NBA commissioner Adam Silver has “no doubt” that suspended Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving is not antisemitic, he said at a conference on Thursday, while LeBron James took to Twitter to defend his former teammate whose status with the Nets remains a mystery.
Those developments followed Nike co-founder Phil Knight telling CNBC, in an interview that aired earlier Thursday, that the relationship between the shoe giant and Irving is likely severed for good.
Silver met with Irving earlier this week, and he told attendees at the Sports Business Journal Dealmakers Conference in Washington that he came away from that conversation believing the situation is “incredibly unfortunate.”
“I personally, based on what he said directly to me, have no doubt that he’s not antisemitic,” Silver said. “But I think there’s a process that he’s going to now need to go through.”
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That process — and when the Nets lift his suspension — hinges in part on how Irving satisfies a number of team-imposed return-to-play mandates, one of which was completed when he met with Silver earlier this week. There are several others, and the mandates have raised eyebrows of both the National Basketball Players Association — the union on which Irving holds an executive board seat — and James, among others.
“I told you guys that I don’t believe in sharing hurtful information,” James posted on Twitter, echoing comments he made after a Los Angeles Lakers game last week. “And I’ll continue to be that way but Kyrie apologized and he should be able to play. That’s what I think. It’s that simple. Help him learn- but he should be playing. What he’s asked to do to get back on the floor I think is excessive (in my opinion). He’s not the person that’s being portrayed of him.”
Irving’s suspension with the Nets will last at least five games. He’s already missed four, and in theory could return Sunday when Brooklyn visits the Lakers. It’s unclear when the Nets will reinstate him.
Nets general manager Sean Marks said Wednesday he had not spoken with Irving during his suspension.
“At the appropriate time, when we do talk and if there’s an update to share, I will certainly share it,” Marks said.
Silver told The New York Times on Thursday that he’s never known Irving to use antisemitic or hate speech, but added, “Whether or not he is antisemitic is not relevant to the damage caused by the posting of hateful content.”
The content was a since-deleted tweet posted by Irving last month with a link to a documentary called, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” which includes Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about Jews. In a contentious postgame interview session a couple days later, Irving defended his right to post what he wants.
The fallout was massive: Irving was criticized by Silver and several anti-hate groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Nets eventually suspended Irving and then Nike announced last Friday that it “suspended” its relationship with Irving and canceled its plans to release his next signature shoe.
“I would doubt that we go back,” co-founder Phil Knight said in the CNBC interview that aired Thursday. “But I don’t know for sure.”
Irving signed with Nike in 2011 and had a signature line of shoes since 2014, with his annual endorsement deal believed to be worth at least $11 million.
“Kyrie stepped over the line,” Knight said. “It’s kind of that simple. He made some statements that we just can’t abide by and that’s why we ended the relationship. And I was fine with that.”
The Nets said they decided to suspend Irving in part because he “refused to unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs.” Nike evidently also tried to get Irving to clarify or apologize.
“Same situation. He was dug in,” Knight said.
Irving eventually made an Instagram post after the Nets announced their decision to suspend him, writing in part, “To All Jewish families and Communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize.”
Irving has also received some support in recent days. A small group of protesters was outside of Barclays Center before the team played the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, saying Irving has been treated unfairly by the team and others for speaking his mind.
Irving has expressed no shortage of controversial opinions during his career. He repeatedly questioned whether the Earth was round before eventually apologizing to science teachers. After the pandemic hit in 2020, he urged players to consider not participating in the season resumption inside a bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. And last year, his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine led to him being banned from playing in most of the Nets’ home games.