When Joakim Noah, center for the Chicago Bulls basketball team, hurled an anti-gay slur at a fan, the response from GLBT equality advocates was swift--but so was action from the sport’s governing authority, the National Basketball Association, which fined the player a hefty $50,000 for the homophobic abuse.
The amount Noah was penalized was half as much as the fine levied against Kobe Bryant for a similar infraction a few weeks ago, but in Bryant’s case the slur was directed at a game official, noted an NBA spokesperson.
The Human Rights Campaign praised the NBA for its swift attention to the case.
"For the second time in a matter of weeks, the Human Rights Campaign acknowledges the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its commissioner, David Stern, for their immediate action--this time following the homophobic slur unleashed by Chicago Bull center Joakim Noah," a May 23 news release from the HRC read.
"We’re impressed by the NBA’s precedent-setting effort to eliminate gay slurs on the court," the president of the GLBT advocacy organization, Joe Solmonese, said. "We are seeing a new conversation beginning in the world of sports, where a growing number of pro-athletes are publicly standing up for equality."
Noah called a fan a "fucking faggot" during the course of the third game of the Eastern Conference finals. The slur was made on camera, as TNT was broadcasting the game. Following the incident, the player explained what had happened.
"The fan said something that was disrespectful towards me," Noah recounted, according to the AP story. "And I went back at him. Got it on camera.
"I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings," Noah added. "Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not like that. I’m an open-minded guy. I said the wrong thing and I’m going to pay the consequences--deal with the consequences--like a man. I don’t want to be a distraction to the team right now."
The consequences were announced a few hours later--a fine of $50,000.
Bryant, who also issued an apology after hurling an identical slur at a referee, was hit with a $100,000 fine. Bryant, too, said that the slur was a reflexive response in the heat of the moment and did "NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities."
Bryant’s team was playing the San Antonio Spurs on April 12 when the player was tagged for a technical foul. Bryant took his place on the bench and then, in an outburst that was caught on camera by TNT, hurled the epithet at the referee. Kobe’s words were not audible, but he appeared to mouth "fucking faggot."
TNT announcer Steve Kerr caught the slur and commented that the cable channel "might want to take the camera off him right now, for the children watching."
GLBT equality advocates called the outburst a "teaching moment" for sports fans, especially among the youth.
Other pro basketball players addressed Noah’s remark, the AP article reported.
"We know what business we are in," said LeBron James of the Heat. "Emotions get [vented]." Added James, "I don’t think it was right what he said. But emotions do get said over the course of the game. We know there’s going to be microphones. We know there’s going to be cameras around. You just have to be cautious about what you say and just try to control your emotions as much as possible."
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) had responded to other recent examples of anti-gay language being used in sports, working with hockey teams to counteract anti-gay chants from fans. The group has also pressed for greater awareness of GLBT issues among the WWE’s wrestlers and announcers. Two incidents involving anti-gay epithets drew GLAAD’s attention to the WWE. In February, wrestler John Cena taunted Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with a homophobic rap; two weeks later, announcer Michael Cole tweeted the word "faggot" to fellow announcer Josh Matthews.
The group’s head, Jarrett Barrios, remarked upon the recurrence of the same slur in two basketball games in such a short space of time.
"Last month the NBA sent an important message about how such slurs fuel a climate of intolerance and are unacceptable," Barrios said. "These anti-gay remarks, coming so soon after, demonstrate how much needs to be done."
The HRC’s Solmonese envisioned a time when anti-gay slurs will not be the sorts of insults that spring automatically to players’ lips in emotional situations.
"We need to get to a point where you don’t use an anti-gay slur to respond to events," Solmonese said. "It’s just plain unacceptable. At a time when the NBA and a growing number of pro-athletes are publicly standing up for equality, it’s too bad Mr. Noah worked against their efforts last night. That said, we’re pleased he quickly realized the error of his ways and apologized."
But several other recent events indicated that awareness was growing in the sporting world.
"This morning the Human Rights Campaign released a video of NBA star Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns publicly supporting marriage equality in New York," the HRC said in a media release. Nash’s video message was only the second time the campaign included the participation of a pro athlete. Last week a hockey player, New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, became the first professional athlete to lend his support to the campaign, which promotes marriage equality in New York.
"We’re impressed by the NBA’s precedent-setting effort to eliminate gay slurs on the court," Joe Solmonese said in a May 23 release on Nash’s message. "We are seeing a new conversation beginning in the world of sports, where a growing number of pro-athletes are publicly standing up for equality."
"In the video, Nash talks about the growing number of professional athletes who are speaking out in support of marriage equality, saying, ’I’m proud to be one of them,’ " the HRC release recounted.
"One of the most respected players in the game, Steve Nash is a leader on and off the court," the HRC’s Brian Ellner said. "We are very fortunate he has lent his voice to our campaign in New York. He realizes, like most New Yorkers, it’s time for committed gay and lesbian couples to marry."
No major sports stars in the United States have come out while still active, but within the last week two non-playing figures in the sporting world have emerged from the closet. On May 19, Jared Max, an announcer for New York station 1050 ESPN, broke the news to his audience, asking on air, "Will you still be able to root for your favorite player is you know he’s gay? Are we ready to have our sports information delivered by someone who’s gay? Well you know what, we are gonna find out."
Max then laid it on the line, and came out of the closet in a dramatic statement that he delivered with professional calm.
"[F]or the last sixteen years, I’ve been living a free life among my close friends and family," Max told his listeners. "And I’ve hidden behind what is a gargantuan-sized secret here in the sports world: I am gay. Yeah. Jared Max, the sports guy, one of the most familiar voices in New York sports, isn’t quite like the majority."
A few days prior to Max’s announcement, in an article published by the New York Times, May 15, Suns CEO Rick Welts made a similar admission, the Associated Press reported on May 16.
Britain has seen several gay athletes come out in recent years, but perhaps more remarkable is a heterosexual rugby player, Ben Cohen, who launched an anti-homophobia effort, the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, upon retiring from the field.
"As athletes, it is not enough just to have strong bodies," Cohen told British newspaper the Guardian, which reported on Cohen’s new career in a May 15 article. "We must have strong characters and use our voices to support those who need and deserve it."
Kilian Melloy is EDGE Media Network’s Web Producer and Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes aggregate news stories and commentary for EDGE.