During Tuesday night’s game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant was hit with a technical foul. When he went to the bench, TNT’s cameras caught him apparently calling referee Bennie Adams a “f******g [gay slur].” (What he said looks pretty clear to me, but watch the video and judge for yourself.) Thanks to the skills of @Jose3030 and the power of twitter, the video quickly went viral.
Let’s be clear about something: Kobe Bryant has been a controversial figure, both on and off the court. This post is not about Kobe Bryant. I don’t know Kobe Bryant personally, but in all my professional dealings with him he has come across as intelligent, funny, and well-adjusted. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him as both a basketball player and a person. The issue here is not Kobe; the issue is the word he used.
I’m sure that if you asked Kobe, he would tell you that he wasn’t expressing any homophobic feelings when he called the referee what he called him. I don’t know whether he actually was or not, but in any case I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The gay slur Kobe used is often used as a general insult — Kobe lost his temper, and in a fit of rage he called Adams the worst thing he could think of. I don’t think Kobe’s unfortunate choice of words revealed that he has a deep-seeded hatred of gay people. I do think they revealed that athletes are still comfortable tossing around a word that, like a few other very hurtful and powerful words, should not be tossed around.
The word Kobe used can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Intelligent, funny people like Louis C.K., Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Joe Rogan have all made cases that when they use the word, they’re not saying that they have a problem with homosexuality or homosexual behavior; they just use it to denote behavior they find unacceptable. The problem with that logic is that while we can control what we say, we can’t always control what people hear, and it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to separate our words from our intentions, especially hurtful words. In my younger years, I had the foolish belief that proper contexts to use that word somehow existed. I no longer hold that belief in any way, shape or form. The fact is that for a lot of people, homosexual behavior and unacceptable behavior are synonymous. Until that changes, I believe that there is no appropriate context for that word.
In a Gallup poll conducted last May, only 52% of Americans said that they found homosexuality “morally acceptable.” Homosexuals still do not have the right to marriage in most of the country. Research conducted one week ago shows that gay and lesbian teens are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression as their heterosexual counterparts, and three times more likely to report a history of suicidality. According to the It Gets Better Project, 9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
The belief that we are a post-homophobia society is foolish and arrogant. Some people will say that making a “big deal” out of incidents like this reveals that the real problem with our society is that it has become too “politically correct.” Tell that to the teens who have to endure physical and verbal abuse at school because of their sexual orientation, or the families of the teens who couldn’t take the abuse anymore. Maybe the day when it’s okay to use the word that Kobe used and have everybody know that you have no problem with homosexuals or homosexual behavior at all will come someday. I don’t think it will, and I know that that day is not today.
Does the word that Kobe used get used by professional athletes almost every day, in every locker room, without any cameras or tape recorders catching it? Absolutely. In fact, during a playoff game a few seasons ago, Kevin Garnett was actually caught screaming the exact same thing that Kobe screamed. Does that mean that we should say “well, boys will be boys” when someone gets caught on tape like Kobe did? I don’t think so. I’m not calling for Bryant’s head: I believe in freedom of speech, and don’t think he should receive an additional fine or suspension for his choice of words.
What I would like is for some good to come out of this being caught on tape. It’s easy to point the finger when somebody like Tim Hardaway says something blatantly homophobic and pin all the issues with homosexuality and professional sports on isolated cases like him. The truth is that the problems run much deeper, and many of them are more rooted in ignorance than hatred.
Simple math tells us that it would be a miracle if no active MLB, NBA, or NFL player is a homosexual, but no player current athlete has come out, and I would wager that most professional athletes don’t think they have any gay teammates. It’s in environments like that where casual homophobia can seem harmless. Ask yourself this: if Joe Smith, who was sitting next to Kobe, or Bennie Adams, the referee, was gay and Kobe knew that, do you think he still have used that word? If the answer is no, why should we expect any homosexual who was within earshot or watching the game on TV to not have an issue with Kobe’s choice of words? Is it reasonable to ask sports fans to check their feelings about words like the ones Kobe used at the door, words that may have been directed at them, with hate, in their own lives?
This is a beautiful game, and people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations should feel comfortable playing it, watching it, and enjoying it. When the most respected player in the league by players, coaches, and media members alike gets caught uncorking a gay slur and nobody has a problem with it, it can give the impression that the NBA doesn’t care about creating a welcoming environment for all of its fans. Kobe has an opportunity to clear up his feelings about homosexuals and whether or not he believes the word he used is or is not acceptable language. I hope he takes advantage of it, and that the NBA becomes just a bit more welcoming than it would have been otherwise.