Why Can’t Kobe Get Any Love?

“A debate on ESPN about Kobe being in that “Call of Duty: Black Ops” commercial, holding a rifle, convinced me of two things…” ~ First Tweet

“…One, ESPN has a lot of retarded debates about issues that are less than important.” ~ Second Tweet

“…Two, I watch too much ESPN.” ~ Third Tweet

My previous blog rant about a sports figure—regarding the LeBron Decision and the wrath it wrought—opened with this line, “I have an admission to make…” Here we go again.

I have another admission to make, this time about the Tweets I posted, as shown above.  I was wrong about ESPN.  They don’t debate about issues that are less than important, well, not in the way I originally opined.  (That those debates remain somewhat retarded is not similarly incorrect.)  This issue is not only important, but also emblematic of and intertwined with many other issues.  In fact, it dawned on me as I watched a panel discussion on “Outside the Lines: First Report,” that the Kobe-holding-a-rifle-in-a-commercial issue is both important and confusing.  By the way, the coverage, particularly on Yahoo, is worth checking out.

This issue is—these issues are—important because the discussion of black men—particularly prominent black men—and weapons, is tied up in the same psychological murkiness that I attempted to clarify via the lens of racist gun control.  The issue is confusing because any discussion seems to meander through any number of sub-issues, some germane and some peripheral, at best.  (As an aside, my third admission via Tweet, that I watch too much ESPN, is hardly worth debating.  It is what it is.)

That professional sports are fraught with racist collectivism is far from a discovery.  Furthermore, these issues are not new, which is probably why they tend to recur.  Given the exorbitant coverage of celebrity in the MSM, any time a prominent black man makes news, it presents an excellent opportunity to drive viewership.  Paraphrasing the old quote from It’s a Wonderful Life about angels and ringing bells, every time a high-profile black man does anything even remotely newsworthy, a budding TV producer gets his wings.

My own view is that the enchantment with these issues—and their presentation via sports television—is indicative of more than a sports-centric misinterpretation of value.  Plaxico Burris is in jail in some measure because he is a high-profile black athlete.  I might argue that Mike Vick went to jail for much the same reasons.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but “uppity Negros” have been getting whipped in America for about as long as there has been an America.  (I know.  I know.  Again, that’s unfair.)  Ergo, figuratively whipping them via the court of ostensible public opinion via sports entertainment is a tried-and-true strategy.

The Issues:  Separated, Exposed, Filleted, and Glazed

There are several issues that must be separated before one can even begin to have a meaningful debate about what I’ll call from this point forward, “The Kobe Commercial.”  First, do violent video games promote violence?  Second, is Kobe trying to promote violence by appearing in a commercial for a violent video game?  Third, is Kobe breaking a contract—moral, ethical, implied, or specific, by appearing in a commercial for a violent video game?  Forth, does Kobe have a responsibility, as a public figure and ostensive role model, to exclude himself from any activity that might be construed as unseemly?  Fifth, is Kobe somehow glorifying war at a time when America is engaged in a real war?  Bonus question:  Even if Kobe does not have a personal responsibility, can his employer, the National Basketball Association, treat him as if he had such a responsibility and impose sanctions upon him as a result?

Let’s address the easy answers first.

Violent video games do not lead to more violence in society.  The two academics on ESPN’s Outside the Lines episode confirmed this, and no one should find it surprising, despite the hype that tenuous links between gaming and episodes like Columbine appear to have.  (As an aside, the book, “Killing Monsters” which I own, but have not yet completed, provides similar evidence.)  Simply put, vicarious violence is not real violence and might even provide an outlet for violent tendencies.  Society might be less violent because people can express violent tendencies via fantasy.

Even if video games made people more violent, the issues are separate. Appropriate penalties for violent behavior are available regardless of its genesis.  Kobe is, and should be, free to play and advertise any game he likes, whether he enjoys playing it, as is the case with Black Ops, or not. Moral busybody-ism does not a restriction on the activities of Kobe Bryant provide.

