Commentary

The NBA and offensive language

The league took action over a gay slur, but what about the use of the N-word?

Originally Published: April 19, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

The next time Kobe Bryant feels the need to direct a powerful slur at an NBA referee and wants to avoid the recriminations for it, maybe this is what he should do:

Just call him the N-word.

It wouldn't draw nearly as much attention as the anti-gay slur Bryant called referee Bennie Adams in an April 12 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

If Bryant had called Adams, who is black, the N-word, the five-time NBA champion probably wouldn't have been fined $100,000.

He likely wouldn't have had to make a public apology. And it's doubtful that the NAACP or any similar organization would have issued a press release condemning his actions and demanding atonement.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe NBA didn't let Kobe Bryant's gay slur go unpunished.

Of course, I'm overstating it, but it's a point worth making. The N-word is used so frequently on NBA courts that it almost blends in like crowd noise.

And no one seems to be even remotely bothered by it.

Commissioner David Stern did the right thing by fining Bryant so severely for his offensive language. You can't have one of the league's biggest stars saying something so vile.

But if Stern really wants to show that Bryant's fine is about more than just protecting the NBA's brand, he will crack down on players who use the N-word in games, too.

It's bad enough that some black players in the NBA feel so comfortable using it among themselves that they don't bother to edit it out in front of non-black teammates. In too many NBA locker rooms, the N-word is heard so often you might think you're at a Chris Rock comedy show.

Sadly, people have become so accustomed to hearing black people call each other the N-word that it doesn't register when it's said in a game and can be heard from the seats or over the air on a broadcast.

In the Celtics-Heat game on April 10, LeBron James and Jermaine O'Neal got into a scrum after O'Neal hard-fouled James. As I watched players from both teams push, shove and get in each other's faces on ABC's telecast, the microphones pick up what sounded like the N-word several times.

According to NBA spokesman Tim Frank, any NBA player is "subject to discipline if he uses inappropriate language that is heard by fans and/or viewers." Shaquille O'Neal was fined for a profanity in front of a camera, and other players have been fined for cursing at fans.

So, the league rule is strong enough, but I question the enforcement. No players in the Celtics-Heat game were fined, in case you were wondering.

I'm sure some people will think that I'm being uptight and that if black players refer to one another that way, it's no big deal.

That's because some African-Americans foolishly believe that we undermine the N-word's negative power by using it that way.

But to me, by trying to make the word invisible, we make it more powerful than ever.

[+] Enlarge Miami Heat and Boston Celtics
AP Photo/Alan DiazWhen a scuffle between LeBron James and Jermaine O'Neal turned into a bench-clearing shouting match, TV viewers (and listeners) heard more than they needed to.

During the NCAA tournament's national championship ceremony on CBS a few weeks ago, Connecticut star Kemba Walker appeared to say "Damn, n-----" when one of his celebrating teammates leaned into him as Jim Nantz presented the Huskies with the trophy.

Nantz didn't even blink.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The entertainment industry has practically made the N-word mainstream. It's now characterized as a term of affection, and plenty of non-black people have chosen to use it as a term of endearment.

I recently had a conversation with a white friend who admitted that, in high school, she and her white friends called each other the N-word because they wanted to emulate what they heard in rap music. They never saw it as offensive. They saw it as cool.

I'm not here to point fingers at entertainers or turn this into a referendum on rap. I listen to hip-hop, some of which is definitely offensive.

But hearing the N-word in a comedy act, song or movie is different from hearing it while watching a professional basketball game. Movies and music usually are accompanied by a parental warning. When you check out an NBA game, the expectation is that you'll see basketball, not hear slurs.

The fact is, the NBA isn't being responsible by allowing rampant use of the N-word to go unchecked. The game attracts many young fans, and they're learning through the league's apathy that the N-word is just a part of basketball culture.

Besides, let's be real. If a white player ever called a black player the N-word in an NBA game, the outrage would be swift and unfathomable, and Stern would levy a fine just as harsh -- or maybe even harsher -- than the one he gave Bryant. But a black player calling someone the N-word? That apparently isn't news and isn't worthy of a fine or even a reprimand.

It's just another Thursday night in the NBA.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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