On Monday, Nike announced that it officially cut ties with Kyrie
Irving due to him sharing a link to the documentary "Hebrews to
Negroes: Wake Up Black America," which many have labeled
antisemitic. The news comes after Nike had suspended Irving and
canceled his signature sneaker line.
The relationship between Irving and Nike began to deteriorate
prior to the recent controversy. Last July, Irving said that the
Kyrie 8 sneakers were "trash" and that he had "nothing to do with
the design or marketing" of the shoe, but that "Nike plans to
release it without my okay."
However, Nike co-founder Phil Knight specifically mentioned
Irving's scandal as the reason the company was parting ways with
“Kyrie stepped over the line, it’s kind of
that simple,” says Nike co-founder Phil Knight. “He just made some
statements we can’t abide by and that’s why we ended the
After nearly a decade-long run of success with Nike, Irving is
officially a sneaker free agent.
In response to this, during Wednesday's game against the
Charlotte Hornets, Irving wore the Kyrie 3s with the Raygun
colorway, but employed black tape to cover the Nike Swoosh logos.
Additionally, he handwrote in marker the messages "I AM FREE" and
"Thank you God... I AM" and "Logo Here" on the side of his
Kyrie Irving covered up the Swoosh on his
Nike Kyrie 3 with some messages following his official split with
(The Brooklyn Nets also won 122-116, with Irving leading all
scorers with 33 points and finishing one assist shy of a
Irving’s agent, Shetellia Riley Irving, told The New York Times that the
sides “mutually decided to part ways and we just wish Nike all the
On my radio show, "The Collision: Where Sports And Politics
Collide,” my guest was Torraine Walker, the founder of Context Media Group. We examined what
Nike’s decision to break ties with Irving means in the grander
scheme of things, what actually constitutes antisemitism and if an
ADL-style punishment is the answer. This was a great
Etan Thomas: What was your response to Nike
dropping Kyrie and his response to being free? Were you surprised
they did that?
Torraine Walker: "No I wasn’t really surprised.
I know once this controversy blew up that there was going to be
some type of corporate response to it. I didn’t think it would go
to this extreme, but at the same time, I can’t really say that I’m
surprised. Whether we like it or not, sports and politics are often
divisions, and anything that looks like it’s going to affect the
brand, the bottom line, is going to be dealt with harshly when
you’re dealing with corporations.
"But the one thing I think this really lays out is, it shows the
difference between ownership and sponsorship. A lot of times, we
get caught up in the idea that someone who is the face of a brand
has some type of bargaining power to the level that they can make
contractual decisions. So this 'Hebrews To Negroes' controversy was
so big that Nike could not ignore it.
"The other side is this — I think this is a great opportunity
for Kyrie and also other athletes to look at basically creating
their own brand and basically having some ownership in the products
they are endorsing and have their faces on. Now, the question is,
will the public get on board with that? Let’s be honest, Nike has
such a stronghold on the market and such strong brand loyalty and
brand recognition that it’s going to be difficult for someone who
is coming into the market to do that. But I’m not surprised at all
that Nike did what they did."
Thomas: What role did the media have in really
magnifying this issue and controversy?
Walker: "The media had the primary role in
keeping this 'controversy' going as long as it did. I can see the
point where the posting of the documentary may have ruffled some
feathers, or it made some people feel like it was an antisemitic
thing. But usually when something like this happens, if an athlete
or celebrity does something that people take offense to, people get
offended, the athlete releases a statement, there’s usually a
cooling off period and, then, it goes away.
"But for some reason, there was this drive in the media to make
this thing bigger than it was. They took a two-day story and made
it into a month story, and I still don’t fully understand the
motivation behind that. I know a lot of organizations were pushing
this. And I wonder if people inside the Nike organization was
pushing this as well because, if I’m not mistaken, Kyrie’s contract
is coming up anyway.
"But I think with the media, this was just the an opportunity
for them to jump on an antisemitic angle with Black people and a
Black man specifically, and they can run with it. So they saw a hot
story and narrative that they could really push, and that’s why we
are where we are with this situation with Nike dropping him today.
So to answer your question, the media had a huge role in this."
Thomas: What do you think about Kyrie and what
he did with his shoes on Tuesday night — putting the tape over the
logo and writing "I Am Free." What was your reaction to
Walker: "I was in favor of it, and I’m glad he
did it that way. My question is, how long will this be sustainable?
