Just hours after Kyrie Irving released a cagey and not-entirely-apologetic statement on Thursday regarding his decision to promote an antisemitic documentary, the Brooklyn Nets announced that Irving has been suspended for a minimum of five games.
The team’s statement announcing the suspension was about as strongly worded as these things can be, with the Nets describing Irving as “currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.” The statement also explicitly called out a disastrous meeting with reporters that Irving had at the Nets’ practice on Thursday.
During that conversation, Irving once again declined to apologize for promoting an antisemitic documentary. The closest he got to something resembling an apology was saying that he “took responsibility” for posting a link to the documentary, and acknowledging that there were “some things that were questionable in there, untrue.” When pressed to say whether or not he was intending to apologize for his actions, Irving turned dismissive. “I didn’t mean to cause any harm. I’m not the one that made the documentary,” he said.
Irving’s attitude was that of a person who not only didn’t believe that he had done anything worthy of an apology, but was offended at at the notion of anybody expecting one. That impatience broke through at one point, when Irving gave a long and meandering answer about his own spiritual and intellectual journey.
As tempting as it is to watch a clip like that and dismiss Irving as nothing more than a quintessential dumb guy who likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice—let’s be clear, though: anyone who says, “I study. I know the Oxford Dictionary,” is a dumb guy—I do think there is some genuine understanding of how and why Irving and the Nets ended up in this position to be gained here. The feeling that Irving is describing at the start of that clip is one that anyone can identify with: the desire to know who you are and where you come from. Attempts to find answers to those questions are, for obvious reasons, particularly fraught for black Americans, and Irving is far from the first to seek comfort and pride at the bottom of some pretty dark rabbit holes. If there’s one thing that’s been largely missing from the coverage of Irving’s recent comments and decisions, it’s an understanding of this cultural context. Irving has walked a specific and well-worn path, but the difference between him and the Black Israelite ranting on the corner of 125th Street, or someone’s goofy uncle, or the guy with an ankh necklace who posted on a lot of rap forums in 2005, is that he occupies a far less marginal position in his community, and is thus much harder to ignore.
It’s Irving’s fame and notoriety that give his faux-intellectual pontificating and flirtations with objectively vile conspiracy theories the potential to cause real harm. He is the vice president of the NBA Players Association; he is known to be revered and respected both as a player and a person by his peers in the NBA; he has millions of adoring fans around the world. Irving himself has spoken repeatedly about the power of his platform—he was a “voice for the voiceless” when explaining why he refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and how he’s a “beacon of light.” When someone like that posts a link to an antisemitic documentary, and then refuses to apologize for doing so, and then says things like, “I’m just here to continue to expose things that our world continues to put in darkness,” while delivering a non-apology, the air becomes poisonous.
Irving’s refusal to understand this, or to view his own actions with any degree of humility, placed this whole mess firmly in his own hands. Every time Irving has spoken publicly about this, his inability to escape the pomposity of the persona he’s constructed for himself has become clearer. When he spoke to reporters on Thursday, he did so with the unmistakable air of a man who can only ever be the center of his own universe; he’s a guy who simply can’t comprehend that anything done in his pursuit of knowledge, shallow as it may be, could be harmful to anyone else, because what else could be more important than his own personal journey?
Just before midnight on Thursday, Irving finally began to reverse course, posting an apologetic statement on his Instagram page:
Do you remember when DeSean Jackson, then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, posted some antisemitic shit on his Instagram page in 2020? It was the exact same sludge that appears in the documentary Irving promoted, but that incident hasn’t lived long in the cultural memory for an obvious reason: Jackson quickly and unequivocally apologized for his actions. Irving could have put an end to this saga days ago by releasing the statement he did on Thursday on Sunday or Monday. Instead, he chose a self-destructive commitment to being understood as studious and free-thinking rather than perceptive and decent. Stay in that pose long enough and the benefit of the doubt, along with whatever barrier might exist between understandable but reckless inquiry and dyed-in-the-wool antisemitism, eventually starts to dissolve. Irving might not be able to rebuild that barrier at this point, but at least he’s left his defensive crouch for now.