If you had asked me which player would best hijack the cultural engine of the NBA—an engine at the forefront of some of the most radical social change in sport for multiple decades—for the most opportunistic, selfish, and retrograde rat-fuckers in American politics, I would have probably guessed Michael Porter Jr. Maybe Jonathan Isaac or Gordon Hayward. Perhaps the entire Utah Jazz organization.
But I would never have guessed Enes Kanter Freedom and Kyrie Irving, whose one-two punch of outright racism and extraordinary shortsightedness has opened the door for us to witness the slow drag of the NBA into the pits of cultural hell, where the weaponization of majority Black athletes—something white liberals are not excluded from, by the way–becomes an opportunity for the abscesses of American political office to suddenly become basketball experts and further reactionary agendas best described as “fucked.”
In an era where the idea, but not the reality, of COVID-19 is becoming a distant speck behind us (even as more and more vulnerable people die of the virus), Irving’s anti-vax stance and its relationship to the anti-science movement has become difficult to ignore. Months of hotly debated questions around vaccine and mask mandates culminated in an invitation from Ted Cruz to play for the Houston Rockets (lol).
Meanwhile, the slow entropy of the Global East and South, long ravaged by the economic and military jackboot of American Freedom (the concept, not the man) and expressing itself in violent sinophobia and extraordinary racism amidst the carnage of both COVID-19 and the BLM movement, has found itself an inevitable ally in Enes Freedom. His turn since being unceremoniously extruded from the Boston Celtics has resulted in non-stop verbal feculence targeting players such as Jeremy Lin and LeBron James alongside appearances on Tucker Carlson et al.
The issues facing both of these players may seem like parallel tracks, but the responses are universal and linked. They point to the enormous cultural power of the NBA and the ascendancy of the Black voices within it, something reactionary politicians have been quick to marginalize in the most racist ways, to little avail and significant pushback. Conservatives are almost fetishistically obsessed with participating in—and winning—the so-called “culture war.” The Kyrie/Freedom angles are among the most opportune ways in which to do so.
This has predictably articulated itself in unhinged ways.
From pundits describing Freedom, a player whose basketball achievements would be a footnote’s footnote on the game, as a Hall of Famer, to making comparisons with Irving’s exclusion from playing to Magic Johnson’s return to the NBA after becoming HIV positive, we’re observing legions of shitheads who have never once meaningfully said anything about the NBA becoming experts and fans overnight.
Make no mistake, however; these people know they are absolute mooks when it comes to basketball. It’s doubtful Ben Shapiro could describe something as simple as a pick and roll. However, what these controversial players have afforded the most swiss-cheese brained personalities in American politics is the ability to connect, legitimize, and have access to a league that’s long been perceived as hostile to reactionary values.
It’s doubtful any prominent figures who support Freedom and Irving give a shit about them. Despite Freedom’s ties to the controversial Gülen Movement in Turkey, most of his NBA tenure was marked by a pitiful lack of basketball acumen and sincere criticisms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic reign as Turkey’s head of state.
Irving, a probable Hall of Famer and eternal enemy of Boston, received plaudits from leftists by taking principled stances on issues such as Standing Rock and supporting Black women, politics largely anathema to right-wingers.
But it’s never been about supporting the player. It’s about weaponization and control. Ultimately, it’s about exploitation. These players are—either unwittingly or willingly—allowing themselves to be played. Freedom’s recent citation in a letter from the GOP to the NBA regarding its relationship with China demonstrates his worth as a lightning rod, a political idea, rather than a person.
Irving’s invite from Cruz does the same thing. For a long time, Republicans and their ilk were criticizing the NBA as outsiders. Now, for the first time in recent memory, they can claim people from within as allies. They have the legitimacy of insiders and malformed kinship, a disingenuous, yet terrifying proposition.
Examine the way Mike Lee speaks on Freedom being waived from the NBA, and then the way Freedom’s own endless diatribe reinforces it. Is it a grift on the part of Enes? Yeah, of course it fucking is. Is it reaching millions of people and providing another weapon in the arsenal of figures who have long been trying to marginalize NBA players? Also yes.
Nevermind the wickedly hypocritical stance on China, a country with its share of earned, and unearned, criticism, by a political party that has long profited from the outsourcing of goods and labor to the country. Even if Freedom’s sinophobia was in good faith, it’s ultimately supporting a diversionary, empty, and reactionary attack on the NBA from racist power structures seeking to deflect from their own reliance on China to pin the backbone of their own rapidly erratic, inhuman economy.
Irving’s denial of playing time and recent $50,000 fine for entering the Nets locker room while unvaccinated has made him a hero to Republicans eager to hold up the idea of people being victimized for their choices. Irving himself has explained his refusal to be vaccinated as in line with the idea people would “lose their jobs with mandates,” a strawman argument propelled by those who would rather have American lives be mulched in the grinder of normalcy and profit than lose a dollar in the name of public safety. Kyrie may be more well-meaning than Enes. It hasn’t stopped him from being a key figurehead in a different relentless grift that continues to harm more Black Americans than White ones.
The majority of NBA owners donate to the same politicians who go out of their way to limit the power of marginalized Americans. They have a keen interest in the control of labor power and the marginalization of worker-driven action, evidenced by the bubble crisis and the management of athlete protest beforehand, as well as its swift disappearance after.
NBA players becoming synonymous with the same ranks seeking to diminish their power, both as athletes and individuals, is finally a way for the political owners and the broader apparatus of conservative politics to join ranks in elegant ways extending far beyond the old, long-overlooked racism of figures such as Robert Sarver and Donald Sterling.
When Colin Kaepernick kneeled, the NFL’s pushback was swift and decisive in his removal from the league. Baseball has long coasted on its cultural power as “America’s pastime,” so much so that any dissenting voices are swiftly excised. In many ways, the history of major leagues and race has been about the management and control of racialized people, not their empowerment.
The individualistic showmanship and smaller rosters of the NBA, however, have lent its greatest athletes an outsized voice in social and cultural issues that one would be hard-pressed to find in those, more regimented games. Those voices are invaluable to The Discourse™. The culture war in basketball, long arrayed on the lines of NBA and WNBA players versus Fox News and the GOP, has found a couple of people defecting.
Of course, it’s not up to me, you, or anyone else to tell players what to do. That’s their own issue. In many ways, that idea—of being compelled—has driven Kyrie Irving into deeper controversy his entire career, whether his concerns were valid or not (probably a bit of column A, a bit of column B). However, it is worth observing that both of these players, intentionally and unintentionally, have become instruments in their own exploitation and the exploitation of their fellow athletes, setting a dangerous precedent that will only ramp up as our world becomes increasingly more stupid.
The NBA has found itself at the forefront of America’s dumbest culture war. It might be on pause now because the ongoing war in Ukraine has taken precedence over everything, but unless Putin kicks the nuclear football, all of this will come back with swift vengeance.
Be prepared, because it’ll only get more asinine from here.