March 03, 2011
Kobe Bryant(notes) is a divisive figure among domestic NBA fans, but he's perhaps the most popular basketball player overseas. As such, he's in-demand as an endorser for all manner of products apart from just basketball shoes and apparel.
If you don't believe me, check out the video above, in which Kobe goes to Istanbul for some unclear reason and decides that "anyone can cook," a line he probably misinterpreted from the Pixar film "Ratatouille." It turns out Kobe can't cook and the chef can't play basketball. If you're like me, by the end of the ad you'll wonder why Turkish Airlines has their chefs serve gourmet meals on the flights themselves. That would seem to increase their overhead significantly.
The real story here, though, is that the sizable Armenian-American population of Los Angeles (more than 100,000 in the greater metropolitan area) is not happy about the ad. You see, the Turkish government doesn't recognize the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century as a genocide, and Armenian-Americans have worked for years to have the U.S. Congress recognize it, as well. Doing business with a Turkish company automatically creates controversy, particularly for an athlete who represents a large number of Armenian-Americans as the face of the Lakers.
Many of them are upset that Bryant made a two-year deal with Turkey's state-run airline. For years, Armenian Americans have pushed the U.S. government to recognize the early 20th century killings of about 1.5 million Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire as genocide, a term the Turkish government has strenuously rejected. Kim Kardashian, the Los Angeles-born Armenian American reality-television star and sister of Lamar Odom's(notes) wife, Khloe, tweeted in December for her followers to urge Congress to seek a vote on House Resolution 252, which would recognize the Armenian deaths as genocide.
"Kobe is a champion of national basketball and should be a champion of human rights," Caspar Jivalagian, executive member of the Armenian Youth Federation's Western region, told The Times in December. "We want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him a chance to right this wrong."
Despite the controversy, Bryant and Turkish Airlines plan to host a launch party Thursday at Paramount Studios, with a red carpet celebration beginning at 8 p.m.
Kobe has every right to make as much money as he can shilling for companies in countries he's never actually visited, but this move is somewhat tone-deaf. While he probably won't irrevocably break his relationship with Odom over this, the Armenian genocide is a serious issue for Armenian-Americans that can't be easily overlooked due to the lure of a hefty paycheck.
The issue here isn't only about Kobe, but the athlete's responsibility to social justice in general. That's not to say that Kobe needs to become a tireless activist for the Armenian cause -- far from it. However, he could have shown some regard for his longtime fans just by turning down the offer from Turkish Airlines, or at least coming out with some statement about his involvement that acknowledges the history at play. That might anger his Turkish employers, but it'd also show that he's not just out for a paycheck.
Doing these ads will expose Kobe to new fans in a different part of the world, but he's also running the risk of alienating a sizable portion of his current fanbase. Are those new fans worth the risk of being remembered with misgivings by a large portion of his most loyal fans in Los Angeles? It's a tough question to answer, yet still one that Kobe should have considered in more depth before accepting this offer.