Kobe Bryant’s use of an anti-gay slur wasn’t an isolated incident; it’s still all too common in our society today.
From January through April of 2011, I taught an undergraduate course at the University of Michigan called “Cultures of Basketball.” The experience was much more than I bargained for. I hadn’t planned on keeping a diary of the course, but having written the first entry just as a means to cope with the surprising emotional intensity of the first day of class, I found myself eagerly maintaining the practice throughout the semester.
The event that prompted the entry below occurred in April 2011. Most basketball observers have probably forgotten it by now. And I would be fine with that, except that the culture that engenders such events remains alive and well, as does the tendency in our culture to be lazy in our use of language. We don’t think enough about words: ”So and so will never be the Man;” “so and so is soft;” “so and so is a bitch.” Whatever we are trying to evoke with these metaphors (and others that we use thoughtlessly every day)—that a player shies away from the spotlight, that a player should be more aggressive in the lane, that a player acts entitled—none of these situations or attributes stems from or relates in any meaningful way that I can discern to gender, but the language we use is gendered. And so, in addition to being hurtful, it is sloppy and uncreative. In every sense, it quite literally diminishes our humanity. I don’t want to police speech, or thought. I wanted in class and I want with this essay to provoke it.
Day 20: Thursday, April 14, 2011
No clever pictures today. I don’t feel like it. I wasn’t going to write about this. In fact, I wasn’t going to write again until after our tournament next Wednesday. I’m tired. But it came up in class and it came up in a way that made me feel compelled to call some students out. And that’s made me feel compelled to write about it here too. I’m talking about Kobe Bryant hurling an anti-gay slur at a referee during the Lakers game against the Spurs on Tuesday night and the events and media coverage that have ensued since.
The room was already pretty riotous when I walked in to start. Our tournament jerseys had arrived and I was as excited as the students to check out my black dri-fit tee-shirt. One player brought donuts (or at least he was the one passing them out when I walked into the room). Students were wearing a variety of basketball jerseys because it was wear-a-jersey-day in class. And, they were stoked, laptops out, to watch Youtube videos (which, by the way, for those unfamiliar with FreeDarko’s history of the NBA) is a legitimate use of class time since the final chapter of our textbook deals with the democratization of the NBA archive and of hoops memory via youtube.
I put on my tournament jersey and sat on the teacher’s table at the front of the room (I’ve come a long way from the insanely nervous wreck I was on the first day), when one of the students suggested we talk about the Kobe incident. The student in question is a pretty sincere kid, but he also likes to needle and in this case I think he both wanted to talk about it and to needle the Laker fan in class, which fan was promptly spotlighted to give his opinion on the matter.
I’ve got to be honest here. I can’t remember precisely what he said. And I think that’s because I wasn’t really listening to him. Or to the two or three other students who chimed in before I gave my opinion. I mean I heard them, but I wasn’t really listening because I was already thinking of what I wanted to say (and confident that no student was going to say it). I know, I know. That’s absolutely horrific pedagogically. There’s an explanation, but no good excuse and I’m sorry.
I can say that nobody said anything offensive. Nobody thought it was “no big deal.” Everybody seemed to think that Kobe ought to apologize and the $100,000 fine levied by the NBA was merited. There was a bit of discussion back and forth on the points that the mainstream sports media has raised: 1) the incident occurred in the heat of the moment point, and 2) that sports icons are held to a higher standard.
Those two points can and have been combined in different ways: e.g. I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, BUT Kobe’s a sports icon and is held to a higher standard and out to know better; or I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, but if I said it at my job, I’d be fired—sports icons should be held to the same high standard. But however they are combined, when those are the terms of the discussion, a gaping hole is left where something much more direct and pointed should be.
Let’s pretend that at this point in our class discussion, stymied by the limited terms offered them by the media, my students had pleaded: “Yago, Professor, Professor Yago, help us out of this bind, this whole thing has made us feel dirty and uncomfortable, but we aren’t sure how to think our way through those feelings. We feel weird because any of us might say some asshole things and we know it’s not okay and it shouldn’t be but, Christ, we’re only human and sometimes, well, shit comes out.” That’s what I pretended.
I told them that what I think about the incident is that everyone’s energy (and money) ought to go toward examining how something like this happens. As far as I can tell, I said, nobody is claiming Kobe Bryant is a vitriolic homophobe in his daily life. In fact, it’s been pointed out that he’s not, which seems to have been invoked as a reason to stop talking about what happened (see “the heat of the moment” meme above). But from my point of view that’s all the more reason why this incident, lamentable as it is in so many ways, is a superb talking and teaching opportunity.
The issue to me, I said, is not whether Kobe should have said what he said, nor is it how he should be punished, nor even what he should have said afterward. Kobe, I said, was feeling angry and frustrated in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation and he lashed out. That, I feel safe in saying, can happen to anyone.
