Kyrie Irving has only 1 path to NBA reinstatement: apologize, and mean it

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving gives a thumbs up towards fans wearing shirts with the phrase ‘fight antisemitism’ during a 116-109 win against the Indiana Pacers in Brooklyn on Monday. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports - image credit)
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving gives a thumbs up towards fans wearing shirts with the phrase ‘fight antisemitism’ during a 116-109 win against the Indiana Pacers in Brooklyn on Monday. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Back during my time as a benchwarmer on the Big Ten's best football team, civilian students — usually some permutation of short, bookish, doughy and skinny — would sometimes contact the coaching staff, asking how they could join the squad.

Most times, coaches would respond with a set of benchmarks — bench press 350 pounds, squat 500, run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash — then come see us.

Those numbers, of course, are 99th percentile. Anyone within hollering distance of a 500-pound squat and a 4.6-forty was probably already on somebody's football team, possibly prepping for the NFL, or maybe already there. They almost certainly weren't strolling around campus, wondering how to squeeze in football practice between chemistry labs.

If the prospective football player knew what those numbers actually meant, they would quit immediately. If not, they would hit the gym and the indoor track, figure out how heavy a barbell really is when you load up 350 pounds, and give up after a few weeks. Which was, of course, the point of the fool's errand.

It all came to mind last week, when the Brooklyn Nets announced that they had suspended point guard Kyrie Irving for at least five games after an accumulation of non-basketball infractions, like his public dalliance with antisemitic conspiracy theories and refusal to issue an unequivocal apology.

"Unfit to be associated" with the team, the Nets called it.

Irving apologized via an Instagram post, but it clearly didn't go far enough in the eyes of the team, or the league.

Irving reportedly met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday, and needs to satisfy six conditions before the team will reinstate him.

It's a tight timeline — more than one condition per game suspended, if we're doing the math. An apology can, in theory, come together quickly. So can a team-mandated charitable donation. Half-a-million dollars is a fortune for most of us, but probably piggy-bank money for Irving, who was scheduled to make $33.33 US million this season.

But sensitivity training? Meetings with the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish community leaders? Education on antisemitism? Is Kyrie doing all that in a week?

Doubtful. As a self-professed anti-vaxxer he wouldn't even get a needle, and that takes five minutes.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Likely end of Irving's time with Nets

I suspect the Nets know that. They know Irving better than the rest of us do and likely understand just how low his tolerance for ultimatums is. For a team that seems eager to jettison a headache, the list of conditions is less a roadmap back to the lineup than the terms of a constructive dismissal. Give Irving a task he'll never complete, and he'll either quit, or give you a reason to release him.

I'm not a gambling man, but, in the colloquial sense, I bet that this is how Irving's career with the Nets ends: with him walking away from an untenable situation he created.

Yes, Irving precipitated this drama when he tweeted out a link to an Amazon Prime stream of a documentary titled Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America. The film, by all accounts, traffics in anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that purport to explain "true" Black history.

We won't split hairs over whether Irving actively promoted the film. He claims he didn't, but he shared the link with his followers, roughly 4.6 million of them at last count. If the post didn't include a disclaimer that he thought the film was full of lies, then he was, at minimum, passively promoting it.

And we're not litigating antisemitism, or its well-documented effects, because there aren't two good-faith sides to every issue. The Holocaust, for one example, was an atrocity, and there's no counter-argument. No "both sides." No finding a truth in the middle.

So when you're one of the highest-profile employees of a very high-profile company, and engage in a (possibly) plausibly deniable flirtation with antisemitic tropes, expect consequences. For Irving, it's a couple of press availabilities where he was expected to, but never did, apologize in clear language, and reject the premise of the video. From there, it's the ADL's rejection of an initial donation offer. After that it's Nike suspending its relationship with Irving. And then the sanction from the Nets.

And now, on social media, among Irving's supporters, it's the comparisons to martyrs like Muhammad Ali.

Irving, of course, is not Ali. First, Ali promoted the use of vaccines. Second, Ali sacrificed the prime of his career over a principled stand against the war in Vietnam. Irving has sidelined himself over a film that, reportedly, includes outright Holocaust denial and an apocryphal Adolph Hitler quote that, incredibly, celebrates Black Americans as "God's Jewels." I say "reportedly," because I haven't seen the film and don't plan to. Any documentary that portrays Jewish people as the engine driving the transatlantic slave trade isn't one I need to watch.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Irving had access to top African-American studies

Now, I empathize with Irving, who explained in one of his press briefings that mainstream formal education tends to whitewash events, and obscure Black history. If you're Black, bright and grew up in North America, there's a strong chance you've been in Irving's position — aware you're not getting the full story, but not sure where to find it.

But I would extend him more grace if he hadn't attended Duke University, home to a top-five African and African American Studies department. If he doesn't want to access those resources, I can recommend some books that can fill in some blanks about the middle passage and American slavery. He's not playing for a while. He'll have time to read.

Unless he's at sensitivity training. Or in class, learning how to distance himself from antisemitic ideas. Or trying to find a Jewish civil rights leader willing to make time for him.

Or he might decide it's not worth it, and remain in professional purgatory. If he never returns to the lineup, he also never returns to the Nets' list of stressors.

It reminds me of another coach at my alma mater, Ricky Byrdsong, who ran the men's basketball team, and who, when frustrated with some player's output or attitude, would order him to run. Indefinitely.

"Just run till I forget about you."

If you remember the name Ricky Byrdsong, it's likely the for the way he died, by a Neo-Nazi shooter's bullet, on July 3, 1999. A man named Benjamin Nathaniel Smith was on a killing spree that brought him to Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population. He spotted Byrdsong, out for an evening jog, and opened fire.

It's a stark lesson for Black folks dabbling in topics like holocaust denial. White antisemites tend to view Black people the same way — as enemies, scapegoats and, ultimately, targets.

And a reminder that antisemitism, unchecked, can lead to violence, which is why the Nets couldn't indulge it. Even when it's indirect, in the form of Irving tweeting a link to an anti-Jewish film. Even if it ends Irving's career with the Nets.

No brand can afford to appear tolerant of antisemitism. Especially not in the NBA, with its reputation as the progressive pro sports league. And certainly not in Brooklyn, home to roughly 600,000 Jewish residents.

If the Nets dump Irving, he'll still have options, as long as he can run an offence and knock down some jump shots. But eventually he'll need to do two things.

Apologize. And mean it.