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ESSAY: LeBron James on the disparity between coverage of Kyrie Irving and Jerry Jones

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

In the annals of antisemitism, the events of recent days — Kanye West’s profession of love for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis to Alex Jones, of all people — are above and beyond anything we’ve seen in American culture in years, perhaps decades. There is real fear out there.

The horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust, have become a subject of debate not what they were: the height of man’s inhumanity to man. Ye’s commentary also, on a micro level, keeps the issue of Kyrie Irving’s promotion/publicizing of an antisemitic video, for which he has repeatedly apologized, in the news. It’s part of the recitation of a litany of incidents tied to antisemitism. It is unfortunate, but it is real. So, too, are questions about how America treats all “others” in a society that is growing more pluralistic, whether they are Jewish, Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ or immigrant. That the Nets and the NBA, whose players are increasingly outspoken, are at the center of things shouldn’t surprise anyone. Not to mention the Nets play in Brooklyn, New York.

Two days ago, before the Kanye West comments, LeBron James mentioned what he called “the Kyrie thing” in a discussion of the relative moral weight of what Irving did vs. the revelation by the Washington Post that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was — at the very least — on hand for an ugly incident at his North Little Rock High School in 1957. Jones, then 15, was pictured feet away from a group of white students as they intimidated and hurled racial epithets at a small group of Black high schoolers who were there simply to protest state-sponsored racism that kept blacks in educationally and otherwise inferior schools.

The story of that day in North Little Rock was used by the Post to highlight, among other things, how the NFL in general and the Cowboys in particular have not promoted or selected Blacks as head coaches despite the prevalence of Black players in the game.

James questioned why sports writers had not asked him about the Jerry Jones photo, suggesting there was a double standard for Irving and Jones.

“I got one question for you guys before you guys leave. I was thinking when I was on my way over here, I was wondering why I haven’t gotten a question from you guys about the Jerry Jones photo,” James said. “But when the Kyrie [Irving] thing was going on, you guys were quick to ask us questions about that.”

There were of course a number of legitimate reasons why James was asked about Irving and not Jones. James and Irving played together for two years in Cleveland, won a championship together and so James knows him well. James also is a leader in the NBA with, as he says, “power and a platform,” a role he welcomes. So controversy in the NBA often finds its way to James door. James does not know Jones as well, if at all, and Jones is the owner of a NFL team, not an NBA team. Moreover, 57 years separate the two incidents.

Still, James noted — accurately — that both controversies are about sports and discrimination in America and deserve equal discussion because of America’s history.

“When I watch Kyrie talk and he says, ‘I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things that we’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, as someone with power and a platform, when we do something wrong, or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage, it’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, photo — and I know it was years and years ago and we all make mistakes, I get it — but it seems like it’s just been buried under, like, ‘Oh, it happened. OK, we just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

James did not avoid talking about Irving when his controversy broke a month ago. In fact, he was among the first to criticize Irving’s decision to post a link to the antisemitic material.

“I believe what Kyrie did caused some harm to a lot of people,” James said on November 4, shortly after the Nets suspended Irving. “He has since, over the last – today, or was it yesterday? – he apologized. But he caused some harm, and I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t stand on the position to harm people when it comes to your voice or your platform or anything. So, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, how tall you are, what position you are in. If you are promoting or soliciting or saying harmful things to any community that harm people, then I don’t respect it. I don’t condone it.”

The bottom line, of course, is that in today’s superheated politics — and celebrity-driven culture, sports is not a sideshow, but often the prism through which we look at issues. It is that big and that is a good thing. Those who want players to simply “shut up and dribble” are often part of a retrograde movement with limited knowledge or interest in larger American issues.

For the Nets and NBA, that arena is often an uncomfortable place, whether it’s Irving’s positions on vaccines or a “New World Order” or Joe Tsai’s commentary on Chinese nationalism or what role his company may have played in surveilling a Muslim minority in western China, or the general intersection of race and religion, etc. etc. But addressing discomfort, questioning the conventional, even in a process fraught with mistakes, is often how we learn, how we become better. Embrace it.