Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kobe Bryant, Turkish Airlines and Armenians - Let's Talk It Out

As an Armenian-American NBA junkie and Lakers diehard that grew up in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant's new endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines, announced last week, was certainly food for thought. For those that are unaware, beginning in 1915, approximately 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

However, the modern-day Turkish government denies that genocide took place, arguing instead that both Armenian Christians and Muslim Turks died in eastern Turkey during World War I. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United States government does not formally recognize the 1915 massacres as genocide, in large part due to Turkey’s strategic location (located in between Russia, Europe and the Middle East) and its Incirlik airbase, which the U.S. has used in recent years in getting troops into and out of Afghanistan.

There’s the 30-second story, and I encourage you to learn more about the matter- here is a good start- but that’s not the focus of what I’m doing here.

Against this backdrop, it should come as little surprise that Kobe’s agreement has caused something of an uproar in Southern California, which is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia. The deal has been denounced by Armenian groups, who are urging Kobe to reconsider his commitment.

In the days since I learned of Kobe’s new business partnership, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about the matter, trying to assess the implications of the deal and determine a reasonable point of view with regard to all parties involved.

First off, let’s all agree on this: Kobe Bryant's done nothing "wrong." He signed a perfectly legal agreement with a foreign corporate entity that, to the best of my knowledge, does not engaged in any untoward business practices. It’s an airline, for all intents and purposes no different from Quantas, Lufthansa or Emirates Airline. That the success of the airline, now to some small extent aided by his image, will lead to greater tourism revenue for a country that refuses to acknowledge the atrocities committed by its predecessors, creates a bit of a moral dilemma. However, to go as far to say that the "Turkish Deal Will Make Kobe the Face of Oppression and Injustice," as some Armenian groups have done, is excessive and cynically opportunistic.

Here's the thing- it's not Kobe's fight. It's not his cause. That 600-700K Armenians live in greater L.A. is a coincidence. While it's now his hometown, Los Angeles is merely the city in which Kobe plies his trade. It's neither fair nor rational to expect him to take up the individual or cultural causes of the fan base. Ours is a country that’s not above doing business with nations whose present-day conduct would make most peoples’ skin crawl. Until we’re willing to hold our elected leaders- the most powerful people in our nation- to this type of standard, maybe we ought to back off of the athlete who’s agreed to shoot a couple of commercials for a company located in a country whose former government committed an atrocity 95 years ago.

With all of that said, it's a bit unfortunate that Kobe elected to get on board with Turkish Airlines- not because the company has done anything wrong, but because it lacks the awareness and savvy that have come to define his persona. There is a sizable community within his city- sure, he simply “plies his trade” there, but he’s done so for a decade and a half!- in which Kobe is at the very least an icon, if not a full-fledged deity. Given the sheer size of L.A.’s Armenian community and the group’s relative prominence in the city, along with Kobe’s hyper-awareness of his image, it’s disappointing and surprising that neither he nor his handlers foresaw the ripples that this deal would cause in his own back yard.

So, in the end, Kobe didn’t actually do anything wrong- he just showed an uncharacteristic, "Decision-esque" lack of awareness of, and consideration for, a considerable segment of his own local population.

Or did he?

Intentionally or not, Kobe’s brought attention to this matter and, by extension, the cause of those fighting to gain official recognition of the events of 1915. I can’t remember the last time that, in one fell swoop, millions of Americans were legitimately curious about the details surrounding Armenia’s issues with Turkey. 

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