Some of the most memorable press conference moments in sports have been when players had to speak, even though they didn’t really want to.
Rasheed Wallace explained to the world that “both teams played hard.” Marshawn Lynch was “just here so I won’t get fined.” LeBron James once just got up and left.
Mostly, those moments have been used to make fun of those who preferred not to speak. It’s not universal to athletes, either: in hockey, coach John Tortorella is notorious for his short press conferences, which, even when fairly jovial, he describes as “useless.” And while we don’t have video of Steve Carlton avoiding the press, as Johnette Howard wrote in 1994 of the pre-QAnon conspiracy theorist, “It was better when he refused to give interviews all those years. We didn’t miss a thing.”
Still, it’s worth noting that, quite often, part of the dynamic is a Black athlete either fed up with, or not trusting, the mostly white media to properly contextualize what they’re saying. Russell Westbrook’s interactions with Berry Tramel, in particular, is a good example of this. Even though it seemed that Tramel was just asking regular game-related questions, their beef went back a ways, and Tramel admitted he had some blame for their relationship souring, but still milked that beef for content, so you can see how this all works. Especially in Oklahoma City, with an overwhelmingly white media contingent, even by modern media standards, in an extremely conservative market, there’s a lot at play when a Black superstar like Westbrook feels that he’s not getting fair treatment — this kind of withdrawal is one of the few options available.
Kyrie Irving definitely sees it. Irving has been through a lot with the media, some of it of his own making like his flat earth theorizing, some of it not, like being a Boston athlete who got the traditional knife in the back on the way out the door from Dan Shaughnessy.
So, if Irving doesn’t want to speak to the media, and now he says his “goal this season is to let my work on and off the court speak for itself,” that is completely understandable. If you’re going to get heat regardless of whether you talk, why talk?
Still, it says something that when Irving wanted to say that he’s done with the media and now is speaking for himself, he gave his statement to the media, which he would like to disseminate his messages without having to speak further on them himself. It’s not like he just put this statement on his own social media and let it stand: he put it out there to people with a wide reach to get the word out, but didn’t want to fulfill any other part of the bargain:
“COVID-19 has impacted us all in many ways, so I pray for the safety and health of our communities domestically and abroad,” Irving wrote in his statement. “I am truly excited for the season to start and I am also praying that everyone remains safe and healthy throughout this journey.
“Instead of speaking to the media today, I am issuing this statement to ensure that my message is conveyed properly.
“I am committed to show up to work everyday, ready to have fun, compete, perform, and win championships alongside my teammates and colleagues in the Nets organization. My goal this season is to let my work on and off the court speak for itself.
“Life hit differently this year and it requires us, it requires me, to move differently. So, this is the beginning of that change.”
If Irving, or anyone else, doesn’t want to talk to the media, they should not be forced to do so. It’s a waste of his time, winds up being a waste of journalists’ time, and also wastes fans’ time when they wind up hearing cliches, instead of real answers, from someone who doesn’t want to participate in the exercise.
But there are consequences to this for Irving. He may see this decision as taking control of his own narrative, but it’s really the opposite. If he’s not going to talk to the media, he’s ceding his side of the story to anyone who wants to try to tell it, and they will. Irving has 14 million Instagram followers and four million Twitter followers, but he’s not a serial poster. While his Instagram feed reveals a very interesting side of the man — in the past few weeks, he’s posted photos of the Black Wall Street memorial in Tulsa, Little Rock Central High School, and Dr. Sebi, the late Honduran herbalist who claimed to have a cure for HIV — there’s no way he can keep up with what the media puts out about him.
Irving’s position as an NBPA vice president and the Nets’ team representative in the union also brings more responsibility for him to talk to the press than other players might have. It might not be fair that the best players are asked to be leaders and asked to speak more to the press, but Irving volunteered himself for leadership roles, and this should be part of the territory. His actions don’t just affect his own situation: How will Kevin Durant or anyone else on the Nets feel about having to speak for Irving after a tough loss, if his decision is that it’s better to pay a fine than have to deal with the media?
So while, as a principle, someone who doesn’t want to talk to the press shouldn’t have to, and the press should be glad not to have to deal with unwilling interview subjects whose press sessions will be as useful as a 45-minute Zoom call that could’ve been a single email, a decision like Irving’s doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
But if Irving wants to let his work on and off the court speak for itself? He’s been doing a good job, giving nearly $2 million this year to WNBA players who opted out of the season, Feeding America, and the Food Bank for New York City.
The last one shows how complex all of this is. Irving’s Food Bank donation was 200,000 Beyond Burgers, but it needs to be noted that Irving is an investor in Beyond Meat, and that donation was good PR for a company in which he has a financial stake. Certainly, his connection to the company helped facilitate the donation, but it’s the kind of thing that the media would be totally right to ask some questions about, were Irving to speak with the media.
As a general rule, more athletes who don’t want to deal with the press should be given the leeway to avoid it. There’s always a cry among the media that embracing someone’s decision not to talk will lead to a world where athletes don’t talk at all, but it’s a misplaced concern. There are lots of athletes who want the spotlight, and even ones who embrace the opportunity to talk after a loss, explaining what happened, and using that opportunity to control the narrative in their own way — not to mention those who just crave the spotlight, regardless of the situation.
Irving is different. Surely, this is not something he arrived at lightly, but much like the flat Earth stuff, you have to wonder if he’s really thought it all the way through, because there’s a lot more to it than what he’s putting out there. It’s the media’s job to present that full picture, whether he’s participating in it or not.