It’s easy to create a moment, it’s easy to get people’s attention,
but can you direct that attention into something that will then be
tangible for you to really be 'free?' And what does 'freedom' look
like? Freedom looks like something different to everybody. Does
this mean he is free from having to hold his tongue on issues he is
concerned about? Does this mean he is free to create his own
sneaker line? Does this mean he is free psychologically? I would
love get clarification on that. I think it was a powerful
statement, especially the timing, but would love to see it turn
into something tangible."
Thomas: You mentioned something before, and
it's the question that I continued to ask throughout this entire
process: what is considered "antisemitic?" I think right now, there
is a wider and wider bucket of what is being casted as antisemitic.
On my show, "The Rematch," I spoke with an actual Rabbi, Harry
Rozenberg, and we talked about this. He said, "Well, I may have a
different opinion than your's, and feel very strongly and
emotionally about my different opinion, but that doesn’t mean
your's is antisemitic." So I’m asking you, in your opinion, what
exactly is antisemitic?
Walker: "Well, in my opinion, being antisemitic
means you are making hateful statements about Jewish people, or you
are calling for their extermination — which is what a lot of white
supremacists and neo-Nazis call for. I don’t believe that having
questions about Judaism or having questions or issues as a Black
man in America with the relationship between Black people and
Jewish people is necessarily 'antisemitic.'
"And what’s happening now is, any questioning of anything having
to do with Jewish people or the state of Israel is being seen as
antisemitic, and I don’t think that’s fair and it doesn’t make for
a rational conversation. It has become this thing where even if you
mention it, you are labeled as antisemitic, and that shuts down any
conversation. So to answer your question, my definition of
antisemitism is violent hatred of any person who is Jewish. That’s
my definition of it."
Thomas: Well, I couldn’t agree more. I had a
debate with Dave Zirin, my regular co-host on The Collision, when
he guested on The Rematch, and we disagreed for literally the
entire interview. We just had a different view of everything that
had occurred, and this is when everything first happened.
I mentioned my debate with Harry Rozenberg and we disagreed at
times — we definitely disagreed when it came to discussing
Palestine and Israel — but we also agreed that everything isn’t in
the "antisemitic" bucket. I think one of the things that happens
is, when you label something as "antisemitic," it’s kind of a lazy
argument because it shuts down all conversation. Once you say
something is antisemitic, then there is no conversation. But I
think there are different things that can and should be discussed
without the label of "antisemitic."
Walker: "Absolutely, and like I said earlier,
when you are an African-American, your ideas on what 'antisemitism'
means and what discrimination feels like is very different than
what someone else from a different demographic may be familiar
with. And this is not to say that people who are Jewish have not
dealt with discrimination and bigotry in Europe and America — they
definitely have — but that conversation has to change a little bit
when we’re talking about Black people.
"Because, we have to be honest: Black people are still
collectively at the bottom of the economic ladder in America. And
our relationship with someone who may be a landlord or someone who
is exploiting them, it may be coming from an attitude of pushing
back against exploitation. It doesn’t mean that it’s antisemitic,
and a lot of times that gets lost in this conversation.
"But I do think that one thing that has come out of this
conversation with Kyrie and Nike and Kanye [West] and [Dave]
Chappelle, to an extent, is that these conversations are beginning
to happen and they have to happen in order for any meaningful,
impactful dialogue to take place. You can’t just label something as
antisemitic and then shut down the conversation and punish anyone
who brought it up like Nike did with Kyrie."
Thomas: I agree 100%. And yes, Nike’s decision
to drop Kyrie in the wake of him sharing the documentary "Hebrews
To Negroes" has actually made them become part of the problem we’ve
seen with the ADL. Punishment over dialogue. Labeling over
discussion and understanding.
Van Jones also took it upon himself to apologize to the Jewish
community on behalf of the entire Black community for statements
made by Kanye West — even though I don’t know who appointed him as
spokesperson for the Black community. But before we finish, let me
make this point clear: a lot of people are, and have been,
conflating Kanye West a.k.a. Ye and Kyrie Irving, but they are two
COMPLETELY separate issues. One is NOT like the other and should
NEVER be lumped together in any way, shape or form.