The problem with troubling comments like Michael Porter Jr.’s

Michael Porter Jr.’s off-base comments are just the latest in a disturbing trend.

In a Snapchat Q&A on Tuesday evening, Denver Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. made some troubling, off-base comments about the coronavirus.

As The Athletic’s Clevis Murray transcribed, Porter said the following:

“Personally I think the coronavirus is being used obviously for a bigger agenda. It’s being used for population control in terms of being able to control the masses of people. I mean, because of the virus the whole world is being controlled.

“You’re required to wear masks. And who knows what will happen when this vaccine comes out? You might have to have the vaccine in order to travel. Like, that would be crazy.”

Porter went on to say that he’s never been vaccinated, finishing up by adding that while COVID-19 “is a serious thing,” it’s being “overblown.”

Okay. A couple of things, MPJ.

First off, if the government really wanted to control the masses, they’ve already got your address, tax/financial information and have literally assigned you a specific number. Making people wear masks would be a pretty weird way to go about controlling people with all that data on deck.

Second, while free speech is an inherent right in these United States of America, it doesn’t absolve citizens from their civic responsibility of educating themselves before speaking. That goes for me, you at home reading this article, and every American — no matter how large or small their platform may be.

And therein lies the rub: We live in an age where information — and misinformation — is readily available at our fingertips at any given moment, where it’s often difficult to tell the difference, and where misleading, completely inaccurate statements can be twisted into “expressing one’s opinion.”

Because as much as Porter is entitled to his opinion, stating that a virus — which has infected nearly 17 million people worldwide (killing 662,000) and 4.5 million in the U.S. (killing 152,000) in half a year — is being used to push an agenda is objectively false. Disguising such an uninformed, erroneous claim as “expressing his opinion” is ignoring that free speech does not make you immune to backlash. Getting hammered for saying something that’s insensitive at best and ignorantly deceptive at worst is that backlash.

MPJ won’t be feeling much heat from the Nuggets organization; Denver is trying to win basketball games during this NBA restart, and head coach Michael Malone predictably straddled the line between acknowledging Porter’s comments were off-base and not dividing his team by condemning a young player who will be a prominent part of the Nuggets’ future:

“Obviously, I’m not the thought police,” Malone told reporters on a Zoom session Wednesday, per ESPN. “I’m not going to tell any of our players what they can and can’t say. All I would say is just be sensitive to the current situation in our country and throughout the world in regards to coronavirus.”

Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly reportedly spoke with Porter about his comments, but the most that Malone would say publicly is they’re trying to make their players aware of the power of their words.

“If somebody has a strong belief on something, they have the platform and freedom to use that,” he said. “We will just try to educate guys so that they understand the impact of what they may be saying.”

If this were an isolated incident, that’d be one thing; after all, if I had become a millionaire with thousands of followers on every social media platform when I was 22 years old, there’s a good chance I would’ve said something stupid at one point or another too.

But this isn’t the first case of spreading harmful misinformation we’ve seen in recent weeks from NBA players. Damian Lillard shared a video with fake doctors exposing the “reality” of COVID-19 with the caption of “interesting,” and though he quickly deleted the post after receiving a fair amount of backlash, the damage of spreading misinformation to his large following had already been done.

Just a few weeks ago, Stephen Jackson went on an insensitive rant to support Nick Cannon’s anti-Semitic rant, which in turn was inadvertently supported by Dwyane Wade. Rudy Gobert breathed more life into the inane notion that facts are just opinions and truth is just perspective when he posted this on Twitter:

And after being reported to the NBA hot line in Orlando for not wearing a mask, Dwight Howard took to Instagram Live to tell his followers that he didn’t believe in vaccinations, following up his outlandish comments about masks in the bubble being “overkill” and saying, “I didn’t know that the coronavirus be flying through the air looking for people.”

(That’s kind of exactly how most viruses work, Dwight.)

Everyone has their blind spots. But spreading ignorance about the two most prevalent issues in this country right now — social justice and preventing the spread of COVID-19 — is irresponsible for anyone, let alone prominent NBA figures with large followings.

That sizable platform can be a double-edged sword too, because the NBA and its players have been devoted to making the Black Lives Matter message abundantly clear during this restart. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s names has been on the tongues of LeBron James, Tobias Harris and so many stars around the league. “Black Lives Matter” will literally be painted on the courts in Orlando, social justice messages will be imprinted on the backs of jerseys and you’d better believe players will be kneeling during the national anthem when Thursday’s games begin.

And that’s what’s so disheartening when someone like Porter makes these inaccurate claims, when Howard minimizes the importance of wearing a mask, when Jackson makes disparaging remarks or even when Dame posts something without doing his homework first: It creates room for debate on stances that should be unimpeachable.

Almost all of these players have done remarkable work for BLM in the last few weeks: Howard is donating his salary for the rest of the season to his charity “Just Breathe” and he’s been vocal about Breonna Taylor’s murder; Jackson has been at the forefront of Black Lives Matter since the death of his friend, George Floyd; Wade announced the launch of the Social Change Fund with Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to empower Black lives; Lillard has been vocal in questioning the purpose of federal troops in Portland, took part in BLM protests with a mask on and donated $100,000 to help Moda Center employees during the NBA hiatus.

None of that good work can be undone by their recent pitfalls. But with the world’s gaze shifting to the return of sports, and the coronavirus-free NBA bubble serving as an example of what wearing a mask, social distancing and routine testing could do for this country, NBA players have a bigger platform than ever. This is an incredible opportunity to impress upon each and every sports fan what Black Lives Matter means, how far we have to go as a country, how we’re not all truly equal and what every single one of us can do to help.

That’s a beautiful, incredibly important message to share, but all it takes is one inaccurate comment, one insensitive remark or one ugly headline to shift the focus elsewhere. It doesn’t cancel out the players’ message for social justice, but it dilutes it. Distracts from it. Gives the critics, naysayers, skeptics, racists and anti-mask crowd ammunition to fire back, to question these players’ knowledge on the issues, to dismiss them altogether.

If Player X really think this about Issue A, how can we take him seriously about Issue B?

That shouldn’t the case; the ideas of “Black people shouldn’t be murdered by police” and “we should stop letting this virus kill people” are pretty pure and straightforward. But the reality is those messages fall out of focus the second the authority of the person saying them can be attacked.

In the age of conspiracy theories, where the president himself would rather deal in misguided opinions rather than concrete facts backed up by science, reporting or actual evidence of any kind, it’s more important than ever to make sure we are doing our research before sharing anything with our social media following. No matter how big or small the platform, it is our civic duty to educate ourselves. Seek out reliable sources. Think critically.

For a league that’s more progressive than any other in allowing its players the opportunity to speak out on social issues, the NBA has a real chance to show the world that Black Lives Matter and that Americans can prevent the spread of COVID-19 by taking the proper precautions. It can be a success story on both fronts, but comments like Michael Porter Jr.’s — in the midst of a bubble where both issues have taken center stage, no less — must be condemned and corrected in order for that to happen.

Next: Get ready for an NBA bubble for 2020-21 too

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