Joakim Noah’s No Kobe Bryant

There’s no quick fix to major issues of social tolerance, and that is why it was no surprise to watch Joakim Noah utter the same disparaging slur Sunday night for which Kobe Bryant was shouted down just a few short weeks ago. Movement is not going to come quickly, and it’s not going to come without a lot of work.

I won’t rehash everything I wrote about Kobe after his incident, but in short, he was wrong, and he should be held accountable. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to imply hateful feelings, and it doesn’t matter that a fan provoked him. He needed to be more mature and contain his emotions. That’s what professional athletes are expected to do.

What’s more interesting this time around, though, is the marked difference between the penalties handed down to Bryant and Noah. Kobe was fined $100,000, while Noah was docked just half that number. Same word, same situation, same penalty, right? Apparently not. The NBA’s explanation for the variation in the totals of the fines was this: Kobe’s outburst involved verbal abuse of a game official, while Noah’s did not.

I just don’t see how that reasoning could be any more bogus.

First of all, there is no assurance that Bennie Adams actually heard what Kobe said to him. In fact, had he heard it, he probably would have given Kobe a T (with good reason). But if the target of the so-called verbal abuse didn’t actually hear the abusive language, is that really abuse after all? If Bryant had said the same word in the privacy of his home, would that be verbal abuse toward Adams? It doesn’t seem so.

The second concern with that explanation is the more meaningful one. By penalizing comments to a game official to a higher degree than comments to a fan, the league is making a fairly clear statement that it doesn’t operate in the full interest of the common people who pony up the money that makes the NBA work. Protecting the experience of the fans should be the principal goal of the league.

Sure, referees are important, too. But Kobe’s comment didn’t impede him from doing his job. He was just fine. Meanwhile, the fan subjected to Noah’s comment might be so turned off that he might not ever spend a dollar on the league again. One isolated fan doesn’t matter, but this sets a bad precedent for the league and its treatment of the most important person in this whole debacle — the consumer.

Nevertheless, I find myself believing that the disparity in the value of the respective fines was actually justified but hardly for the reasons a league official prescribed earlier today. Instead, there is a certain proportionality here that makes the difference defensible.

When I think about what a fine from the NBA really means, it isn’t really an admonitory action. The NBA, like many other organizations, is a business. When someone associated with the league takes an action that is damaging, it is only fair that the league should make that individual pay back money to recoup the reputational consequences suffered.

Accordingly, it seems, the more damage an action does to the league, the greater the penalty should be. And there is no doubt that whatever action Kobe takes will garner much more attention than the same action taken by Noah. There was a media frenzy for Kobe’s incident, and that made sense. The media will play up the big stories (and Kobe is definitely one of those), as that’s what people want to read and hear — there is the most money in the stories centered around the greatest players in the league. While Noah’s actions were wrong, it is simple enough to say that not as many people care about Noah as care about Bryant. Consequently, Noah’s transgression was much less of a blemish on the league than Bryant’s, so it required less reparation.

For those who find that unfair, consider that notoriety is a double-edged sword. Negative actions for notorious actors will have a significant negative portrayal. That said, those same people will receive much greater positive attention when they do something good than the average player. Kobe and the others have to deal with both sides of the attention coin.

To put it bluntly, this is a textbook example of a double standard on the part of the NBA. As it happens, though, this double standard is a rational one.

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