Kobe Bryant, South Africa and the Armenian Genocide: Lessons Learned and Lessons Which Need to be Learned


Kobe Bryant is one of the most recognizable and popular athletes in the world. He is also not strapped for cash, considering his net worth is estimated at $140 million. So the announcement this week that the Lakers superstar signed a 2-year endorsement deal to lend his fame and charisma to sell Turkish Airline tickets came as a bit of a surprise.

The Armenian Youth Federation was quick to respond to the deal by releasing a statement calling for Bryant to take a moral stand and rescind his contract. However, some community members have viewed this “hard-lined” approach as unwarranted—referring to Bryant as a businessman who is simply following the dollar signs, or pointing out that Bryant isn’t an Armenian and therefore would not be interested in the Armenian Genocide.

These perspectives raise concerns about the way we think about ourselves, leading to two important points which have to be made clear: 1) The denial of the Armenian Genocide is not an “Armenian only” issue; 2) We underestimate our true capacity to bring change.

We can look back in history to elaborate these points. From the 1940’s to the 1990’s South Africa was ruled by one political party which implemented a policy of legal racial segregation known as apartheid. The minority white population held all the political power and subjugated the black majority to dehumanizing conditions. In the 1970’s an international movement began that encouraged investors to withdraw direct investment in South African companies and pushed citizens to stop supporting US based companies which had business interests in South Africa, as an act of protest against apartheid.

The movement grew as stockholders pressed their boards of directors, and investors became weary. The movement grew as universities like Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia organized their campuses to divest billions in endowment and bond money from companies with South African ties. This movement was lead by youth and fueled in part by celebrities using their fame to raise awareness for the cause. The billions of dollars that stopped flowing-in undoubtedly got the South African government’s attention. US cities and states followed suit, passing divestment legislation, all leading up to the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act” in 1986 which banned new US investments and military sales to South Africa.

The divestment campaign, coupled with the internal struggle of the oppressed population, led to the dismemberment of the apartheid government in South Africa in the early 1990’s. Divestment from apartheid South Africa was lead by people like you: the consumer who asked where their products came from, the student who organized her campus, the union member who pressured her company, the religious leader who encouraged their parish, the musician who wrote a song; people who otherwise, individually, could never have made a difference.

Today we see another divestment movement which has taken shape.  The Genocide currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan has resulted in the murder of almost half a million. Celebrities, like George Clooney and Don Cheadle have given their time and support, not to make a petty profit, but to raise awareness about the desperate situation.  The Al-Bashir government (which unsurprisingly has strong ties with the government of Turkey), has ignored all international humanitarian efforts and continues its genocidal policies. The move to economically isolate the Sudan may be the last hope to stop a catastrophic situation.

The mindset that led the divestment movement is the mindset that our communities and youth should be driven by today.

Justice for the Armenian Genocide is an international human rights issue that belongs on the minds of every single investor in the Republic of Turkey, and every person—celebrity, athlete, actor, socialite—who endorses or supports the government or trade with the government. The moral difficulty of dealing with a company which does business in Turkey should be enough of a factor to dissuade any deal, for any amount of money.

Here, when I see a public figure like Kobe Bryant associate himself with a Turkish company, my reaction is not a knee-jerk hate-inspired reaction, it’s a confident reaction that says, “If he knew the facts, he would quickly change his mind.”

Turkish Airlines is not only the national airlines of Turkey; the government of Turkey owns 49.1% of the company. It’s also a prime example of the public relations work the government is doing to try to repair decades of negativity as a result of its human rights record.

Our choice is to either accept what we think is invincible, or connect our cause, organize and have our concerns heard.

It may seem trivial for an activist youth organization to become a thorn in the side of a multi-million dollar basketball icon, but the fact of the matter remains that a principled stance must be taken when it comes to supporting a genocide-denying regime like the current Turkish government. Much like the South African example demonstrated, decades of inhumanity can succumb to the power of the dollar, and to the power of organization.

Unfortunately, this article is not a call for us to divest from Turkey, because my honest opinion is that we aren’t ready for that step…yet. We have a hard enough time convincing Armenian grocery store owners and importers to stop selling Turkish tomato paste, when the Armenian alternatives are readily available. We have a hard enough time of convincing our new generation that an act of protest is not a one day a year occurrence. And we have a hard enough time convincing some people that our fight for genocide recognition has nothing to do with hating the enemy, and has everything to do with loving our own people.

This is just a first step that says our fight should be everyone’s fight and our power does not yet even know it’s potential.

