I am not inclined to believe that Kyrie Irving is an idiot, but for a brief moment, he played one in public. A couple weekends ago at the NBA All-Star game, the Cleveland Cavaliers precocious point guard began propagating the idea that he believed the earth was flat. Irving was vociferous; he stated it on a podcast with a pair of Cavs teammates and then repeated it to an ESPN reporter.
“I’ve seen a lot of things that my educational system has said that was real that turned out to be completely fake,” Irving told ESPN. “I don’t mind going against the grain in terms of my thoughts.”
For a brief period of time, the Internet picked up on these comments, as the Internet tends to do, and collectively wondered whether the graduate of a prestigious Catholic high school who attended Duke University could possibly be that much of a bonehead. Bill Nye the Science Guy condemned his comments as “heartbreaking.” Even the resident skeptics at Deadspin were taken in by it, and Bill Maher brought it up again on Real Time Friday night. And then, just when we thought we’d lost him to the gale force winds of Fake News, Irving revealed he’d been fucking with us all along.
“The fact that that could be news all over the world just shows you how it is,” Irving said in a subsequent interview. “The fact that it’s a social phenomenon—‘Kyrie thinks the world is flat’—is hilarious to me. … That it could actually be news.”
In retrospect, what Irving did was kind of brilliant. It was a revelatory moment, given the reality television inspired nightmare some 60 percent of the country is currently suffering through.
TMZ continuing to traffick on it many days later by revealing Neil DeGrasse Tyson was not in on the joke proved Irving’s point. And it exposed us to a truth we sports fans—particularly male sports fans—have perhaps always known but are often unwilling to confront.
I imagine I’m not the only one who spent much of my youth presuming that sports served a more noble purpose than reality television. But if we think that, we’re deluding ourselves.
See, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life writing primarily about sports and largely avoiding reality television. And I know how that sounds: I didn’t mean to conform to what’s become a lazy gender stereotype, but that’s just kind of the way it’s played out.
Sure, I’ve had my occasional dalliances, mostly with the Project Runways and Top Chefs of the genre—the highbrow entries that actually center around legitimate skill sets, that are more competitive than lifestyle-focused—but I have never watched a single frolicking Kardashian or a Real Housewife of any large American municipality, mostly because internecine warfare among people I don’t find that interesting in the first place never really seemed that intriguing to me.
Still, maybe I would become engaged with those shows if I actually invested in them. Because really, how different are they from the extracurricular trappings of pretty much every major American sport?
I imagine I’m not the only one who spent much of my youth presuming that sports served a more noble purpose than reality television. But if we think that, we’re deluding ourselves. It’s all just a reflection of our larger culture; we consume pretty much everything in the same way these days, through the lens of personalities and stories, through the filter of media.
There are winners and losers, and there are heroes and bullies, and there is comic relief and there are arguments loaded with histrionics. What would the NFL be without the villainous presence of Roger Goodell, or the rampant hatred of the New England Patriots? What would college football be without the evil empire of Nick Saban?
But nowhere is the reality-TV dynamic more readily apparent than in the NBA, which traffics on personality more than any sport outside of pro wrestling.
In the days before Irving’s quotes made headlines, the big story in the league was the fact that former Knicks star Charles Oakley had been ejected from Madison Square Garden by Knicks owner James Dolan. One man, Dolan, was already universally loathed by his fan base; the other, Oakley, was universally beloved. It was a dumb feud full of sound and fury; easy to take sides, particularly for the New York tabloids that thrive on this kind of conflict.
Indeed, this is what pro basketball itself thrives on: How much do Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant really hate each other? Is DeMarcus Cousins truly uncoachable? Remember when last year’s controversy du jour in Los Angeles involved a cell-phone video detailing infidelity with an Australian rapper?
And I know that this is how it’s always been in sports, that newspaper columnists used to take up the space that Twitter feeds now do. But in this heightened social-media landscape, with a news cycle that doesn’t quit, with ESPN and its competitors starved for constant debate topics, it’s that much more pronounced.
That’s why Irving’s little experiment in contrived stupidity was so clever: Because it exposed us to the idea that we live in a reality television world, no matter where we look.
If reality television can propel a radically unqualified and potentially dangerous narcissist to the highest office in the land, it’s hard to argue against the notion that anyone with a public forum has essentially earned the right to manipulate the media however they see fit.
Remember when Paris Hilton made a name for herself by playing an idiot on television? That’s exactly what Irving was doing. And he was doing it prove a point: That we’re all sucked into the reality television narrative these days. There’s no escaping it, not even in sports, and particularly not in the NBA, the most openly anti-Donald Trump professional sports league.
Several prominent NBA voices have unfurled regular screeds against Trump, including arguably the league’s two best coaches, Golden State’s Steve Kerr and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Supporters of the president argue that the voices of opponents like these should be silenced, that those of us in the business of sports should simply “stick to sports.”
But that argument is bullshit, and it’s bullshit because Trump himself is now the president: If reality television can propel a radically unqualified and potentially dangerous narcissist to the highest office in the land, it’s hard to argue against the notion that anyone with a public forum has essentially earned the right to manipulate the media however they see fit.
Sports is not separate from the rest of the world. Sports is as much a part of the American reality TV dynamic as anything else, no smarter and no dumber. Now maybe, like me, you think the public should be more skeptical; maybe you think we’d be better off recognizing that the media narratives that so often dominate our lives—whether among the Kardashians or on NBA TV—are mere distractions from more important ideas.
But until we’re able to once again separate serious thought from the mindless “social phenomena” Kyrie Irving spoke about, we’re all watching the same damned thing.