Kobe's gay slur speaks volumes about homophobia in sports

OPINION - If our athletic icons use homophobic slurs, how can we expect our children to act any differently on the school yards and street corners?...

In Tuesday’s night game against the San Antonio Spurs, Kobe Bryant, the five-time NBA champion and Los Angeles Lakers guard, was caught on camera hurling a gay slur at the referee Bennie Adams, who had just given him a technical foul in the game’s third quarter. Though this kind of language is probably common on basketball courts and football fields across the country, reasonable adults would agree that it has no place in a professional setting.

Responding to the immediate outcry of gay rights organizations, the NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a swift disciplinary ruling against Bryant and ordered him to pay a $100,000 fine. Kobe’s critics claim that his behavior represents yet another example of a spoiled, irresponsible and overly indulged character. Others defend him, claiming that such language is so commonplace, that it should be disregarded as par for the course in male-dominated, ego-driven sports. Either way, the NBA’s response and Kobe Bryant’s swift apology, mirrors a changing tide in American society — and provides a teachable moment, for what is and is not acceptable, sportsman-like behavior.

theGrio slideshow: Hate the player, love the game

Older fans will remember the days when sports stars were heroes, admired for their talent and stature. They graced Wheaties and Cheerio boxes, encouraging young people to stay in school and eat a healthy breakfast. Now, in an age where headlines show the growing number of gay and lesbian youth committing suicide, Bryant’s rant is both disrespectful and potentially dangerous — sending the wrong message to young, adoring fans — who may well take it literally. Members of the NBA and NFL should be governed not just by their professional code of conduct, but with a great sense of obligation — reflecting the often quoted line — ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

[NBCVIDEO source=”UNIWIDGET” video=”http://widgets.nbcuni.com/singleclip/singleclip_v1.swf?CXNID=1000004.08052NXC&WID=4a784acd2b1a7e80&clipID=1320533″ w=”400″ h=”400″]

If our athletic icons use homophobic slurs, how can we expect our children to act any differently on the school yards and street corners?

The NBA isn’t the only arena where this behavior has been displayed. Larry Johnson, Jr. the young African-American running back best known for his career with the Kansas City Chiefs — and his record setting $45 million contract — the biggest in Chiefs history — was famously reprimanded in 2009 for a similar homophobic rant he had with a disgruntled fan on Twitter. Johnson referred to the fan as a “f**” and was forced to issue a public apology. Matters got worse when the running back used similar slurs in the locker room directed at members of the media.

Under threat of suspension, and backlash from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Johnson managed to negotiate a deal in which he would lose one game check (worth $300,000). The fall-out from this incident and other ill-advised, immature behavior , led Chiefs head coach Todd Haley and general manager Sott Pioli to waive Johnson’s contract altogether and he was forced to became a free agent.
The consequences were equally damaging for Hollywood actor Isaiah Washington, a veteran of Spike Lee’s films Crooklyn, Clockers, and Get on the Bus as well as the African-American classic Love Jones. In 2007, Washington, then a regular cast member of the acclaimed ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy, was summarily fired from the show after a backstage spat which played out in public.

According to reports, Washington insulted fellow co-star T.R. Knight with a slew of homophobic slurs. Knight, who had remained silent with regard to his sexuality, later revealed he was gay. Although Washington originally denied the reports, after his dismissal he admitted to using the word f**, but defended his behavior in a July 2007 appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live, in which he said the word conveyed “somebody who is being weak and afraid to fight back.”

Washington’s defense of his actions and Larry Johnson’s ambivalence and second offense, are mirrored in Kobe Bryant’s weak apology. “What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period,” Bryant said in a statement issued through the Lakers. “The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone.”

[youtubevid http://youtube.com/watch?v=t84p7mcK2Pk]

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese responded saying, “This kind of hateful outburst is simply inexcusable no matter what the context.” Jarrett Barrios, president of the GLAAD agreed. “Professional sports players need to set a better example for young people who use words like this on the playground and in our schools, creating a climate of intolerance and hostility,” Barrios said.

It is clear that Bryant, like many of us, was raised in an era when these kinds of words were acceptable and as a result may consider such language harmless, if not amusing. But Tuesday’s events and the NBA leadership’s response, reflect the growing change in the national dialogue on the subject of bullying.

Perhaps the African-American community will begin to have a more heightened sensitivity to the power of words, given the long history fighting vicious, racist verbal and physical attacks. To that end, Bryant and others can see this as a teachable moment on civility and the power of social responsibility.