Lakers star Kobe Bryant's two-year endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines has sparked protest among Armenian Americans in Los Angeles and nationwide, some threatening to boycott the basketball player unless he backs out of the contract.
In a statement announcing the deal, Turkish Airlines described Bryant as a "global brand ambassador." The airline is seeking to publicize the start of nonstop flights in March between Istanbul and Los Angeles with the basketball star appearing in a blitz of TV, billboard, print and online ads early next year.
For years, Armenian Americans have pushed the United States to recognize the early 20th century killings of about 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, a term the Turkish government has strenuously rejected.
California has 600,000 to 700,000 Armenians, with a heavy concentration in Southern California, said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.
"Many of them are fans of the Lakers and fans of Kobe, at least until now," he said.
Armenians especially object to the airline's close connection to the Turkish government, he said.
"This is not a matter of a private company that Kobe has signed a deal with," Hamparian said. "It's a state carrier with a heavy government affiliation."
The Lakers did not return a call seeking comment.
Many outraged fans have taken to radio and social media sites to protest the deal, and some have threatened to boycott Lakers games and Bryant merchandise, said Caspar Jivalagian, executive member of the Armenian Youth Federation's Western region.
"There's a clear backlash already," he said. "People have been calling us, saying, 'I hate Kobe' and 'I won't watch the Lakers anymore.' "
Some Armenians have called on Bryant to use his fame to push U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) to schedule a vote on House Resolution 252, which would recognize the Armenian deaths as genocide.
"Kobe is a champion of national basketball and should be a champion of human rights," Jivalagian said. "We want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him a chance to right this wrong."