One step forward, two steps back.

Just when it seemed like the NBA was turning the corner on embracing gay athletes and employees, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah hurled an anti-gay slur at a fan during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Similar to the Kobe Bryant incident last month, television cameras caught Noah yelling “fa**ot” towards the heckler in the stands. Following the Bulls 96-85 loss to the Heat, Noah apologized for his comments and released a video statement Monday.

“Yesterday I made some comments that were pretty disrespectful after I picked up a second foul. I came out of the game and a fan said something to me and I was really upset about it,” Noah said. “I said some things I shouldn’t have said. I don’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings. It wasn’t right and I’m going to deal with the consequences. But right now what’s really frustrating is that we have a game to worry about and I don’t want to be a distraction to the team. I think all of our focus and all of our energy has to be on that right now.”

The NBA fined Noah $50,000 Monday, half of what Bryant had to pay for hurling an anti-gay slur towards referee Bennie Adams.

According to NBA spokesman Tim Frank, the two situations were different.
“Kobe’s fine included discipline for verbal abuse of a game official,” Frank said.

On the heels of Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts coming out in hopes of inspiring other gays in the sports world, the league is sending the message that using the word “fa**ot” is only unacceptable when directed towards a referee. Instead of using one of the premiere players in the world as an example in Bryant and setting the bar on the league’s stance towards using the slur, NBA commissioner David Stern has backpedaled at the expense of the fans.

Members of the Bulls acknowledged Noah needed to better control his emotions but placed part of the blame on the fans.

“But at the same time, there’s times where a fan like that, honestly I feel like jumping in the crowd and hitting him,” Bulls forward Luol Deng said. “We’re humans, and the camera is not on that fan at all. I know Jo apologized and everything, but people got to see it the other way, too. Everyone says things they don’t mean, and he let the emotion get the better of him. But honestly, with a game like that, hearing that fan, I wanted to do something about it, too. Unfortunately for Jo, he’s got to pay the price.”

The excuse about emotions getting the best of someone is a tired argument at this point. There are a million other words that you can say to get your frustration out. Why does “fa**ot” continue to be one of them? Clearly the message isn’t getting across to athletes by the way of five and six-figure fines, which is nothing more than chump change for multi-millionaires. The next step towards policing homophobic slurs in sports is handing out suspensions.

Let’s start with the NBA, who in the eyes of The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has a homophobia problem.

“Last month the NBA sent an important message about how such slurs fuel a climate of intolerance and are unacceptable. These anti-gay remarks, coming so soon after, demonstrate how much needs to be done,” GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios told TMZ.com. “Noah’s apology is a start. We are confident that the NBA will now take disciplinary measures and hasten its work with us to tell all players that there is no place for anti-gay words and attitudes in the game.”

Noah and Bryant are just the players that have been caught on camera — care to guess how many other players are using the word on a nightly basis “in the heat of competition?”

Regardless of your thoughts towards homosexuals, the word “fa**ot” has no place in athletics. The NBA missed out on a prime opportunity at ending this problem once and for all by not suspending Noah for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. What better way to get the point across than a one-game suspension during a crucial Game 4 for the Bulls on the road in Miami?

At some point, an apology, a phony public service announcement and a blank check isn’t going to cut it.