When Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, learned that Nets guard Kyrie Irving had posted a link on Twitter to an antisemitic film, he was touring a college with his son.
“I was not familiar with the film but I am very familiar with the tropes perpetrated in the film,” Greenblatt said Thursday of “Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” a 2018 film driven by antisemitic stereotypes and misinformation.
Irving was eventually suspended by the Nets for at least five games for the post, which he eventually took down, and his behavior that followed, including a news conference in which he would not say directly that he did not have antisemitic beliefs. General Manager Sean Marks told reporters on Nov. 4 that Irving would have to meet with Jewish leaders and with the organization before he could return to play. He also said that Irving’s apology on Instagram, which came after the suspension was announced on Nov. 3, was “certainly not enough.”
Before the suspension, Greenblatt met with Irving’s father, Drederick Irving, and his stepmother, Shetellia Riley Irving, who is also Irving’s agent. She did not respond to a request for comment. Greenblatt also received a call from Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner, after criticizing Irving’s sharing of the film.
Now, the Nets return home from a road trip for a game on Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies, and reports from The Athletic and ESPN this week indicated that the Nets are on the verge of lifting the suspension. Irving has missed eight games, including Thursday night’s against the Portland Trail Blazers. But the team, which did not respond to a request for comment from The New York Times, has not said whether Irving has fulfilled its conditions for his return.
Greenblatt said in an interview with The Times on Thursday that he had not spoken with Irving, and that he had shared suggestions with the Nets for Jewish leaders Irving could meet with but did not know whether any meetings had taken place. He also said he had maintained contact with Tsai and N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver in the past week.
Tsai told the New York Post in an interview published Saturday that Irving “still has work to do.”
If Irving returns within the next few games, Greenblatt said, “I’m not surprised by this turn of events.”
Before Irving’s suspension, the Nets announced that they and Irving would work with the A.D.L. to donate $500,000 each to organizations committed to anti-hate causes. When Irving next spoke with reporters, he offered vague answers to questions about the film and was not clear about what parts he disagreed with. Greenblatt responded on Twitter by saying that the A.D.L. would not accept Irving’s donation.
In the interview with the Times, Greenblatt said that he hoped Irving would still meet with Jewish leaders in Brooklyn and that he took Irving’s associates at their word when they said Irving was not antisemitic. He praised Tsai’s general handling of the situation and said that he didn’t know whether the A.D.L. would work with Irving and the Nets to donate the pledged money.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Why was Kyrie’s tweet such a big deal?
Kyrie is an exceptional person in many ways. No. 1, he’s an incredible basketball player. An extraordinary talent. One of the best players in the league. No. 2, he has an outsized influence on the popular culture. I mean, my kids wear his shoes, literally, and they have his jerseys. And he had his deal with Nike. And he’s just a bigger figure than just one of 10 players on the court on any given night. He’s Kyrie. He is pretty much a household name.
So when someone of his profile and of his talent uses their social media, when he essentially endorses a film or a book or a product, the tweeting about it in an uncritical manner, in a positive manner, if you will, not just uncritical but in a positive manner, that constitutes to millions of people, not a tacit approval, but a real-life endorsement. Now, that might not have been his intent. At a moment in time, when antisemitic acts have reached historic levels.
I think it’s important to make sure that I explain the context in which we’re operating. So antisemitic incidents, it’s 2,717 incidents last year. And I know that because the A.D.L. is the organization which tracks those incidents.
So there’s a reason why there’s a level of anxiety in our Jewish community, which is incredibly high right now. I want to be clear I have not spoken to Kyrie directly. Spoke to members of his family, I’ve spoken to his friends, spoken to the N.B.A. front office. I’ve spoken to the Nets’ management, I’ve spoken to the players’ association. So a lot of different stakeholders, if you will.
Irrespective of his intent, the impact is validating the same kind of tropes, which, for example, led to almost three years to the day, like right now, a shooting in Jersey City.
How did the meeting go with Irving’s father and stepmother?
It was a constructive conversation. They listened. I really have a great deal of respect. His stepmom works as his agent, as you likely know. She’s walking a line between the personal and professional. His dad, Drederick, he’s a father, and I think it was very painful for him to be in a situation where his son was pushing out a film — I’ve heard this from so many people — that this isn’t who Kyrie is. I’ve spoken to Adam Silver about this. Other people around Kyrie about this. Many of them told me they’ve never heard him express an antisemitic sentiment. So I take them all at their word.
So there are a whole bunch of people that are telling you Kyrie is not antisemitic. You also have not heard from him directly. What was your reaction to him not actually meeting with you?
No. 1, I understand these issues are hard and complicated. Hate is hard in general.
Unpacking these issues of bigotry and intolerance typically is not easy for people. And I see this again and again with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations not unique to this league.
No. 2, Kyrie doesn’t have a history of trafficking antisemitism. I really must confess, having not spoken to him, I don’t know if he watched the film or not in its entirety, how closely he tracked the contents of the film if he did, whether or not he did any additional research.
But I do appreciate that if you’re unfamiliar with these antisemitic tropes presented in the right way, they might sound plausible to people. And that’s one of the insidious things about conspiracy theories in general and antisemitism in particular.
I think he and his camp were really struggling with how to confront this issue and weren’t sure how to do so. So there are a lot of people around Kyrie. Would I like to speak to him? Absolutely, and I’d be ready to speak to him this afternoon. And I’ve said this repeatedly. The fact that I haven’t spoken to him yet, I am still optimistic that I will. And when I do, I’ll have the opportunity to talk to him about the specifics in terms of what was problematic about the film and how contemporary antisemitism manifests in general.
What is the A.D.L.’s stance currently on working with Irving and the Nets, specifically given the donation that was pledged? Is it still your stance that you can’t accept that money?
I don’t know. And I just think the money becomes a distraction.
We never set the terms of his return. I had nothing to do with that. I was reached out to by the Nets and they said, “Would you be willing to meet with Kyrie?” And I said, “Of course I should meet with him,” but we didn’t set the terms for his return. At the end of the day, that’s up to the Nets and the N.B.A. and the players’ association to figure that out.
It was never about the money. It still isn’t.
What would you like to hear from Kyrie Irving?
I think it is that he is authentically committed to a process of self-education and then taking those learnings and sharing it with others.
One of the things that the Nets said publicly is that one the requirements for him to return was that he has to meet with Jewish leaders. To your knowledge, has he done that? He hasn’t met with you, but have you recommended other leaders that he should talk to?
They did ask me and I believe I have given them names.
I think it would be useful for Kyrie to meet with Jewish leaders, and he could meet with me. He certainly doesn’t have to. I don’t make the requirements here.
But I think something else that matters — that I didn’t say before about Kyrie, that is worth saying now — Kyrie Irving plays in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has one of the largest Jewish populations. It has the largest Jewish population of any of the boroughs in New York.
When he mainstreamed that film that is so hurtful, and he plays for a team where he’s got Jewish fans in the Barclays every single night, and Jewish kids like my own wearing his jerseys because he plays for Brooklyn, he’s right down the road. That’s part of what was so challenging here, too.
So to bring it to bring it back, yes. I would be willing to sit down with Kyrie this afternoon or at any point in time. I also think he needs to meet with Jewish leaders from Brooklyn.