The NBA’s Gay Problem

Is the league giving too much power to the power of words?

If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs, you’ve no doubt caught the public service announcement by the Phoenix Suns’ Grant Hill and Jared Dudley in which they chide a dude for using the word “gay” to mean “dumb.” If you’ve been watching closely, you may have seen Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah hurl an antigay slur at a taunting fan in the stands during last Sunday’s game against the Heat. Noah has been fined $50,000 for his loss of cool, hot on the heels of a $100,000 fine of Kobe Bryant for slinging the same slur in a fit of pique directed toward a ref in a playoff game in April.

I know the NBA means well in assessing the fines. Pro athletes are role models, after all, and how are you gonna keep kids from shouting “Faggot!” when their heroes are doing so on camera? But kids aren’t the most thoughtful or rational of creatures. And when they see headlines that scream “$100,000 FINE FOR GAY SLUR!,” their takeaway could very well be: “Wow. Being a faggot must be a really terrible thing.” Because why else would that word be so awful—and expensive—to say?

In the wake of the announcement of Noah’s fine, the New York Times asked Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts—who recently announced he was gay—for his thoughts, and they’re revealing: “I guess I’m only disappointed that’s the thought that comes to mind when you’re most frustrated and all your filters have disappeared.” In other words, “gay” is the bottom of the barrel, the absolute worst thing a “real man” like Kobe or Noah could be.

Meanwhile, all around us, society is saying, “No it’s not.” Gay NBA presidents are coming out of the closet. Gay actors and comedians are flourishing. Gays are being ordained bishops; they’re working as TV news anchors; they’re being elected to Congress and scoring Top 10 hits and being knighted by the queen. The process they’re experiencing now isn’t unlike that undergone by Italians or Poles as they assimilated into American life early in the last century. Epithets like “wop” and “Polack” nowadays sound as outdated as Shakespeare’s “pernicious caitiff” and “mongrel beef-witted lord.” It’s getting to know your gay neighbor or daughter or minister or colleague that changes minds and opens hearts, not the leveling of fines on multimillionaires.

A more fitting “punishment” would be for the NBA to sentence Bryant and Noah to stints of public service aiding the LGBT community—sitting and listening at teen support groups, toting meals to homebound AIDS patients, helping out at college pride events. Alternately, they could sit down for a chat with that renowned voice of reason, TNT sportsmouth Charles Barkley, who, after Welts ventured out of the closet, told the Washington Post’s Mike Wise that he’d had gay teammates on two out of three of the teams he played on (which included the Sixers), and it never bothered him a bit: “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”