by Paul Knepper
After being assessed a technical foul during a game against the Spurs Tuesday night Kobe Bryant was caught on camera mouthing “fucking faggot” at referee Bennie Adams. I won’t take the sting out of it by replacing those words with “homophobic slur,” or censoring video of the incident as many news sources have done. Kobe’s comment was ignorant, malicious and deplorable.
Throughout the 20th century sports were at the forefront of social change in this country. Athletes like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente dispelled racial stereotypes and broke barriers. Billie Jean King and other female athletes pushed for Title IX legislation, which led to equal opportunity and pay between the sexes. However, when it comes to the rights of homosexuals, the sports world lags far behind.
Locker rooms are a world unto themselves. The competitive environment fosters a kill or be killed mentality in which athletes’ “manhood” is regularly tested and often questioned. Homophobic slurs such as faggot and homo are commonplace. Kobe’s comment wasn’t an aberration, he just happened to get caught on camera.
Michael Jordan was notorious for using words like faggot to chide his teammates during practice. Others have been more public with their anti-homosexual sentiments. Allen Iverson released a rap album rife with homophobic lyrics. Tim Hardaway was suspended from All-Star festivities a few years ago for saying on a radio show that he “hated gay people” and LeBron James once stated that he wouldn’t be able to trust a teammate who came out of the closet.
Of course, homophobia isn’t restricted to basketball. Former San Francisco 49er Garrison Hearst once said, “I don’t want any faggots on my team!” Jeremy Shockey is among several other football players who expressed that they wouldn’t feel comfortable playing with a gay teammate. Former relief pitcher Todd Jones went on the record that he wouldn’t “want a gay guy around me.” One can only imagine what’s said behind closed doors. Is it any wonder that not one male professional athlete in a team sport has come out during his career?
I don’t mean to portray sports as the last bastion of homophobia in this country. Homosexuals are denied rights in most states that we take for granted, like visiting a loved one in the ICU, and are routinely victims of hate crimes and vitriolic slurs. It’s customary in certain social circles for males to insult friends and foes alike with words like “faggot” and “homo” and to refer to something that isn’t popular or tough as “gay.” However, the collective mentality in sports appears to be especially antiquated, which is particularly disturbing because professional athletes are role models for so many of our youth.
Ideally, a martyr in the mold of Jackie Robinson will begin to change the culture from within. The NBA and other leagues aren’t going to address the issue unless homophobia begins to impact their revenue. NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a swift response to Kobe’s remarks stating, “Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable,” Stern said. “While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Kobe and everyone associated with the N.B.A. know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society.”
Yet the punishment the league meted out was not commensurate with the Commish’s words. Kobe was fined $100,000, a hefty sum for most of us, but pocket change for a player earning $27 million this season. If Stern wanted to send a message that such language is truly intolerable he would have suspended Kobe for at least one playoff game, regardless of the impact on TV ratings.
If leagues and their players aren’t willing to change then it’s incumbent upon us as a society to push them to do so. That’s easier said than done. The lack of consensus on gay rights is further complicated by the reality that unlike women, African-Americans and Latinos, it’s within the power of each individual homosexual to hide or reveal his minority status. Homophobia also isn’t as blatantly institutionalized as other forms of discrimination. There’s no de facto barrier as was the case with African-Americans or differing pay scale, like women had to confront.
Consequently, in the absence of players or coaches publicly condemning homophobia in the locker room, it’s difficult to prove that discrimination exists, no matter how prevalent it is. That is, until somebody like Kobe Bryant or Tim Hardaway state their feelings publicly or are caught on camera making a homophobic slur. Then the gay rights and human rights organizations and the rest of society can spring into action.
GLAAD and The Human Rights Campaign were two of several organizations that condemned Bryant’s behavior. The Lakers and GLAAD have since announced a joint initiative to curb anti-gay comments during Lakers home games and the NBA has indicated that it intends to work with GLAAD to come up with ways to discourage homophobia among fans. As GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said, “In light of this slur, there is a real opportunity to build support for our community and educate fans of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the NBA about the use of such words.”
Bryant’s slur didn’t just open the door for human rights organizations; the media and public have seized the opportunity to discuss homophobia as well. William Rhoden of the New York Times is one of many writers who have criticized the NBA for not punishing Bryant more severely and used the opportunity to denounce the homophobia that exists within sports. Openly gay ex-basketball player John Amaechi wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in response to Kobe’s remark. Sports fans and non-fans alike are discussing the incident over water coolers and at the bar. Many of us have been forced to look in the mirror and question the impact of the words we use.
For the most part, the widespread homophobia in sports is confined to the practice court and locker room. Yet, every so often, a temporary lapse of discretion by an athlete shines light on the ugly hatred that persists in this country and in sports particularly. Homophobic slurs like the one uttered by Kobe are despicable, vile and hurtful. Yet, sadly, we need more of them. It seems to be the only way we’re going to change the sports culture and in turn ourselves.