Missing the Mark
Why Jeff Van Gundy needs to check himself.
by Adam Sweeney / @AdamSweeney
The Heat, as the pun goes, is on with Miami set to face Dallas in the NBA Finals next week. But there is currently a hotter situation at hand with the fallout over Chicago Bulls‘ Joakim Noah‘s use of a homophobic slur directed at a heckler. In an era of progressivism where there has been increasing discussion about the transparency athletes should have in their statement of sexual preference and how an openly homosexual athlete would be treated in the locker room, Noah’s comments offer a glimpse into the notion that the atmosphere would be volatile. Is Noah homophobic? We can’t say and would like to believe the answer is no, but it didn’t stop him from issuing sentiment that is of that idea.
Hot off the topic, The ESPN crew of announcers for Game 4 of the Oklahoma City-Dallas match-up (Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson) decided to take it upon themselves to play the blame game in addressing the unfortunate slur Noah used. Let’s go to the tape for the commentary.
It’s incredible that a discussion about an incredibly grave subject could turn into such a comical production. Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson had a landmark opportunity to engage in sincere discourse about the glaring contradiction of the landscape of sports. In a society that now possesses a majority of citizens who are accepting of the gay and lesbian community (as I feel they should be), there still has yet to be a professional male athlete who has come out while he was an active member of a team. That matters, just as the fact that players like Noah and Kobe Bryant, two of the biggest names and personalities in the NBA, felt the need to resort to a verbal act of hatred when they were pushed to their emotional limit. Instead, Jackson and Van Gundy, the latter being the main subject of this column, felt the need to protect grown men in an entirely indefensible situation. The issue isn’t that Joakim Noah got caught on camera using a gay slur. It’s that Noah said the words in the first place. Whether we saw it or not, it would have happened and that’s the unfortunate truth.
In a sport where there are already too many holy cows, (heaven forbid that someone criticizes an official!) there’s no need for announcers to chew cud by mindlessly deflecting blame on to peripheral members of the business. A cameraman who is cutting in on a close-up of a player in the heat of a moment is simply fulfilling his job responsibilities that are handed down to him by his boss. He is an employee who, not coincidentally, is working for the same company that Van Gundy is working for. Blaming the cameraman for cutting to a shot when he is told to is basically the same as blaming a restaurant waiter for bringing you a cold steak. The waiter didn’t cook it. It’s just his or her job to deliver the goods. If Van Gundy really wanted to make a statement, he would have asked why players feel the need to use gay slurs in the first place.
Jeff Van Gundy needs to realize who he is. He is a color commentator. Is he often an insightful and funny illustrator of the game? Definitely. But it’s not his job to play Mother Hen and take the roosters under his wing when they start crowing. Noah and the NBA already dealt with the situation. The topic is worthy of conversation (Why else would we be talking about it?) but in attempting to deflect an act of hate, Van Gundy severely missed the mark. First, it’s not his job to launch into a personal manifesto that is critical of the manner in which the game is presented. He’s not an ombudsman to the game of professional basketball. His job is to add some flair to a broadcast, simple as that.
Furthermore, the NBA, at its best, is a combination of sport and theatre. Without the drama that comes from the images being taken that Van Gundy is so quick to criticize, the analysts would have nothing to talk about. All of it, the cameras, the commentators, even the media, are part of one giant entertaining production. Van Gundy is a cog in the machine, just like us.
The bottom line is that there is absolutely no place in the game for homophobic slurs. If an athlete makes the choice of launching an aggressive and hateful sentence at anyone, be it fan, foe or referee, they should have to own it. Joakim Noah realizes that he lost his cool in the heat of the moment, and that what he did is wrong and the blame falls directly on him. Jeff Van Gundy would be wise to understand that same idea. After all, he’s a student of the game. With more practice, maybe his aim will be more on target in the future.
You can check out more of Adam Sweeney’s work for Playmaker Magazine.