Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The basketball fan in me is beyond psyched for Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. The sportswriter in me wants every player on these two proud squads adrenalized and at the top of their game this Monday night. The human in me wants the person who’s perhaps been the Pacers’ best player in this series, Roy Hibbert, suspended. In the press conference after the Pacers Game 6 victory, the seven-foot center used an anti-gay slur, saying “no homo.” Here’s the context, which is even worse. Hibbert said, “There was Game 3 here that I felt I let Paul [George] down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting into the paint because they stretched me out so much—no homo [laughs]—but I want to be there for him.” (The Pacers center also called the press “motherfuckers.” Roy was certainly on a roll.)
In every interview I’ve seen, Roy Hibbert seems like a good person. He’s funny, thoughtful and, for what it’s worth, terrific in a cameo on Parks & Rec. But this time no one’s laughing. That “no homo” nonsense is degrading and the league needs to take a stand. The league needs to stand up not only because it degrades the LGBT community. It degrades Hibbert’s colleague, NBA player Jason Collins who came out of the closet last month. It degrades every NBA player who supported Collins and pledged to make the league a more inclusive place. It degrades Golden State Warriors executive—and friend of David Stern—Rick Welts who came out two years ago. Lastly, Roy Hibbert degrades himself. There is no doubt he realizes this. After his press conference, Hibbert reached out on Twitter to Jason Collins, writing, “@jasoncollins34 hey can I get a follow. Would like to discuss something’s with you.”
That’s all good. But the league could send one hell of a message by saying, “We pledged that the NBA would be a safe, nondiscriminatory atmosphere, and even though we recognize how unfair this will seem to Pacers fans and their organization, we are answering to a higher principal. Roy Hibbert therefore will not be playing Game 7.”
If this took place, some would inevitably call it “political correctness run amok.” Nothing energizes some people quite like when their right to dehumanize others is under assault. Then there will be conspiracy theorists who will howl that the NBA took this step because it’s all fixed and the league just wants the ratings boon of LeBron and the Heat in the finals. No doubt that the fan/sportswriter in me will cry out that I’m being denied the game I want to see. But there are kids who kill themselves because of a lifetime of hearing “no homo.” There are others—no doubt Roy Hibbert among them—who think it’s no big deal and say it without realizing their words are weapons. But this is the AJC era (After Jason Collins). It’s time for the league to stop tolerating intolerance. I don’t expect this to happen. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if Jason Collins—a free agent trying to get signed—is asked if Hibbert should be suspended and he says no. But if we are really going to see change, people in the sports world who care about this issue need to stop being silent. I still like Roy Hibbert on and off the court. Everyone makes mistakes. But with mistakes should come consequences. It’s not a game.
* Roy Hibbert has issued an apology for his statements. People can read it here.
After sifting through the responses to this article on Twitter and Facebook, it was stunning how many were homophobic, misogynistic and just stupid as all hell. For some, social media is the white hood of the twenty-first century: a place to be hateful under a mask of anonymity.
The truly thoughtful comments that disagreed with me, some from LGBT athletes, activists and allies, have really made me think. While I still believe it would be a historic statement of principle if the NBA risked its very credibility by suspending Hibbert for a Game 7, there are other steps they could take beyond just punishing Hibbert as an individual. If their response instead was to announce a partnership with the You Can Play group in the manner of the NHL, and set up a formal structure to tackle homophobia in the locker room and set up a support system for closeted athletes, that would be a way to turn this regrettable moment into something positive.
UPDATE: The NBA has announced its fine of Roy Hibbert, and it's $75,000, or roughly what he makes in just under one half of a basketball game. Even worse that the gentleness of the fine is the press release that accompanied it. NBA commissioner David Stern makes no mention of homophobia as a driving reason for the punishment, instead citing "inappropriate and vulgar language," which implies that calling the sports media "motherfuckers" was also a motivation for league action. (Frankly, that statement is far more defensible.) The NBA had an opportunity to say and do something about anti-gay bigotry and draw a line in the sand. They could have announced all kinds of systemic reforms aimed at dealing with this head-on. It would have been a statement not only to the players but also to the ugly minority of so-called "fans" who have been in a homophobic lather over the last twenty-four hours at the mere thought that Roy Hibbert could be punished for dropping a "no homo." They failed the test of this moment and Roy Hibbert has engaged in homophobia in the workplace and in front of a bank of microphones without consequence. Message received. Today, the bold, new world where Jason Collins can be out and proud with full league support is feeling an awful lot like the old world. The fight continues.
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