I’ll admit it.
Kobe Bryant is not my favorite basketball player.
Not even close.
Forget the fact that he plays for the Lakers, my beloved Celtics’ most bitter rivals.
Forget that he largely cost the team additional championships by being unable to co-exist with Shaquille O’Neal, a dysfunctional relationship that Phil Jackson described in detail in The Last Season.
Forget the abuse of teammates, the pouting even recently when he didn’t get the ball in a game-ending situation that led to Derek Fisher hitting the game-winning shots.
Still, even with all these things I don’t like, I have to give the man credit for all that he has done on the court.
The five championship rings. The relentless drive to improve. The suffocating defense and endlessly varied offense. The fearlessness in the clutch.
This post is not about writing through my feelings about Bryant’s performance on the court, though.
It’s about his actions outside of basketball arenas.
Specifically, his deal to be a global brand ambassador for Turkish Airlines.
The airline is looking to publicize its recently added non-stop service from Los Angeles to Istanbul, and recently inked Bryant to a two-year deal. According to a Bloomberg article, it will include television advertisements in more than 80 countries as well as billboards, print and online components.
Bryant’s endorsements took a hit after his alleged rape in July 2003 of Katelyn Faber at a Colorado hotel. The case’s being dropped after Faber refused to testify began a process during which Bryant has largely rehabilitated his public image and regained his previous sponsorship clout.
His decision to endorse Turkish Airlines has enraged Los Angeles’ 600,000- to 700,000-strong Armenian-American community, among others, and with good reason.
Turkey is the country that murdered an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during one of last century’s first genocides.
Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works and I used to work, has written a number of study guides and resources about the atrocities. In my experience, it is almost impossible to find an Armenian family that was not directly affected by the genocide.
This would be horrific enough, yet the genocide has been compounded by the Turkish government’s continued denial that it ever happened-a stance that some genocide scholars call the highest form of abuse.
In Turkey, it is a crime to assert that the genocide happened. The law is not a vestige of an earlier time, but a living mandate that continues to prompt action against authors like Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and scholar Taner Akcam who say in their words and writing that the murders, rapes and pillaging actually did take place.
This is to say nothing of the Turkish government’s ongoing human rights abuses.
By his endorsement of Turkish Airlines, Bryant is supporting a company that has close ties to the government that carries out these practices.
When asked, Bryant said yesterday that he hadn’t heard about the Armenian community’s outrage over his actions.
That of course will end, as protests, and potentially, a boycott is being planned.
There also are plans to try and educate Bryant, according to a post by Allan Yekikan on Haytoug, the official youth publication of the Armenian Youth Federation Western United States.
The post included the following statement:
“At this point, we are seeking to educate Kobe Bryant about the Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s denial and Turkey’s ongoing human rights abuses,” said Caspar Jivalegian of the Armenian Youth Federation. “Turkish Airlines is not like United or American–it was founded by the Turkish government, which still owns some 49% of the company. They are supporters of groups like the American Turkish Council who lobby against U.S. Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.”
Yekikan’s hope is that, once educated, Bryant will drop the sponsorship and become a global ambassador not for the airline, but for human rights and genocide prevention.
During his career, Michael Jordan, another basketball icon to whom Bryant is increasingly compared, famously refused to endorse a black candidate in North Carolina or to speak out about the use of child labor in Indonesian Nike factories.
I wish Yekikan and others well in their campaign, and agree entirely both that Bryant should drop the shameful endorsement and that he has the potential to do make a tremendous contribution.
I wouldn’t advise that they holding their breath, though.
Even as a lifelong Celtics fan, I have to give Bryant his due as an all-time great player.
Off the court, however, it’s been a far different story.