Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Nature Of The Beast

I wanted to take some time and properly digest everything before I started banging on my keyboard in outrage. There are an awful lot of angles in play, and I didn't want to inadvertently gloss over any of them. In case you live under a rock, here's the situation:

During last night's NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant was whistled for a technical foul by referee Bennie Adams. On returning to the Lakers' bench, Bryant appeared to shout a homophobic slur at Adams, which the TV cameras picked up, as TNT announcer Steve Kerr urged the cameras to move off of Bryant. I have a list a mile long of problems with many of the various reactions and viewpoints that have been voiced since the incident hit Sports Center last night, and just so you're forewarned and forearmed, a rant is forthcoming ...

On Scott Van Pelt's radio show this afternoon, he said that he didn't agree with or condone Kobe's using the slur, but that he believes that athletes in the arena, on the field, or wherever, when the game is in progress, should get a little leniency with their behavior. "The heat of battle," or some such. Now, to an extent, I agree with Van Pelt here. When the competitive juices are in full motion, and tensions are running high, it's a natural part of the game that athletes may be prone to uttering certain things that aren't generally heard in polite society. That's understandable, if a little unsavory. Here's where Van Pelt missed the mark, and missed it by a mile: there is a big, cavernous difference between dropping a profanity and what Kobe did. Frankly, if Kobe had called the ref a "sh*t head", or something along those lines, I wouldn't have a problem with it. That's the game, whether we like it or not. This brings me to my first problem.

The Human Rights Campaign on Bryant's slur: "Hopefully Mr. Bryant will recognize that as a person with such fame and influence, the use of such language not only offends millions of LGBT people around the world, but also perpetuates a culture of discrimination and hate that all of us, most notably Mr. Bryant, should be working to eradicate."

Why does it matter that he was on camera during a nationally televised sporting event? Or that he's a prominent public figure who is idolized and revered by millions? Does that make what he said more damning or shameful than if Joe Everyguy said it in a pickup game? It shouldn't. If you haven't learned that athletes aren't the most dependable or ideal role models for kids or society in general yet, you need an IV drip of common sense, stat. The level of exposure isn't the point. What happened is deeper and far more insidious than anything having to do with being a "role model." It's endemic of a fundamental problem with our society. The fact that anyone, anywhere, no matter how provoked or agitated, still thinks it's OK to toss out slurs like that, shows how far we still have to go. It's particularly a problem in the realm of male sports, where one displays dominance and machismo not just through playing the game, but via talking smack. Sadly, it's still common to demean an opponent's skills by uttering despicable slurs used to denigrate women and homosexuals. Most players would claim that they have no problems with females, gays, or other minorities, and if they call someone a "f****t" or a "little b****", that it's all part of the game, they didn't mean anything by it.

Bryant said as much in a statement issued today: "What I said last night should not be taken literally ... my actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone."

Really, Kobe? REALLY? We shouldn't "take it literally"?!?!?!?! So if a white player got T'd up and fired the N-word at a black ref, it'd be OK, then? After all, it was "out of frustration during the heat of the game." If he didn't mean it "literally," no harm, no foul, right?

Everywhere from a Sports Center interview with NBA analyst Ric Bucher to today's episodes of Around The Horn and PTI, much of the conversation has revolved around how the Lakers organization or the NBA should deal with what happened. I've heard people yammer on about protecting the league's image, about Bryant knowing better, about the possible consequences. As in "what, if any, punishment should the Lakers or the NBA impose on Bryant?" About everything, in short, but the heart of the matter. PR spin, apologies, and fines that won't actually matter at all to Kobe's checkbook are absolutely meaningless here. As a society, we need to start ensuring that American youth don't utilize this kind of language anymore, anywhere, ever. Slurs such as the one used last night need to be removed from the lexicon, and the meanness behind them needs to be removed from our minds and hearts. That's a steep uphill battle, to be sure, but we have to start somewhere, and last night is a good a place as any. It doesn't matter that it was Kobe Bryant who said it, or that it was caught on television. It should never have been said at all. Period. When Bryant, the Lakers, or the NBA make THAT statement, we'll be making progress.

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