Kobe Bryant Hurls Slur, Apologizes
Basketball star Kobe Bryant got so carried away in an April 12 game that he hurled an anti-gay epithet a referee--strictly in the heat of the moment, he later said, issuing a statement that his having called the ref a "fucking faggot" did "NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities."
But GLBT equality groups wanted more of an apology--and called the outburst a "teaching moment" for sports fans, especially among the youth.
Bryant’s team was playing the San Antonio Spurs when the player was tagged for a technical foul. Bryant took his place on the bench and then, in an outburst that was caught on camera by TNT, hurled the epithet at the referee. Kobe’s words were not audible, but he appeared to mouth "fucking faggot."
TNT announcer Steve Kerr caught the slur and commented that the cable channel "might want to take the camera off him right now, for the children watching."
It was a matter of hours before the footage was online at TMZ and YouTube and equality groups were calling for an apology.
On April 13, the Human Rights Campaign issued its demand for an apology from Bryant and a statement from Bryant’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
"What a disgrace for Kobe Bryant to use such horribly offensive and distasteful language, especially when millions of people are watching," the organization said in a statement. "Hopefully Mr. Bryant will recognize that as a person with such fame and influence, the use of such language not only offends millions of LGBT people around the world, but also perpetuates a culture of discrimination and hate that all of us, most notably Mr. Bryant, should be working to eradicate.
"Bryant and the Lakers have a responsibility to speak up on this issue immediately," The HRC continued. "America is watching."
At that time, no statement from Kobe or from the Lakers had been forthcoming.
Later in the day, however, Bryant addressed the issue. "What I said last night should not be taken literally," Bryant said in a statement. "My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone."
The statement was not enough to satisfy equality groups, who renewed calls for an apology and for the Lakers to speak up on the issue.
"For better or worse, Kobe Bryant has created a teachable moment for the millions of fans--many of them young--who saw that outburst on the floor," Joe Solmonese, the head of the HRC, said. "And the right thing to do now is to apologize and take responsibility for suggesting that the worst thing you can do to someone is to scream out a gay slur.
"This kind of homophobic outburst has dangerous consequences, even more so when it comes from a celebrity in the national spotlight," Solmonese added.
Media watchdog group the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) also jumped into the fray.
"Discriminatory slurs have no place on or off the court," the president of the organization, Jarrett Barrios, said in an April 13 media release. "Professional sports players need to set a better example for young people who use words like this on the playground and in our schools, creating a climate of intolerance and hostility.
GLAAD has recently worked with hockey teams to counteract anti-gay chants from fans. The group has also pressed for greater awareness of GLBT issues among the WWE’s wrestlers and announcers. Two incidents involving anti-gay epithets drew GLAAD’s attention to the WWE. In February, wrestler John Cena taunted Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with a homophobic rap; two weeks later, announcer Michael Cole tweeted the word "faggot" to fellow announcer Josh Matthews.
Another imbroglio in the sports world erupted when Sepp Blatter, the head of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) sparked a firestorm with a joke that gay soccer fans headed to Qatar in 2022 for that year’s World Cup would have to refrain from having sex while in the predominantly Muslim country.
Calls for Blatter’s resignation ensued. In the end, Blatter issued an apology, but did not step down.
"The LA Lakers have a responsibility to educate their fans about why this word is unacceptable," Barrios added in the April 13 statement on Bryant’s outburst.
Later in the day, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, David Stern, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the slur, and announced the Bryant would face a fine of $100,000.
"Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable," Stern stated. "While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000.
"Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society."
The HRC responded immediately, praising Stern and calling once again for Bryant "to apologize [and] to take full responsibility for the homophobic slur."
"We applaud Commissioner Stern and the NBA for not only fining Bryant but for recognizing that slurs and derogatory comments have no place on the basketball court or in society at large," Solmonese said. "We hope such swift and decisive action will send a strong and universal message that this kind of hateful outburst is simply inexcusable no matter what the context."
GLAAD also weighed in on Stern’s announcement.
"The NBA has sent a clear message to sports fans everywhere that anti-gay slurs have no place in the game," Barrios stated. "When such a prolific cultural institution like the NBA speaks out against hateful words, we are reminded that fair-minded Americans are siding with equality for all.
"This decision will serve as an important precedent that will help ensure a safer, more inclusive environment for fans and players everywhere, and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with the NBA."
Other outlets were reporting on the situation as well. SportsGrid.com took a somewhat different view in an April 13 posting.
"It would be nice if everyone could treat one another with respect, compete hard but clean, etc., etc.," the article read. "But it would also be a complete fantasy world. And that’s why, while not condoning it, no one should be surprised at what Kobe said."
SportsGrid.com compared Bryant’s slur to an April 11 comment from Detroit Pistons player Charlie Villanueva, who declared, after an on-court scuffle with Cleveland Cavaliers player Ryan Hollins, "I will kill that dude."
"In the heat of the moment, comments that would normally be a cause for great concern get uttered all the time," the SportsGrid.com article noted. "So while we shouldn’t just completely brush it off when someone says something like what Kobe appeared to say last night, and we shouldn’t act like it’s a good thing to say things like that, we also can’t be surprised when it happens (and we shouldn’t be surprised we’re exposed to it when we, say, focus the camera on Kobe right after something bad happens)," the article added.
"No one reaches Kobe’s level of competitive excellence by being nice--especially not when they feel like they’ve been slighted--and it’s unrealistic to expect that anyone would."
The mainstream media had also picked up on the story, with CBS News reporting on the fracas, the fine, and the calls for an apology. CBS cited TMZ as reporting that Bryant intended to appeal the fine.
By the day’s end, just before heading out onto the court once again, Bryant apologized to Solmonese in the course of a phone call.
"I applaud Kobe Bryant for his swift apology," Solmonese stated following the phone exchange. "We had a very sincere conversation in which he expressed his heartfelt regret for the hurt that his words caused. He told me that it’s never ok to degrade or tease, and that he understands how his words could unfortunately give the wrong impression that this is appropriate conduct.
"At the end of a difficult day, I applaud Kobe for coming forward and taking responsibility for his actions," Solmonese added.
As reported by CBS News, Bryant went forward with an appeal to try to have the fine rescinded, reported Advocate.com on April 14. Bryant told an ESPN program that an appeal was "standard protocol," but nonetheless said that he had been wrong to hurl homophobic abuse.
"The comment that I made, even though it wasn’t meant in the way it was perceived to be, is nonetheless wrong, so it’s important to own that," Bryant said on the Mason & Ireland Show. "The concern that I have is for those that follow what I say and are inspired by how I play or look to me as a role model or whatever it is, for them not to take what is said as a message of hate or a license to degrade or embarrass or tease. That’s something I don’t want to see happen.
"It’s important for me to talk about that issue because it’s OK to be who you are, and I don’t want this issue to be a part of something or to magnify something that shouldn’t be," Bryant added.