Revealing An Iceberg

My initial reaction to Kobe Bryant’s comments during last night’s game were ones of anger, considerable anger. I didn’t react that way because I’m a “Kobe hater,” or because I wish ill on the Lakers. I was angry at the nature of the comments, the insensitivity for which Bryant happened to be responsible.

Kobe Bryant is an icon in the NBA, a figure who transcends basketball and stands for leadership, perseverance, and plenty of other values. To see him use derogatory language was disappointing, as he should know better. The normative question as to whether athletes should be considered role models is a loaded one, and one that will probably remain insoluble. With that said, it is irrelevant in this case. What matters is that Bryant is seen as a role model, whether he likes it or not, and he has to act accordingly. What he said was not compatible with his role-model persona.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bryant issued some haphazard comments to get out in front of the story:

“My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period,” he said. “The words expressed do not reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.”

In the wake of the situation, Bryant made the right decision to respond right away. The problem, though, is that these remarks aren’t very meaningful. He didn’t really apologize for himself, only for the misfortune of the situation. He’s a very proud man, and it’s understandable that he had a problem with admitting guilt for harm he didn’t intend. In this instance, though, intent is irrelevant.

There’s no contention that Bryant was complimenting Bennie Adams when he uttered the regrettable slur in his direction. It was a negative comment. That’s undeniable. By expressing his disgust with those words in a negative connotation, he necessarily implied discriminatory feelings toward the homosexual community.

But the real tragedy of the situation isn’t that Kobe used this phrase. It’s used quite frequently, probably among the NBA community, and he was just the guy to get caught on national TV (For those who think this bad luck excuses his behavior, though, that’s bogus. It was the same luck in the genetic lottery that got Bryant to the NBA.). The real tragedy is that Bryant is only a notorious representative of a pervasive toxin plaguing our entire society. It is, for whatever reason, still socially tolerated and commonplace to discriminate against the homosexual community in casual conversation, and Bryant was an eye-opening reminder of that societal glitch.

There’s a discrepancy between the reception of words like the one Bryant used and that of racial, religious, or gender-based slurs. If a white NBA player were to use the N-word in a derogatory context to or about another black player, that would be egregious and met with duly severe castigation. Why, then, is society lagging behind in attaching the same stigma to homosexual slurs? Until those words are just as socially taboo, a problem needs solving.

When the NBA levied its $100,000 fine on Bryant later in the afternoon, it was a step in the right direction. That’s chump change for Bryant, honestly, but it sends a message that the league is not going to tolerate this type of insensitivity from its players. Still, this should be just the first step in a series of moves to push reforms for the league.

In everyday society, there is no way to discourage people from committing these acts of discrimination. They’re protected by the freedom of speech and driven by personal insecurities. The NBA has no such problem. As a private, controlled body, the league has the power to forbid this type of behavior by its players. In that way, the NBA has the potential to be a major agent of social change by setting an example, serving as a pioneer of social justice in the spotlight.

So here’s what David Stern should do: outlaw a specific list of slurs. When a player uses a word, fine him. Or suspend him. Or institute mandatory sensitivity training for that violator. Considering all the no-tolerance policies already in place with regard to performance-enhancing drugs, apparel, social media, or anything else, this shouldn’t be that much of a step up. It’s an easy solution to an ignored problem.

Consider this Tweet from Matt Moore:

If our priorities are so messed up that we chide one player for standard conduct and shrug off another player for being socially despicable, there needs to be improvement. And it needs to come soon.

Kobe Bryant might have been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. But he’s a figurehead of a society with a flaw. And that figurehead has to be held accountable. Fortunately for him, there’s a chance something great comes out of all this.

Seth Carstens