Joel Cohen

Should we really care what Kyrie Irving ‘believes’?

The Brooklyn Nets basketball team, faced with a public relations nightmare, at first demanded that Kyrie Irving publicly apologize for tweeting a link to an anti-Semitic film and in effect promoting it, given his enormous Twitter following. More pertinent here, they demanded that he publicly state that he holds no anti-Semitic beliefs. Why?

Kyrie may be one of the five or ten best basketball players in the world.  Kudos. And kudos, I guess, to the Nets for having acquired him several years ago in free agency, being willing to pay him roughly $37,000,000 annually to play.

Certainly, he’s an “influencer,” damn it — although solely because he can play basketball better that most anyone on the planet. That’s the only reason why it was so troubling that he so publicly declined to be vaccinated during the Covid pandemic. If he was willing to sit on the bench and decline $18,000,000 for not being allowed to play at New York home games that year as the cost of going unvaccinated, more power to him, I guess. It was stupid, but certainly his right. The problem is that his basketball skills, and they alone, likely led many (also stupid) fans to go unvaccinated, get sick and maybe even die because their favorite basketball player publicly proclaimed that no one can tell him what to do with his body.

Kyrie’s called an influencer but, more pertinently, he’s a narcissist with a public platform. What else explains why someone would publicly opine that the earth is flat, as he also did some years back? Yes, he ultimately “apologized” to school teachers for his comments. God knows how many elementary school students were misled by Kyrie’s idiocy before he was implored to set them straight. The truth is, I myself don’t really know if the earth is round, although I’m far more willing to listen to scientists than Kyrie, who presumably just woke up one morning simply deciding to cause some mischief.  In actuality, he didn’t really do any harm then, and maybe even believed it.  Maybe he still does.

And whether he did or does, it’s for everyone to decide whether to believe Aristotle, Magellan, and John Glenn or, instead, Kyrie about the earth’s shape. We didn’t need to know Kyrie’s beliefs about the earth’s shape — although it might be fun to know if he plans travel to Japan or Australia by ship, and what steps he plans to take when he gets to the Earth’s edge. The bottom line is that Kyrie stating his “beliefs” about the earth’s shape presented no real harm – unless third graders started announcing in class that the world is flat because only “the world-class astronomer Kyrie” really knows the truth of it.

Now, however, Kyrie has taken his insouciance to another — this time, serious — level. He’s posted — and effectively promoted — commentary on a film that actively articulates anti-Semitic tropes. I don’t identify the film here lest I further Kyrie’s sick obsession with his relevance. Happily, some degree of normalcy has come down hard on Kyrie — especially from icons in the basketball world: Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Reggie Miller and LeBron James have loudly denounced him over it. The Nets finally felt compelled to suspend him for five games when he basically declined to make it right, although he finally gave some kind of half-assed apology, after some previously insincere fits and starts. I guess, after all, Kyrie does want to play ball. Without a ball in his hands, as he well knows, he faces the challenge of distinguishing himself in a meaningful life after basketball, an uphill battle for even the greatest of athletes. He would also have to face the unenviable challenge of trying to airbrush his Wikipedia page which will have remained chock full of his ridiculous off-the-court controversies (that even his NBA peers have nailed him on).

The problem here, though, is that as part of his penance the Nets have insisted that Kyrie publicly state that he holds no anti-Semitic beliefs. Effectively, then, the Nets facing a significant backlash about its handling of the Kyrie disaster decided that the answer was to act as “thought police.” Basically, the Nets asked Kyrie to conform to the organization’s values in order to help put this debacle to rest and let him return to the Brooklyn basketball court (if they can’t trade him). While Kyrie may have a “right” to his personal opinions, he is also a famous person who represents a team and a sports franchise, giving that organization an interest – here, a negative one — in what he publicly says and promotes. Should Kyrie be more careful than the average person in what he says, given the size of his audience? While the anti-Semite next door might rant to an audience of one or two, Kyrie’s opinions reach millions, and that’s precisely why he offers them without being solicited to.

It’s probably likely that Kyrie, having tweeted as he did about it, is indeed an anti-Semite. Meaning, he holds negative beliefs about Jews, as do many people about Blacks, Muslims, Latinos, Russians, Germans, etc. Sad, but that’s the way it is. Sure, Kyrie should be required to attend classes to help sensitize him to the world of Jew hatred, and the horrendous problems Jews have historically faced with it, and still do.  Maybe that particular measure might help straighten him out, inasmuch as that’s exactly what he needs.

And the Nets should definitely compel Kyrie, if necessary, to stop fomenting antisemitism. Isn’t that what the existence of a morals clause is intended to address?  At the same time, though, asking him to publicly deny what he might actually believe? Why, especially when his public disavowal of such beliefs would likely be false anyway? Maybe he’s also a Holocaust denier. Fine; just let him keep it to himself. It might be hard to enforce, but it is still doable.

I’d prefer that the Nets simply demand that he shut up about it all. Not only that – the media should stop poking the bear in his eye at press conferences, probing his inner “beliefs” about Jews. Since he has no guardrails to help him abstain from stupidity, why provoke it?  Instead, just let him publicly opine endlessly about how he sees the Big Bang theory, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the meaning of the Astral Plane or stuff like that. There, his uneducated, amateurish and outright silly beliefs will harm no one.

And, more important, it’s where they’ll influence no one.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.