NBA season’s over. There’s no better time to examine how the spate of recent incidents speak to the larger macho culture of the sport.
By **Krystie Yandoli**
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
On Sunday, May 22, basketball fans witnessed yet another instance of anti-gay language and offensive slurs in a match up between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. Joakim Noah, the Bulls’ forward/center, spat an unmentionable phrase directed at a Miami fan while riding the bench after his second foul in the first quarter. Noah was issued a $50,000 fine and quickly apologized for his comment the following day, even though he slightly placed blame by explaining that he was provoked by said Miami fan.
Only one short month before, Kobe Bryant found himself in a similar situation. The Los Angeles all-star shouted the same gay slur at a referee after being called on a technical foul, received a $100,000 fine from the NBA commissioner, and publicly apologized for his poor decision making. Bryant also credited his offensive comment to being caught up in the heat of the moment, provoked by frustration.
It’s been made crystal clear that these are not two isolated examples of rare homophobia, but a commonplace attitude of super masculine culture in professional sports. The two incidents that occurred in the past month speak to the glorified idea of macho, traditional male culture among American men that is especially highlighted within the realm of professional athletics. Noah and Bryant aren’t exceptions to the rule; they’re just a couple of guys out of an entire league of players who were caught on camera.
There is a strong need to eliminate this incredibly offensive and dysfunctional means of perpetuating patriarchy and encouraging this general tough-guy, anti-gay attitude in sports. With NBA season coming to a close, now is a better time than ever to teach players, coaches, and fans a lesson in fairness and equality.
It seems as if the most effective tactic thus far has been to simply catch players on camera. Spotlighting these incidents publicly and in the mainstream media puts a significant amount of pressure on athletes to be aware of their word choice and make more conscious decisions regarding these incredibly offensive comments. It also allows for the opportunity for these players to acknowledge the importance of their words and a newfound commitment to sexual equality. The media is an extremely powerful and influential tool that can be instrumental in this movement to be rid of homophobia in sports culture.
Normalizing the idea of a pro-gay environment in the NBA is another critical step in the right direction. Bryant’s April 13th episode ended up sparking an important conversation around the idea of homophobia and gay culture in professional basketball. Rick Welts, Phoenix Suns president and CEO, former president of the L.A. Dodgers, and co-creator of both the WNBA and NBA All-star weekend, admitted in a New York Times article on Sunday, May 16th that he, too, is gay. Welts’s intentions were to “break down one of the last significant social barriers in sports.” More players should also follow in the footsteps of athletes like Grant Hill and Jared Dudley by participating in the “Think Before You Speak” campaign. Steve Nash recently demonstrated the benefits of getting involved with organizations like the Human Rights Campaign through his public service announcement advocating for gay marriage and sexual equality. These are only a few out of many resourceful means for athletes to spread awareness and educate themselves.
In order to seriously affect how professional athletes interpret this anti-gay culture, there needs to be a push beyond an individual level.
Individual change is important for achieving authentic progress, but it is just as essential to systematically enforce the concept of punishment associated with this type of language and harmful discrimination. Money certainly talks, and one of the best ways to garner support and understanding from players like Bryant and Noah is to eject a lump of cash from their paychecks. While some have argued that this means of punishment may not be all that effective for a multi-millionaire like superstar Kobe Bryant, the majority of professional basketball players are not on his same financial level, and would therefore be more likely to understand the significance of their actions when in the position of paying upward to $50,000 per offensive comment. Fines have the potential to get the point across to players, but there also needs to be innovative rule and guideline transformation in the consequences following gay slurs.
Paul Newberry of the Associated Press aggressively suggests in his May 23rd commentary that the NBA should take even stronger measures in an effort to eliminate homophobic slurs. “Remember when the NBA could’ve stood for National Brawling Association? That sort of ugliness doesn’t happen anymore, because now players know they’ll be suspended for leaving the bench. There should be suspensions for words as well as punches.” The dramatic shift in game rules surrounding suspensions is necessary in order to systematically affect the traditional male culture that encourages a slew of heteronormative characteristics, as opposed to all inclusive traits that represent and benefit all men of all sexualities.
The difference between a healthy and toxic masculinity in sports is complicated by the fact that sports is considered male to begin with. The lack of feminine nature in professional athletics is indicative of the dominant patriarchal culture, and breeds a masculinity that solely associates with this “real man” and tough guy image. Jackson Katz, educator and expert on male culture, discusses ideas and solutions to the issue of traditional masculinity in his documentary Tough Guise. Katz states, “It will take a different kind of courage to break out of the role of tough guy posturing men are pressured into so that society can keep making progress. Courage must be seen as the act of resisting taking on the tough-guy pose, and change will be difficult because violent masculinity is a cultural norm in America and tied to social, political and institutional institutions.”
What a toxic sports culture looks like: gay slurs being used as defense mechanisms and outlets for anger. What a healthy sports culture should exude: promoting a spectrum of equality and acceptance across the board, and reexamining what it really means to “be a man” and obtain these masculine qualities.
It’s past time to make the usage of anti-gay slurs during fits of anger and frustration a part of the NBA’s history instead of a current event. These critical changes need to come from a series of perspectives, starting with pressure from affected fans and the media, and ending with institutional changes within the NBA’s logistical structure. The league’s commissioner, David Stern, has a serious problem on his hands; he needs to make sure that the right steps are taken to ensure a safer, more accepting environment for people of all sexualities.
Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant may have potentially learned their lessons; only time will tell, however, if their consequences produced a serious change in their careful thought around word choice or if they led to only a quick fix. A heightened sense of awareness, as well as slapping on a few fines here and there, will help bring attention to the issue of extensive homophobia in the NBA. In order to seriously affect how professional athletes interpret this anti-gay culture, there needs to be a push beyond an individual level.
While a surge of unflattering press accompanied with a hefty fine might make a difference to individual players like Noah, someone like Kobe Bryant—who is accustomed to bad press and has the luxury of throwing around $100,000—might not be forever changed. It’s important to complicate how these players think about the ways in which sexual oppression and patriarchy shape basketball culture on an individual level, as well as on a grand scale. The only means of getting players to take the issue seriously is by systematically acting seriously.
Copyright 2011 Krystie Yandoli
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
Krystie Yandoli is a women’s studies student at Syracuse University.