On Monday, while Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was being fined for using a homophobic slur against a fan, a commercial for LGBT marriage rights was released featuring Suns All-Star Steve Nash. Last month, the same day Kobe Bryant was caught on camera using the same invective against a referee, Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley were filming a public service announcement where they spoke out against using the word “gay” to mean stupid, dumb, or worthy of disrespect. Last month, when Suns executive Rick Welts became the highest ranking executive to ever come out of the closet, sports radio needed the vapors to recover. When the most famous Phoenix Sun ever, Charles Barkley spoke at length in support of Welts, the media obsessed over his comments that he had gay teammates. Ignored was when he said, “It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
There are two conclusions we can draw from this unprecedented recent collision between the National Basketball Association and the politics of LGBT rights. The first is that the Phoenix Suns organization must be the most gay-friendly workplace on earth: an absolute Shangri-La of rainbows and good vibes. The other conclusion is that while homophobic outbursts are still very much a part of the vocabulary of professional sports, more and more players are saying this is not acceptable. It was beautifully bracing to hear ESPN announcer Mark Jackson sounding legitimately upset during the Oklahoma City Thunder/Dallas Mavericks playoff game on Monday when he heard that Noah’s fine was $50,000, only half of Kobe Bryant’s fine. “That is a human being [Noah] said that to. You don’t speak that way to another human being. Why the double standard?” When told that Noah was being taunted in awful terms by the fan, Jackson said, “Then throw the fan out of the building. Don’t have it come to this.”
The fact that it’s Joakim Noah, of all players, who was caught on camera is in and of itself illustrative. Noah is someone who spoke out against the war in Iraq. He's called for college players to be paid by the NCAA. He put his name to a statement in defense of the Jena 6—African-American teenagers facing decades in prison for a schoolyard fight. I met Joakim Noah and he came across as one of the good guys: a true Jock for Justice. If he would drop an “f-bomb” in the heat of a game, it really says something about how ingrained it is in the language of pro-competitiion.
But history shows that change will come. I recently had the privilege to screen Peter Miller’s documentary Jews and Baseball. The film documents the use of anti-Semitic language against Jewish players in the early decades of the game. It was an all-purpose insult thrown at everyone from hall of famer Hank Greenberg to bench guys. But Jewish players challenged fans and opponents, sometimes with their fists, until it was no longer a part of the conversation. The same story can be told about Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and every player of color who had to hear insults in the heat of athletic battle until a combination of movements in the streets and the attendant political confidence of players made it a memory. Fast–forward to today: we have visible struggles for LGBT rights. Hell, Focus on the Family, just announced that it was throwing in the towel on fighting LGBT marriage saying they’d lost the generation under 30.
It would certainly help in sports if players came out of the closet, and it was not left to straight-supporters like Nash, Hill and company. But one thing is certain: the league can and needs to do much more than just levy fines on players who happen to be caught speaking slurs on camera. NBA Commissioner David Stern, who is a political liberal and a long-time friend of Rick Welts, said of gay rights. "I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue." No kidding. We don't need to see David Stern wave the rainbow flag. And honestly if it didn’t have a swoosh on it, I don’t think he ever would. But the Commissioner could make discussion of homophobia part of every rookie orientation. I’ve been to the NBA’s rookie symposiums and everything is discussed from dealing with women on the road to how to balance your checkbook. How about a discussion that language like that used by Noah and Bryant won’t be tolerated any longer? How about statements from the NBA that if any rookies in the room happen to be gay, the NBA will stand as a workplace where their sexuality won’t only be “tolerated” but embraced? The NBA clearly sees homophobia isn’t good business. But for LGBT fans, writers, players and their families and friends, this isn’t business. It’s personal.