January 26, 2018

Enes Kanter's life off the court is just as compelling as his game

Enes Kanter has been wonderful for the New York Knicks. Traded from the Thunder for Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, he’s seen more opportunities to become the player we always knew he could be. But the trade to NYC was just the second biggest story of Kanter’s offseason.

In May, Kanter was held at an airport in Romania because of public criticism of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey canceled his travel documents and passport in an attempt to get him back to the country to face trial for his criticism and his public support of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric whom Erdogan believes organized a coup. Kanter, 25, is one of the NBA’s best young players, but he’s also one of its most important in a time with so much going on politically because it’s rare, through American professional sports, that we’re introduced to the terra incognita of international politics.

With Kanter, we can see a clear division between breaking the absence of noise and the absence of voice. Disrupting the absence of noise are the day-to-day stories aggregated ad nauseam on every publication that covers the NBA. Disrupting the absence of voice is a man speaking out against a political regime he doesn’t support despite the obvious threats to the livelihood of himself and his family. While there is nothing wrong with the former, the latter just has a level of depth in a pool of sports stories that we’re rarely willing to dive in to.

Activism in sports is recurrent and rhythmical, and we’ve seen an uptick in the flow to the divergent ebb with police brutality, sexual assault and our current administration creating headlines that the sports world simply cannot ignore. These stories have affected every entertainment vertical, and we’re seeing athletes, mainly of color, speak out about the state of the nation with a frequency that simply did not exist five to 10 years ago.

In today’s America, consumers of culture choose brands that align with their core values. According to the 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, 87 percent of consumers would purchase products “because the company advocated for an issue they cared about.” A Nielsen report from 2015 showed that 66 percent of consumers (73 percent of millennials) would support a socially responsible brand. There is an expectation from the general public to, at the very least, act in a way that shows an understanding of and generally care about the social issues plaguing the world.

While there is always going to be that subset of the country who tells athletes to “stick to sports,” the country is beginning to shift its expectations for athletes and commentary of social issues. A lot of the men and women competing at the highest level started their lives living under the conditions that create a lot of the issues dividing the country right now. There isn’t a black athlete who is unaffected by racism and police brutality. There isn’t a woman who is unaffected by sexual assault and misogyny. The list of issues and whom they affect is endless, and it’s why Kanter’s willingness to speak about the political issues in Turkey is so important right now.

On the court, he’s taken his outspoken personality to come to the assistance of his teammates. He’s consistently calling the men he goes to battle with “family” in post-game interviews and on social media because he, maybe more than anyone else, knows how important family is and how easily it can be taken away. Just like a LeBron James or a Jeremy Lin or a Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Kanter is on the court is largely an assemblage of everything he’s had to go through in his past to get here.

Kanter isn’t just a New York Knick, but an immigrant who will be jailed immediately should he go back to his home country. He plays for literally everyone but himself — and the better and longer he plays, the bigger his platform becomes. This year, Kanter is playing his best basketball with career-high marks in true shooting percentage, rebound percentage, assist percentage, box plus/minus, and VORP. Kanter is doing this in the biggest media market playing alongside one of the game’s rising stars.

We know what Kanter does well and where he needs to improve on the court, but it’s just not as compelling as what he’s trying to accomplish off it.

Published on Yard Barker, 26 January 2018, Friday