Vaché Thomassian is a member of the Armenian Youth Federation Central Executive and the Editor of Haytoug magazine.


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  1. Hagop said:

    Excellent points! Articulate and much needed. Please send this to anyone who questions this campaign.


  2. Myrna said:

    Thanks for this article, Vache. It’s very convincingly argued. Anyone who questions the AYF’s campaign should also be reminded of the millions of dollars the Turkish government spends on promoting Genocide denial. In other words, the funds generated by these types of business deals directly contribute to a state-sponsored revision of history.

  3. Avery said:

    Yes, very well written Mr. Thomassian.

    Have to admit I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of the hard-line approach in this particular case. However, this article changed my mind.

    South Africa example particularly relevant: I am sure most African-Americans would have objected very strongly if a famous Armenian-American celebrity had promoted the Apartheid Regime (at the time).

    And bears repeating what Mr. Thomassian. said: we can’t ask others to boycott Turkish products if Armenian-owned stores sell groceries imported from Turkey.

    Nobody is being asked to go and shed blood on the frontlines: it’s a minor inconvenience, if that; DO NOT BUY ‘Made in Turkey’.
    Equivalent produce exists that’s imported from Armenia, Iran, or Syria: why not buy those ?

  4. Peter said:

    The more we take on initiatives like this, the more we will be hated by the world. I think we are starting to borderline on obnoxious and as a result, will garner less sympathy for our cause. I already see it happening. Quite frankly, more than anything, what our race truly needs is a lesson in humility and respect for other races – we severely lack these qualities.

    • Hrant said:

      This ain’t no popularity contest pal! I couldn’t care less if we are supposedly “hated by people” who already don’t have an inkling of respect for us. They don’t recognize historical truth for political expediency and Armenians are supposed to worry about our popularity by a bunch of complacent opportunists posing as our friends?????

      What kind of a – ‘I’m a sorry sap’ – opinion is that?

    • Kevo said:

      Peter, you are the one who needs a lesson….It seems to me you are the one lacking in qualities.
      Is “our cause” really your cause…I doubt it. Read the article a few more times, maybe then you might comprehend.

    • Armen said:

      I agree. When you keep crying wolf over and over again, then people stop listening to you. The blacks in this country played the race card once too many times and now, nobody listens to them. We need to think things through, before reacting to political issues like the one that we have today.

      • anonymous said:

        The only difference Armen is that they are listening to us…in fact, every small and large radio station, tv station, and paper is not only listening to us, but calling us asking for interviews and comments on the issue. What is striking here, is that they are not listening to Turkey. Not a single news story on this issue has had one word from a Turkish spokesperson in it.

      • John K. said:

        I guess you have not heard the saying that the squeacking wheel will get the oil. Also, the term anti-semite is used most frequently and it is still working. People lose their jobs and social standing once they are called an anti-semite. So get real!

  5. Stepan said:

    It obviously about money and endorsements(Turkey has a very credible professional basketball league).
    So Kim Kardashian tweets millions to encourage recognition of the genocide. Her sister is married to Lamar Odom who is a teammate of Kobe on the Lakers. There’s the opportunity to bring enlightenment to Mr. Bryant.

  6. Gagik said:

    I’m sorry to say that the South African example is a terrible parallel. I don’t want to take this off topic, but if anything the situation in that country post-apartheid is more terrible than it was before. The white minority is subjugated to a genocide of their own at the hands of the malicious ethnic African population. We should not be praising the lifting of apartheid knowing its far worse consequences.

  7. Armen said:

    I think Armenians first need to stop other Armenian businesses that import Turkish products. If you go to an average Armenian grocery stor you will see tons and tons of items that are imported from that county, and what’s sad about it is that allot of Armenians buy these products.

    You even have Armenian travel agencies advertising to the Armenian community (in the US and Armenia) so that they can travel to Turkey and spend thousands of dollars in that county and as a result many Armenians Vacation in Istanbul and Western Turkey.

    Who are we to tell Kobe Bryant, a professional basketball player, what companies he should sign contracts with and what companies he should not sign contracts with. If we cannot even convince our own people, why all of a sudden we are angry with Kobe Bryant (sombody who is not even Armenian)?

  8. Armen said:

    We should be more outraged with some of our members of our community that are involved in fraud, the second they step into this country, so that they could drive their 2011 BMWs. We should be more outraged with our gang members who are killing each other on the streets of N. Hollywood. What are our community leaders doing about this? They are doing nothing, but somehow they seem to find the Kobe issue more imortant I guess.