Is Kobe promoting violence?  Again, no.  Given the fact that violent video games don’t make people violent anyway, no other conclusion is reasonable.  Kobe is not killing anyone in real life.  He is promoting a video game that he plays and enjoys.  Any discussion of promotion beyond that is utterly ridiculous, bordering on insane.

Contracts:  Implied and Otherwise

Has Kobe broken a contract with his employer?  Similar to the first two cases, no.  Now, as anyone who watches the goings-on which emanate from (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell’s echo chamber can attest, it does seems possible for the commissioner of a major sport to take almost any action against one of his employees under the color of “conduct detrimental to the league” by imposing sanctions despite a lack of evidence, civil or criminal charges, or frankly, anything else.  As such, and as ESPN’s Skip Bayless implied, (NBA commissioner) David Stern could still sanction Kobe, although it is not clear that the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement allows Stern the kind of wide latitude as is afforded Goodell.  (For those keeping score at home, this is the answer to the bonus question above.)  If Stern does sanction Kobe, don’t get it twisted:  He’ll be trying to protect his league and its profits, not making a statement about morality.

Does Kobe have an implied contract with “his fans” regarding such behavior?  Once again, the answer is no, but this time for different reasons than previously.  The game he is promoting is and was enjoying record sales volume.  As such, one could actually conclude that Kobe is responding to the actions already taken by the public.  Kobe is promoting something that many, if not most, of his fans already like.  He’s closer to bandwagon jumping than setting a trend!  Kobe’s appearance in the ad is cool because the game is popular.  The video game is not popular because Kobe is cool.  (For the record, I don’t play Black Ops, or any other video game for that matter, but I admit to thinking Kobe Bryant has been cool for a while.)

Glorifying War—Precluding Peace?

Does The Kobe Commercial glorify war?  It is on this question that this debate gets interesting.  Skip Oliva provided the best summation of my feelings when he responded to my Tweet with one of his own:

Funny how the media usually gets more outraged over depictions of violence then [sic], oh, actual violence caused by government.


In fact, it was at the points where panel members tried to suggest that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan were so sacred as to necessarily preclude violent video games that I nearly lost my lunch.  Come again?  If all the war on Earth was contained in X-Boxes across the U.S., I wouldn’t care one bit, and I bet there would be more than a few dead Iraqi civilians who’d still be alive.  If one wants to get high-and-mighty with disgust over violence, better to do so with regard to legitimate violence like predator drones killing unarmed people.  The fact that Kobe Bryant smiles in a fake-assed video game presentation has no effect on that, one way or the other.

I do not doubt, for a single minute, that the types of violence that Todd Walker fights, particularly among young black men, is a plague on the Inner City.  In full disclosure, I do wonder if that violence is not a result of the massive disarmament of law-abiding black people, that is, too much gun control versus too little.  I also do not doubt that violence, even make-believe violence, is not everyone’s “cup of tea.”  I already noted that I don’t play any first-person shooter games and, from a personal standpoint, find them somewhat distasteful.  Value is subjective, though.  And since we know that these games don’t cause violence, decrying Kobe’s involvement in advertising one that is already selling like hotcakes seems horribly misplaced.

Dan Devine, in the interesting piece from Yahoo (linked above), provides an educational bit of context:

…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.”

In fairness, Devine notes that the whining subsided as quickly as it started.  But the sentence above still troubles me.  Somehow, so the apparent narrative goes, Kobe acting out in a video game sells real death better than 750 military bases around the globe, better than sanctions that killed half a million children, better than state-sponsored anti-drug violence, and better than thugs in special uniforms killing whomever they like.  I find it ironic, if depressingly typical, that people generally, but the media specifically, as Oliva so pointedly notes, loudly decry that which does not lead to violence while simultaneously remaining largely silent over, or at least puzzlingly acquiescent of, that which is a startling example of it.

Cross-Posted at the LRCBlog.