I have been a big fan of Kobe Bryant since his NBA rookie year in 1996. Although I haven’t followed any sort of professional sport closely while living in Philadelphia or Frankfurt the last couple years, as a Southern California native my loyalty remains with the Lakers. In 2001, I had the chance to visit the Laker’s locker room after a victory over the 76ers and was impressed with Bryant’s generosity and good nature. While Shaquille O’Neal would only sign autographs for African-Americans, Bryant stopped and said hello to my brother and me and happily signed a poster and ticket for us.
Turkish Airlines, the national airline of Turkey and member of Star Alliance, will soon be inaugurating service from Los Angeles to Istanbul and has enlisted Kobe Bryant to be one of their spokesman. This partnership has been quite controversial in LA, where the largest population of Armenian-Americans live outside of Armenia. For those unaware of the history of Armenian-Turkish relations, any serious historian agrees that the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to modern Turkey, slaughtered between 1-1.5 million Armenians between 1915-1917, attempting to erase a whole race of people, much like Hitler’s "Final Solution" in 1942. To this day, Turkey disputes that the genocide occurred, arguing that the death toll is exaggerated and the lost lives were collateral damage caused by a bloody world war, not a specific hatred against Armenians.
Understandably, the large and politically astute Armenian community in Los Angeles is angered by Bryant’s willingness to support the Turkish government, which owns a sizeable stake in Turkish Airlines, in any way. In his new role, Kobe Bryant will appear in print, television, and online in over 80 countries around the world as TK’s "global brand ambassador."
In a statement, Turkish Airlines dismissed the protests of the Armenian community, stating:
Kobe Bryant is a cultural figure, not a historian, and is in no way related to a complex historical matter.
I beg to disagree. While essentially supporting a government that continues to unequivocally deny the systematic slaughter of over one million people simply because of their ethnic background, Kobe Bryant further legitimizes a government that should be shamed by the western world for failing to at least come to grips with its past sins.
I was born in Glendale and have many Armenian friends. While I stand in support of their efforts to educate others about the Armenian Genocide to insure something similar never happens again, I also approach this issue in a pragmatic fashion. I have spent time in Turkey and plan to visit Armenia later this year.
My research reveals that the people of Armenia are ready to move on and forge closer economic ties with their Turkish neighbors. After a thaw in relations between the two nations in 2008, tensions are high once again, but stories I have read continue to suggest that the two nations want to move on from the past. While I think it is despicable that Turkey will not recognize historical fact, I see the immense opportunity for trade and economic growth that is being squandered over a travesty that occurred nearly 100 years ago. Armenian per capita income is less than $3,000 USD each year and sustainable economic growth remains elusive in the former Soviet nation. Armenians, not Armenian-Americans, I have spoken with want to tackle the economic growth issue first, and worry about the Genocide later. That sounds like a reasonable course of action to me.
Right in the middle of this nearly 100-year old debate is Kobe Bryant and Turkish Airlines. I wouldn’t necessarily dissolve my relationship with Turkish Airlines if I was Bryant, but I do hope he is cognizant of the fact that he is letting many of his fans down by promoting Turkey. I also hope that Turkish Airlines can be used as an avenue to build ties between Armenia and Turkey, allowing the countries to move beyond the stormy past and work together to foster economic growth and better living conditions for all their citizens. Air service between Turkey and Armenia that doesn’t require a connection would be a start.