But, like most of us, in lashing out he gave voice to sentiments or stereotypes (you can say unconscious material if you want) that he might not normally even be aware of harboring, let alone willing to express. What interests me, I said, is to use this moment as a way to put the spotlight on how those ideas—how the words Kobe used—got deposited in his mind in the first place, and how they got associated in his mind with anger, insult, and disrespect.
I’m not trying to be mysterious or coy here. Nor do I think I’m saying things that haven’t been said before (though I certainly haven’t heard it discussed enough during my brief foray into the sports media world). The issue, I was trying to say to my students, is that we all participate in a culture and a society that casually uses “gay” (and related terms) as a synonym for “stupid,” “unworthy,” “overemotional,” etc.—in short, that casually uses “gay” as an insult. What’s really shocking, given how widespread this unacceptable discourse is (especially in the generally hyper-masculinist culture of pro sports), is that we haven’t caught more players doing what Kobe did the other night.
All semester I’ve been reading these students (mostly white males) write moving reflections on the struggles by women and African-Americans to be allowed to play the game on the same court as white males. And I want them to see that this is an issue much like those. That gay rights are an issue being fought on many fronts simultaneously: in government and in the courts, to be sure; in the streets as part of political actions, certainly; in art and culture. But also in lunch rooms and dorm rooms, and locker rooms and bars: basically anywhere that we are. If nothing else, in other words, we can fight this issue in our own hearts and minds and in our own use of speech.
We can be conscious that not that long ago it would have been acceptable for a white person to use the N-word as an insult. And we can recall that that language was linked to a host of forms of material injustice and psychological harm. We can think about why there are (a few) African-Americans in our classroom, and (a few) women in our classroom, but not one openly gay student. We can think about why in the history of men’s professional basketball in this country only one player has ever come out as gay, and then only four years after his retirement. And we can think about whether our own behavior explicitly or implicitly contributes to that situation. And then we can choose to fight to change it, even if only by speaking up whenever we hear the word “gay” casually used as an insult.
Honestly, I don’t feel particularly informed on these issues. I don’t know if it’s historically or philosophically legitimate to compare the struggles of African-Americans and women with the struggles of gays in this country. But I don’t think that I should wait until I feel fully informed, armed with knowledge, certain of every detail, to speak from my heart.
I’m just – I was just in class — trying to say that it breaks my heart that people of whatever age who are gay, or lesbian, or trans, or genderqueer in any way whatsoever (and I’m sorry if I’m too ignorant to properly recognize all possible modalities and the preferred nomenclature) ever have to feel shunned or ashamed, let alone hated. It’s just so so wrong and so so sad.
Maybe I stopped talking then. I’m not sure. Like I said, it was a pretty raucous day in our little classroom. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that one student – I don’t know who – said to another “you’re probably gay” or something along those lines. Whatever it was, it prompted the other student to act out some clumsy mimicking of a “fairy” before flipping the first student off. People laughed.
I wanted to cry. I felt so uncomfortable. Maybe I should’ve let myself cry. I think I’ve made more than clear in this blog how much I care about these students, how much I respect and admire and appreciate them. I’ve had precious few occasions to call them out over the course of the semester, and certainly none on an issue for me so emotionally charged as this one.
It’s a bit of a blur, but I think I said something like: “Hold up. Look, I don’t want to be an asshole, or to police anybody’s speech. But I gotta call you out on this. What just went down is exactly what I’m talking about. I know you were joking around, but joking around in that way reinforces the idea – in all our minds – that ‘gay’ is an insult. It’s not an insult. You don’t have to defend yourself against it. This is not just about gay people. It’s about collectively defending our freedom to be fully who we are as human beings. Finally, you just shouldn’t use it that way. It’s ignorant and wrong and you are smarter, better people than that.”
Maybe saying that would be really obvious to some of you. But I have a hard time calling people out and that goes at least double in this class. Too quick to even be a thought, really, I felt that teaching in this moment meant calling them out, however uncomfortably, and inarticulately, and probably lamely I did it. However little it probably stuck. Today, I’m glad I said something. I think I’d feel terrible today, ashamed really, if I hadn’t. One of the students, I noticed, nodded and seemed to smile quietly to himself.
I don’t care about the issues I’ve seen most people discuss in relation to this incident. To me, they complicate and ghettoize the whole thing. To me, it’s simpler than all this: Kobe was wrong and hurtful in a way that expressed almost perfectly the way that American society (I include myself and my students) is wrong and hurtful on this issue, and anything that isn’t primarily about making that the topic of conversation feels like a waste of an opportunity. We can villify Kobe or exonerate him, but the more time we spend talking about his behavior the less we spend examining—let alone changing—our own.
Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson