Recently, there have been several incidents of high-profile sports stars using identity-based slurs to attack fans and referees, primarily using anti-gay language. However, one of the reasons that this behavior is making the news lately is because the professional organization in charge of these sports are no longer allowing this language to go unpunished. Many professional sports organizations are making sure that it is clear that they will no longer allow and condone this sort of language from anyone associated with their sport.
One of the NBA’s most high profile stars, Kobe Bryant is a recent example of sports stars using gay slurs. During a game in April, Bryant was caught on camera calling the referee a “f**king faggot” after receiving a technical foul. Following the incident, Bryant issued an apology, but was still fined $100,000 for his words. Clearly Bryant’s experience was not a strong enough deterrent, because only this past week, fellow NBA player Joakim Noah was also filmed yelling the same slur at one of the fans seated behind him during the game and was later fined $50,000. Basketball is not the only sport that has seen recent attacks on gay people- Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was recently suspended for two weeks following an incident where he yelled homophobic slurs and made sexually suggestive motions toward fans who he thought were gay.
These types of identity-based slurs and attacks are completely unacceptable, especially because these sports stars are supposed to be role models. By using this type of language, it tells all the young men and women who look up to them that using identity-based slurs is acceptable. This is especially true with the case of Kobe Bryant, who is ranked as the 14th most powerful celebrity by Forbes Magazine and is one of the most recognizable names in sports. Mr. Bryant, who already has a very checkered history with a notorious rape case, issued an insincere apology following the incident, stating “What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities…” Essentially, Bryant believes that because his words were said during the heat of the game, they should not be taken as an offense. Because that is how the world usually works, right? If you are in a heated moment and someone calls you a faggot, a slut, a whore or some other identity-based insult, it’s not offensive. Oh wait, no, that’s not how it works at all. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of an angry outburst where they are called names or insulted for who they are can tell you that those insults are extremely painful to hear, even if you “know” that the other person “doesn’t really mean it”.
The NBA and the MLBA are doing the right thing by fining these players and officials and sending a strong message that players are accountable for their words, even if they are said during a heated moment. However, these men have a responsibility to their fans and to the young people who look up to them to set an example of acceptable behavior, which identity-based slurs are clearly not.
FVPC discusses this in our Start Strong programming. Start Strong is primary prevention education for middle schoolers about violence prevention and bullying. One of the things that we try to teach is that insulting someone based on identity, such as using a sexist, homophobic or racial slur is not just insulting to that person, but to the entire minority group. Insulting someone based on their identity or perceived identity is bullying. To have role models setting an example to the young people that look up to them that this is okay in a high pressure situation is an unacceptable lesson to be teaching. Hopefully, the examples of Bryant and Noah will be a deterrent for future sports stars to chose their words carefully and refrain from using vicious insults during high pressure moments.