Zack Peñalva, Sports Editor
Here’s a true story: a boy of about 10 is walking through a sporting goods store with his father. Posters of football and basketball players fill every wall. Positioned over one shoe rack is a banner featuring a black and white photo of a man’s face. There was nothing distinctive in the photo: no name, no team logo, no jersey. For some, the face was instantly recognizable. “Dad, look, he’s my favorite player,” said the boy as he pulled on his dad’s arm, “I have his shoes.”
The man in the photo was no other than Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, a man who’s seen his notoriety grow in the past weeks after presenting some alternative views on air. In Irving’s now infamous appearance on the “Road Trippin’ with RJ and Channing” podcast, he talked about his belief in a flat earth, the moon landing hoax and the doubt that other planets exist.
Irving doubled down when a Cleveland.com reporter tried to get some clarification during the NBA All-Star break. Never denying any of the statements he had made, Irving instead attempted to deflect. “Does it matter?” he asked reporters at a press conference. “That affects [the fans]?”
Yes, it does. Irving is undoubtedly a fan favorite and a face of the entire league. He’s a four-time All-Star, an NBA champion and has a Nike contract that Forbes estimated at $5 million.
It’s for that reason that his most recent time in the spotlight is such a troubling issue. He may try to act like what he says has no relevance to his fans, but the fact is that his superstar status means that he’s an influential figure. He has over 3 million followers on Twitter, not to mention thousands of easily impressionable fans like that boy in the mall.
In the days after the original flat earth comments, Irving tried to play the entire incident off, saying that how the press ate up his remarks was an example of the media’s obsession with “fake news.”
“There’s just so many real things going on, things that are going on that’s changing the shape of our lives,” Irving told a reporter from Cleveland.com, “I think sometimes it gets skewed because of who we are in the basketball world.”
Poorly attempted political statement aside, the damage was already done. In the days following the podcast, numbers from Google Trends show that searches for the term “flat earth” spiked massively, a sign that, like it or not, people are going to take an interest in what he’s saying.
Some athletes have tried to deny their position as role models to their fans, but that’s just not possible. A big contract comes with the bonus of thousands of fans that are now watching and listening 24/7 thanks to the Internet, social media and sports networks like ESPN.
If anything, Irving has a greater responsibility than others to make sure that he uses his influence in a positive way. Selling shoes is one thing, pushing a ridiculous and harmful agenda is another. At the end of the day, he has the right to believe whatever he wants, but he shouldn’t be surprised when people and the media take an interest.