  9. Steve said:

    Peter, I couldn’t agree with you more! You are the only one who understands that by the comments of the posters, as well as the author of this article, people are truly getting sick and tired of the constant “whining” that your peoples actions are being perceived as! This WILL have an ultimate negative impact (It’ll backfire). You need to understand that this kind of action is simply turning people OFF! If you ask the majority of people what the first thing that comes to their minds when they hear the term “Armenian”, the vast majority immediately respond “the Kardashians”. When however, people are asked the same question, but this time substituting the word “Armenian” with “Turk/Turkish”, the vast majority respond with “Dr. Oz”! But, as a Turk myself (I have been trying to establish a peaceful and harmonious coexistance between our two nations and peoples for some time now), I have to say that you all make things more difficult to get along. In fact, you actually make our job of letting the world know the truth (which has been forced upon us) that much easier! When you really stop and think about it, you’re your own worst enemy. Many from my side of the camp are actually elated and say for you all to “keep it up”. Considering the massive US Medicare Fraud scam by Armenians, the more that you act negatively towards us, the more the negativity works against all of you! One final thing, the author talks about Apartheid in South Africa and how bad it was (which is very true). However, this very same principal (Apartheid) is what Armenians wanted and tried to do in Turkey and the Turkish/Turkic peoples (check your history and see for yourselves)! So you see, what ever you all do is bound to backfire on you, because it contradicts your very own historical actions (which we can easily prove to the world)! My advice, keep your noses out of our internal affairs (e.g. Cyprus, etc.). Otherwise, be prepared for a deluge of counteractions…which you all WILL LOSE!

  10. facts said:

    Turkish state ideology is a racist and fascist ideology. Why doesn’t he Joni the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) …

    Yes, so called modern Turkey has a “rich history” but what happen to Armenian civilization?

  11. Random Armenian said:


    What in blazes are you talking about?!!!

    Lifting of apartheid was one of the better events of the 20th century. Apartheid was a bad thing and it had to be abolished, and it was, and that was a good thing. Whatever bad things you think is going on in post-apartheid SA, it cannot question the immorality of the racist program. Maybe you should read up on what apartheid was really about.

    I’m leaning towards what Armen said regarding this. Out of all the businesses, governments and individuals doing business with Turkey (including Armenians!), we’re picking on Kobe? The best argument is the Darfur connection, but this could all backfire in terms of PR.

    Hrant, this isn’t about popularity but you need to pick your battles carefully and I’m convinced this is one of those battles. There is a certain amount of hypocracy given the amount of Turkish-Armenian trade, even under closed borders.

  12. Random Armenian said:

    What I said:
    “Hrant, this isn’t about popularity but you need to pick your battles carefully and I’m convinced this is one of those battles.”
    What I meant to say “… and I’m *not* convinced this is one of those battles.”

  13. AG21 said:

    I would like know how does Lamar Odom and his Wife feel about Kobe’s endorsement….. Kobe dissin Lamar and his wife.

  14. Peter said:

    Last night, I was watching a report on the local news about all this. Several quotes by our Armenians were presented demanding that “an apology from Kobe is in order.” Another one stated that “Most Lakers fans are Armenian.” Do you think these statement come across as well-informed, intelligent and noble? Of course not.

    In any case, it’s been stated a couple times here and I want to reiterate: our first and foremost priority must be to control the fraudulent activity that occurs within the Armenian society. It is truly out of control. Perhaps a start would be to acknowledge that the problem exists via televised public announcements on the Armenian stations. Encourage people to do what is right. Might sound a bit silly, but I think it can work.

    If these internal problems are not resolved or at least placed under control, then we will be perceived as hypocrites by the people around us. And the repercussions are very likely that we do not see much progress in gaining support on Armenian genocide recognition.

    By the way, Kevo, all you did was appeal to ridicule.

  15. Random Armenian said:

    Something worth campaigning about would be the delay in court case of Hrant Dink’s killer. His murder will be 4 years ago next month, and the judicial process has been delayed deliberately. Given the tried-as-juvenile laws in Turkey, the killer may soon be released. The EU court has also weighed in on his murder. Hrant Dink’s murder and the delay in justice is because of anti-Armenian sentiments. This is something that affects us directly and in fact directed towards Armenians. Kobe’s business deal does not affect Armenians directly. Yes, the airline is owned by the government, but it’s an airline for goodness sake. Where was everyone when Kevin Costner did commercials for TA?