How to deal when a superstar says something less than stellar.
by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports
When the Washington Post reported in 2002 that Michael Jordan—then with the Washington Wizards—tried to “motivate” second-year player Kwame Brown by repeatedly haranguing him as a “flaming f**got,” there was no uproar. Fortunately, times have changed. Now when the most famous basketball player on the planet—Kobe Bean Bryant—yells “f**king f**got,” it becomes a serious matter, worthy of the amount of discussion and debate it has generated. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people have fought too hard for too long, especially in the world of athletics, to shrug it off as “just one of those things said in the heat of battle.” Too many kids get beat up, too many gay teenagers commit suicide, too many people idolize Kobe, to just let it slide.
I don’t know Kobe Bryant, but I’ve spoken with enough people who know him well to confidently say that he isn’t a raging homophobe. Kobe is someone, however, who has spent his entire life in a sports world where homophobia is a staple of the language. When you’re immersed in this world, you will absorb it and reflect it back. I spoke to Sherry Wolf, an author on sexuality and sports, and she said, “In the heat of moment, what a man’s man says on a basketball court when he’s been demeaned is the most emasculating epithet he can spit back: f**got. Yes, fine the man. And then open the real discussion about what he said and why.”
In other words, Kobe Bryant is not Rick Santorum braying about “man-dog love.” He’s not Sarah Palin. He’s not even Tim Hardaway, who said in a radio interview after former player John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out of the closet, “I hate gay people…. I’m homophobic.”
But regardless of Kobe’s heart or intention, it still matters. In a stiletto sharp op-ed in the New York Times, Amaechi weighed in, writing, “I am tired of people having this debate about the relative impact of pejorative words on their target minority group. If injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then the relative power of an anti-gay slur is irrelevant, it is simply a threat to human dignity, and that should appall us all. I don’t think Kobe Bryant is some vicious homophobe, but I do think he made a mistake and has sounded more like a squirming politician than a national hero since the incident came to light. When you know that people hang on your every word, you should take more responsibility when the wrong words spill out in anger. When you understand that people treat you like a god, you should endeavor to be more benevolent when you exceed expectations and more contrite when you let people down.”
He’s right. David Stern clearly didn’t let it slide, or even want it discussed on the eve of the Playoffs. With record speed, he fined the future Hall-of-Famer $100,000. But it’s not enough to just lighten Kobe’s wallet. A far better response by the NBA would be to not just fine Kobe Bryant. It would be to make changes that aren’t individual but institutional. Being reflective and self-critical is hardly a David Stern strong suit. (See the ignoring of public calls for referee reform.) But it’s institutional change that will show the Kobe fine is more than just concern about having homophobia identified with the NBA “brand.” Here would be a change that could actually matter. Every year there is a mandatory orientation for all NBA rookies. I’ve attended this orientation and it covers everything from the dress code to making, um, “smart choices” on the road. In addition to fining Bryant, the NBA could announce that a seminar on homophobia would be a new part of the orientation. Part of it could be about tolerance. But another part could be a message to any of the players who might be gay. They could be told that if they wanted to venture out of the closet, the League would give them every possible support. That would be real progress and not just an exercise in brand protection.