Whataboutism is a dangerous game. The comparison of apples to oranges, as opposed to just Honeycrisps and Fujis, appears to be the necessary pivot to distract from an actual issue. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is possible, preferable, and has become an impressive skill in the public eye. Was former NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s alleged involvement in diverting Mississippi’s welfare funds worth all the bad press he’s getting? Absolutely. (The ex-Green Bay Packers signal-caller denied any wrongdoing.) And around the same time that new details of Favre’s supposed swindling of money meant for underprivileged families were revealed last month, Kyrie Irving posted a link to a documentary and book filled with antisemitic tropes to multiple of his social media accounts. The public spotlight will always be big enough for both men to properly get the brunt of their despicable actions.
Measuring the severity and maliciousness of inappropriate behavior, not to mention well-researched context, are crucial when making long-term judgments for any situation. Enter Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who questioned why no one in the media had asked him about a photo unearthed by The Washington Post last week. The picture shows a segregationist mob attempting to stop Black students from entering a school in North Little Rock, Arkansas, with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the background. James questioned why the media was so quick to pepper him with questions about Irving’s mishaps, but not about Jones, as was right to do so.
That’s the deceiving part about James’ Wednesday night assertion. It wasn’t directly about the photo, even if Jones confirmed his appearance in the black-and-white still from 1957 to WaPo and spoke to the paper on the record about it as part of its series about Black coaches in the NFL and how those in power haven’t done enough to give them equal opportunities. It’s not even about Jones being the most high-profile owner in sports and he’s never hired a Black head coach. That’s a completely fair criticism, but one that’s far from a Jones exclusive.
Jones did respond to James’ comments by praising the Laker forward’s history of speaking out.
James has had to field questions about so much outside of basketball for years due to being arguably the biggest star in American sports, who also happens to be Black. He’s a living prodigy bestowed with the highest expectations of a high-school athlete ever where obtaining legendary status was the only way not to be a bust. And the Akron, Ohio native still topped that potential. As a question about Jones never came, it must’ve been more obvious to James than the average person or media member. His issue wasn’t that he got asked about Irving, who deserved Brooklyn’s suspension without pay because it took the Nets’ guard way too long to apologize for something so evil and his negligence only gave credence to some of the worst among us. James recognized that and called it out. James, who turns 38 later this month, wanted to see that same energy when the central topic was the treatment of the Black community and African-Americans.
His plea to the Los Angeles media, and truly society at large, was calm, composed, organized, diplomatic, rational, and moving. It brought to light a double standard, and one that I’m not afraid to check myself on. I’d have a hard time understanding or recognizing something that I’ve never experienced. I also need to have empathy and listen to the voices with that expertise in that given situation, even if it’s uncomfortable. Was that the same reasoning why despite clear messaging from the Anti-Defamation League and other prominent voices from the Jewish community, why it’s troubling that many believe Irving did nothing wrong? Those afflicted by antisemitism knew the disgusting tropes and saw the troubling signs. There was an outright refusal to normalize or accept hatred toward the Jewish people as a whole.
Let’s use that same logic to approach James’ assertion. When that photo of a then-14-year-old Jones, who has since aged to become the most powerful figure of the most beloved team in America’s most popular sports, surfaced it didn’t get close to the same attention. The breadth of each in the public eye had different components. Jones’ involvement in that crowd isn’t clear, but he’s there. We can’t assume he’s innocent or guilty. Irving’s actions were crystal clear — promoting an antisemitic project, not understanding why his actions hurt so many, and refusing to apologize until his paycheck was taken away. Everyone needed to call out the gross behavior and hope one of the elite basketball players on the planet learns from it. That process should’ve been the same if Tyler Herro was the guilty party.
The murkiness surrounding each event shouldn’t mean unequal coverage. Irving deserved to get lambasted, just as much as he deserves the right to move on and prove that was a one-off series of bad choices. Jones needs his feet held to the fire too, but more importantly, listening to James’ message of not discrediting the shouts from the Black community about their struggles is paramount too. In realizing that, James’ comparison to Irving isn’t so different after all. This might be obvious to state, but it’s still worth saying there’s never a wrong time to call out injustice. Jones was opposed to kneeling during The National Anthem back in 2017 and has been routinely late to the game when it comes to social justice issues. His appearance in a photo from 65 years ago needs that exact context, but shouldn’t have been largely swept under the rug. As it turns out, James’ query to us wasn’t whataboutism at all.