Kobe’s slip calls attention to ugly side of basketball culture

Up close and personal All this drama about Kobe Bryant using a homosexual slur piqued my interest, mostly because I’ve learned from that same mistake.

One of my best friends from childhood happens to be gay. About eight years ago, in his presence, I responded to someone who made an aggressive comment in my direction with the same knee-jerk terminology that Kobe did. I instantly felt terrible; I’m not homophobic in the least, but it just slipped out.

A chill in the air, I gave my friend the same sort of apology Kobe initially did — “I, uh, didn’t mean it like that.” Which was true. And he let me off the hook for it, said it wasn’t a big deal. But I could tell from the look in his eyes that it had been hurtful.

As such, that was literally the last time I’ve said that word. I filed it in the same “don’t-use” folder as all the ethnic slurs I despise, and I’ve been diligent in adhering to that.

I specifically discussed the incident with my friend a couple years later, thanking him for not holding it against me. We agreed that I was better off not even possessing in my active vocabulary words that don’t represent who I truly am.

Based on some of the reactions I saw after this became a firestorm, I think a lot of other people should follow suit. They missed the point here: That hateful terminology should be off-limits under any circumstance.

In fact, I think the greater issue here is not what Kobe Bryant thinks about what he said, but what other people seem to think about it.


A month and a half ago, while speaking to a Foot Locker full of kids who worshipped the ground he walked on, Kobe crafted his message around what they can do to improve, called kids up on stage with him, stuff like that.

kobe_kid Those are the same kids who might be impressionable enough to think that a homosexual slur is okay if Kobe Bryant does it, which is why the NBA’s reaction to this is so important.

I’ve heard people on Twitter and otherwise attempt to downplay this whole thing, or mock the people who were angered by it.

Note that we’re not talking about an athlete using profanity or something, or even vague trash talk. This is hate speech, albeit a relatively general, vague form of it, and hurtful to far more people than it was directed at.

And this is the same thing people did when Kevin Garnett — who becomes less likable by the month — called alopecia sufferer Charlie Villanueva a cancer patient, simultaneously insulting people stricken by both cancer and alopecia, and then clearly lied about having said it.

The most common refrains I hear from NBA acolytes were…

“Far worse things are said on the court all the time.”

How are those okay? This is the same machismo nonsense, invoking some mythical Code of Basketball, that allows for this sort of thing to happen to begin with.

I used to play a lot of playground ball, and I used to hear stuff like what Kobe said all the time. (Honestly, no excuses, but it’s probably that and the Eminem I listened to constantly back then that had the word as part of my lexicon to begin with.)

I know all of it comes from latent homophobia, which in turn stems from a creeping, closeted sense of sexual insecurity. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I never understood why those issues should get in the way of a hard-played game, complete with a healthy dose of sportsmanship.

And yet it was hard to make it through a game to 12 by ones without witnessing some sort of physical altercation, usually a knee-jerk reaction after someone questions someone else’s manhood, with the stigma attached to that.

— “Kenyon Martin did the same thing, and he wasn’t fined by the NBA.”

Well, maybe he should have been. Or maybe there’s an understandable double standard since Kobe Bryant is a household name and the face of the league and Martin is a fringe player, albeit a wildly overpaid one. I follow the NBA pretty closely, and I never knew about Martin saying the same thing until people brought it up in Kobe’s defense, or whatever.

Though his star and visibility have faded in recent years, Garnett is most definitely a more significant player than Martin. But he’s not an icon like Kobe Bryant. My mom knows Kobe. She doesn’t know KG.

Besides, the NBA fining Bryant $100,000 when he makes $24 million isn’t really the point here. That’s damage control that I couldn’t care less about.


What I care about is why people don’t get that this was a big deal.

Maybe it was the particular condescension of Bryant’s bogus initial apology that touched a nerve, even more so than the initial incident.

Kobe, for his part, is — finally — saying the right things.

"It’s about getting that message out there man, to kill that word. Just don’t use it, just don’t use it. And hopefully others can learn from the situation that occurred and just knock that word out completely."

That comment kind of reminds me of Mike Vick working with the Humane Society right after getting out of jail for killing a bunch of dogs. The mistakes you make become a whole lot more wrong to you after you get caught making them.

And though we’re finally seeing some version of contrition from Bryant now, he’s still appealing the fine “as a matter of process,” whatever that means, while offering some mumbo jumbo about not actually fighting it.


That said, maybe all this is a net positive.

Interestingly, this has forced the NBA to change its culture a little. I realize they have bigger problems — such as attempting to actually have a season in the fall and keep themselves from hemorrhaging money — but it’s still great that the league and the Lakers are talking about working with GLAAD to eliminate gay slurs from basketball.

rainbow Here’s an idea: Maybe Nike can give this forced initiative from one of their main cash cows some extra punch with a rainbow-themed pair of Zoom Kobe VI’s, and donate proceeds to GLAAD. Something like the Air Max 97’s on the right. I’d wear them, why not? And if they made them limited, I guarantee you’d see them pop up in the hood. (Sneakerheads will buy anything if it’s limited.)

Kobe Bryant, whether he really believes the message or not, can be an effective conduit. He’s respected by everyone as a player, kids love him, he generally says what’s on his mind, and I think people would listen to him.

Having the NBA and one of its best players institute an albeit reactionary moratorium on hateful speech is a very positive step. And if it took Bryant being caught on national television saying some awful but widespread sentiment throughout the game to effect some change, so be it.

Of course, I’m far less concerned with what Kobe Bryant thinks about what he said than with what other people thought about it.

The disdain from a lot of people that don’t get that something still counts even if you say it on a basketball court is the problem. They weren’t just defending Kobe, they were also vicariously defending themselves, instead of doing what they really should have been doing.

Looking at themselves in the mirror.

Who knows? Maybe to some degree, this will cause that to happen.

But I won’t hold my breath.


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