November 18, 2010
Here's what I wrote couple of weeks back, when BDL first hipped you to Kobe Bryant's(notes) appearance in a commercial promoting the release of "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the latest installment in Activision's series of smash-hit war games: "Because this involves video games, violence, guns and Kobe Bryant, there's a pretty good chance that some (or maybe even many) people will find some reason or another to be upset at this commercial."
Well, here we are.
In a column published Tuesday, ESPN.com's Tim Keown checks in with Todd Walker — a youth football coach and funeral-establishment worker whom he'd previously profiled, a man who "fights the gun culture and the death culture ... [and] the pervasiveness that threatens to turn youth gun violence into just another annoyance of modern life." Walker tries to impress upon his young charges that violence has consequences, that death is real and final, through hands-on horrors like detailed tours of the funeral parlor and getting inside of cardboard cremation boxes.
Walker tells Keown he saw the "Call of Duty" commercial last week while watching a game and, as you might expect, didn't care much for it. He was especially disgusted by Kobe's presence:
"I couldn't believe it was him," Walker says. "What's wrong with him?"
"This is exactly what we're trying to fight," Walker says. "I'm looking at a 14-year-old boy right now who got shot in the head, and then I see Kobe get on TV looking like a damned fool, holding an assault weapon and wearing the same stuff the kids are wearing when they kill somebody. The look on his face -- all smiling and happy. This is the attitude we're trying to get away from."
Neither Bryant nor his representatives have publicly commented on the controversy, and commissioner David Stern is also being questioned for not speaking out against Bryant's appearance in the commercial. We'll get into that later.
But again, as I wrote when the spot debuted, I'm not at all surprised that people would have a negative reaction to its contents, Kobe's participation in it or all of the above — Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Moore of CBSSports.com each raised objections to the commercial, with Medina arguing that the ad "downplays the seriousness that real combat entails" and Moore taking issue with the absence of content "that really shows the traumatic effects of war."
Several days later, the backlash got some fresh legs when tech scribe Sam Machkovech wrote at TheAtlantic.com that the "troubling melange of gun, grenade, and rocket combat acted out by blue-collar workers, children, and celebs like Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel" was a major disappointment that "comes closer to selling real death than any video game possibly could."
Machkovech's response led to some more hemming and hawing, with writers like Winda Benedetti at MSNBC's Technolog calling the argument inconsistent, noting the relative lack of gasping (or, as Deadspin's Tommy Craggs called it Wednesday, "pearl-clutching") about violent trailers for recent movies like "Rambo," "Inglorious Basterds" and "The Expendables." The argument has now returned to the realm of sports (or, at least, sports coverage), with writers like Craggs and Adam Fusfeld of Business Insider's Sports Page saying that Keown, Machkovech and their ilk need to calm down; at the end of the day, they argue, it's just a video game.
[Rewind: Tim Tebow's controversial Super Bowl ad]
Until Wednesday, the issue's largely been a tempest in a teapot, a neat bit of controversy that gets navelgazing media types whipped up into a frenzy but hasn't crossed over into a capital letters BIG ISSUE that's on the tips of tongues worldwide. That might change, however, after ESPN on Wednesday aired a "1st and 10" segment that featured commentators Skip Bayless and Bomani Jones discussing the commercial and Kobe's appearance in it.
Though Jones called the spot "jaw-dropping," he said his issue is less with Bryant as a person and Kobe's decision to take part than it is with the inconsistency of NBA commissioner David Stern, who "10 years ago ... popped up when Allen Iverson(notes) made a rap album," saying nothing about his league's highest-paid player firing a weapon emblazoned with his nickname.
Jones called Stern's silence "classic NBA hypocrisy," saying the commissioner's response is tied to the difference between fan reactions to simulated war violence like "Call of Duty" and simulated street violence like "Grand Theft Auto." If it was the latter, he argued, the spot "would have [been] pulled [...] off the air. Somehow, war violence is OK. Why? That doesn't scare people. Street violence scares the NBA's fanbase, or the ones that David Stern is trying to appease by stopping guys from arguing with refs."
There was a bit less nuance in Bayless' response, which he kicked off by terming Bryant's appearance in the commercial "the all-time 'What were you thinking?'"
"He was smiling while holding an assault rifle in combat while we have troops overseas at this moment doing the same thing for real in combat. It's completely out of bounds for Kobe Bryant, who I thought had completely rehabilitated his image after Eagle, Colo., but even the great Kobe Bryant is not that, so to speak, bulletproof."
I see what you did there.
Bayless argued that Stern has to discipline Bryant, which Jones said he believed was unlikely "unless there's some gigantic ruckus out in the streets." To which Bayless replied, "Well, I'm offended by it, and I'm pretty sure that a bunch of NBA fans will be offended by it."
[Video: Kobe's incredible backboard shot]
Bayless may be right — now that ESPN has published a column decrying the ad and aired a segment discussing the controversy, many fans (and niche interest groups, and politicians, and so on) who were previously completely unaware of it might start raising a "gigantic ruckus" in the street. If that happens, Stern might face enough negative publicity to have to act; it's unlikely, but it's possible. Which would mean we might be at the start of this thing, rather than at the end of it.
It's also important to note that Kobe, himself, is pretty aware of his station. When tossed a softball question from the TV chat show "Extra" last week ("do you consider yourself a soldier in real life?"), Bryant was quick to disabuse anyone of the notion that filming this commercial was anything more than a bit of a goof-off.
"No," Bryant answered. Adding that the game was "nothing like" what real soldiers have to endure daily, "by any stretch of the imagination." Kobe hasn't offered anything since then by way of on-record comment, and a Lakers rep declined comment because it is "not a Laker issue."
[Related: Another big setback for former No. 1 pick]
Either way, more attention on the game probably doesn't aggravate Activision at all; as of this morning, according to Game Informer, the game-maker estimates "Black Ops" sales to have exceeded $650 million, which is $100 million higher than hugely successful predecessor "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2."
One last piece of ephemera: According to Random House, the word "flak" (meaning "criticism") originated as "an acronym of the German compound word fliegerabwehrkanone (lit. 'aircraft-defense-cannon') for antiaircraft gun." Wonder if you can use that in "Call of Duty."