Friday, December 17, 2010

Kobe Gettin' Work

No need to apologize if you missed it or didn’t think much of it, but I was fascinated by the LA Times report the other day that Kobe Bryant is catching a lot of flak from Armenian groups for his deal with Turkish Airlines to be a “global brand ambassador”. Given the global nature of celebrity at the top of the sports pyramid, it’s no longer surprising when a star is criticized as a sponsor, but the normal script involves a flare-up when personal conduct, on or off the field, is seen as being at odds with the brand or product’s image. The media hates any disconnect in narrative, so, for example, Tiger Woods can’t endorse a classy watch if the tabloids have caught him doing less than classy things.

The Turkish Airlines flap is a different, new sort of celebrity/sponsorship uproar. Unless I’m forgetting a similar past episode, Kobe is the first American sports star to be asked to articulate a foreign policy. The facts: Turkish Airlines apparently enjoys a close relationship with the Turkish state. By getting in bed with one and therefore to some degree both, Kobe has accidentally aligned himself, at least in the eyes of LA’s resident Armenian population, with a government that has systematically worked to avoid international acknowledgement of the Turkish genocide of its Armenian citizens during World War I. That genocide occurred is beyond debate. Efforts to avoid UN/international recognition of such are Turkish efforts to protect their national pride and/or reputation. What seems like a moral no-brainer with no modern policy implications is muddled by the convenience of trade with Turkey for America and Western Europe, the two most likely sources of censure. Any claims otherwise are denial in its ugliest form.

The question, then, is how that debate relates to Kobe Bryant, global brand ambassador. What exactly do endorsees owe their parent companies? What do athletes owe the public? Does Kobe’s economic tie to a brand necessitate a public opinion about an atrocity nearly a century ago? I don’t really see how you can make that leap. If Kobe were singing the praises of the Turkish government, sure, he would have an obligation to let everyone know where he stands on the point. But did we demand Allen Iverson denounce anything when he took his talents to Besiktas or an explanation from Hedo Turkoglu or Mehmet Okur when they joined the league?

I’m a guy who has a lot more interest than most in genocide. The politics of the term and its use (and non-use) fascinate me. If you want a discussion of how the Armenian Genocide compares to the Holocaust or the tragic oddity that is the Cambodian genocide, I’m game. But I’m much happier if sports stars err on the side of political silence. If a topic is personally important to someone, they should feel free to use their fame as a platform. Bill Russell is regarded as a civil rights hero for a reason. Tracy McGrady’s trip to Sudan did some small but non-zero amount of good in the world. NBA stars supporting Obama was fun. Luke Scott has a right to open his mouth and remove any doubt that he’s (politically) an idiot. But it’s a big step past that to demand Kobe give up this endorsement or make some sort of statement he doesn’t mean to appease people.

If you find the Turkish government and by extension Turkish Airlines distasteful, if you think Kobe’s tarnished himself by getting in bed with them, that’s fine. Vote with your dollars, write a letter to the editor, do what you feel. But Kobe is a sports star shilling for an airline. He isn’t obligated to become “a champion of human rights” because he’s won a few rings. To suggest otherwise is to place unrealistic expectations on someone whose job and education haven’t required reading the international news page. It would be great if he supports HR 252, as the article suggests, but only if that support stems from personal resolve, not some sort of professional obligation or attempt to save face. Let’s save the venom for people that owe us better than they’re giving us. Kobe owes LA’s Armenian community his basketball skills, not his advocacy. If he wants to give it to them, that’s great, but he’s under no obligation to do so, or to turn down millions at their behest. Requiring athletes to take political stands based on endorsements does no one favors.


  1. With the recent buzz over Turkish Airlines, I’ve been finding it rather difficult to sort out the “white noise” if you will from the real informative stuff. Not sure whether you’d still be interested, but here’s a pretty good article that I managed to get my hands on:

    Anyway, appreciate the post!

  2. Do you think it's added any strain to Kobe's relationship with Lamar Odom given the Kardashians' Armenian heritage?

  3. Wow, that would be about the most amazing source of locker room conflict ever, wouldn't it?


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