includes meeting with some Jewish leaders and with the team before he can return to play.

FLORIDO: This is happening on the Nets. You know, his home turf is Brooklyn, which...


FLORIDO: ...Along with the other boroughs in New York, has the largest Jewish community in the country. I imagine the response within that community has been huge.

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. The ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, has called out Kyrie Irving for his lack of contrition and lack of understanding on this issue. He responded by dropping them a big check, and they responded by refusing it because it's not the money that's important to that community. It's the fact that people understand the hurt, the harm that his link to this antisemitic film, which is just filled with tropes about Jewish people, has caused. The league hasn't really acted yet. It's really the Brooklyn Nets. And I talked to an executive with the league just yesterday, and they are comfortable with the way the Nets have approached this. And depending on what happens with Kyrie Irving going forward, the league will then decide whether or not it has to be involved as well.

FLORIDO: You know, Kevin, this isn't the first time issues of hate speech have come up within the NBA. In fact, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns was recently suspended and fined $10 million after years of inappropriate conduct, including the use of racist slurs. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apologized for allowing that behavior to go on for years. But the NBA has also made social justice a part of its brand for a long time now. And I wonder if you think there's sort of a disconnect here.

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, I don't think it's a disconnect. I think this is part of that social justice theme that we've seen the league embrace, we've seen the league's players embrace during Black Lives Matter movement. We have to remember that WNBA players on the Atlanta Dream and elsewhere around the league forced Kelly Loeffler to sell her co-ownership in that team because of her stances against women's rights and against Black Lives Matter movement. So I see this as part of that lineage. And I think, you know, players around the league slowly but surely have started to voice that opinion; certainly commentators have. And Kyrie Irving is suffering the consequences. And I can't imagine that in a league that is predominantly Black, that had this film been directed at the progeny of enslaved Africans, that these players would not have reacted similarly and maybe even even more strongly. So this is - to me, this is all part of that lineage.

FLORIDO: And yet some folks are saying that they feel that players still aren't being vocal enough following this incident. Former NBA star Reggie Miller has made that criticism. Is that a fair criticism?

BLACKISTONE: Yeah, no, I think it is. You know, I think obviously with Black Lives Matter movement, it's much easier for Black athletes in the NBA to embrace those issues because they see them as directly affecting them, which is absolutely true. And I think that when it comes to antisemitism, in some ways, that's always been a struggle within the Black community for myriad reasons. But I think that when you deal in the tropes that this particular film is dealing in and denies the events of the Holocaust, I think then you're in territory that you needn't be in and is absolutely wrong. And the other thing I think we have to remember is the climate that we're in right now in this country. Antisemitic violence, it seems to be at an all-time high. Violence in particular on political issues seems to be at an all-time high. And this is just fueling the flames.

FLORIDO: Well, Kyrie Irving has been suspended for a minimum of five games, but it's unclear when he might be back on the court. How do you think this might play out?

BLACKISTONE: Well, the Nets laid out some steps that Kyrie Irving has to take in order to return to the court. And it sounds as if he does not meet those steps, then he's not going to be on the team. He is also in the last year of his contract with the Brooklyn Nets, who have not been successful since he's been there because he was also a COVID denier, and he couldn't play because of restrictions in the league. And the year before that, he was also hurt. So they didn't perform well in the playoffs. You know, he could be at the end of his career. This is that big. Here's a guy who's talked about the Earth being flat and seem to have joked around about it. But now he's really dealing in conspiracy theories that are very harmful in a lot of different ways. And so I think this league is going to look at him considerably different going forward. He may be more of a liability than an asset.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Kevin Blackistone, sports commentator for The Washington Post and an ESPN panelist. Kevin Blackistone, thanks for joining us.

BLACKISTONE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.