Commentary

This Sporting Life: Asterisky Business

Originally Published: August 3, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

A few words this week about words, about language and football and insensitivity. Please note, however, that the language about which we're most sensitive in this case cannot be printed here in full, thanks to recently heightened sensitivities regarding insensitivity.

So, yikes.

Start from the premise that I feel bad for Greg McMackin. Mr. McMackin, 64, is the head football coach at the University of Hawaii. Late last week, at a preseason news conference in Salt Lake City, Mr. McMackin used the word "f*****."

Aloha.

He used the word several times, in fact. First as a modifier to describe a pregame musical-comedy routine done a year ago by the Notre Dame team, as in that "little f***** dance"; and then several more times in a ham-handed effort to get a roomful of sports reporters to retract or ignore his original use of the word.

[+] EnlargeGreg McMackin
AP Photo/Marco GarciaGreg McMackin pledged to return seven percent of his salary prior to uttering gay slurs at WAC media day. How is the giveback penance?

So, backpedaling like a Cirque du Soleil unicyclist, having already used the slur, he then continued to use the slur while asking it be forgiven and forgotten that he's still using the slur. A perfect black comedy routine, in other words, a double-helix of futility, Ralph Kramden in Hell. Hammana-hammana-hammana.

(That a roomful of sports reporters laughs at each recurrence of the word -- whether nervously, admiringly or on the assumption that they're seeing a Division I football coach set himself metaphorically ablaze -- does the press box no honor. God forbid anyone, you know, actually stand up for anything. My colleague LZ Granderson did, and had an excellent column about that very phenomenon last Friday.

Let's be clear before we go on that this word, "f*****," is a slur, is a crude blunt instrument of language used to hurt, and is, in and of itself, undeniably hateful. Whether or not it's the gender equivalent of "n*****" I can't say. There's no consensus on the matter. It certainly seems so. Especially insofar as its power and its ugliness and its use as a kind of rhetorical jiujitsu within the very community it is most often used to denigrate. But as Chris Rock asks, is it OK for a white person to use the word "n*****?" Not really. Is it OK, therefore, for a straight person to use the word "f******?" Not really.

Now take a breath.

Think of it this way:

If Mr. McMackin had used the word "n*****" instead of the word "f*****", he'd have been fired before he stepped away from the podium.

So, yes, I feel bad for Greg McMackin, undone in public by his own clueless ignorance and insensitivity.

But the bone-deep homophobia of the football locker room is well known to anyone who's ever walked into one, from Pop Warner to the pros, so none of this should come as a surprise.

Now I don't doubt for a moment that Mr. McMackin is a very nice man who meant no hurt to anyone. But Mr. McMackin is also the perfect product of his lifetime environment, a genial boob in the moral and cultural vacuum of football who can't imagine a world in which the word "f*****" used as an adjective would ever trouble anyone.

(It is perhaps important to note right here that Mr. McMackin is Hawaii's highest paid educator. At $1.1 million a year, he is in fact Hawaii's highest-paid state employee, outpacing the governor, paycheck to paycheck, by a ratio of almost 9 to 1.)

Following a university "investigation" into the matter that lasted a day comes the punishment. First laid out late Friday night in all its glorious inadequacy by our own Graham Watson here.

So a month's suspension and month's salary forfeited. Except that the coach is going to "volunteer" to work with the team for those 30 days, and he was going to take a seven percent reduction in pay anyway. I was vexed.

So I swapped e-mails over the weekend with Jim Donovan, the university's athletic director. Q and A:

How is a suspension in which the coach is still coaching the team -- even on a voluntary basis -- to be considered a suspension?

"Coach McMackin received a 30-day suspension without pay, one of the most serious actions in the disciplinary-step process. Because this is official discipline, it will be entered into Coach McMackin's personnel record. When notified of the 30-day suspension, Coach McMackin offered to work without pay, because he did not want the team or the university to be punished for his mistake. In my 20+ years as a manager and administrator at the university, no other employee has requested to work without pay. After checking with our compliance officer regarding NCAA rules and university attorneys regarding Coach McMackin's request, I agreed he could work as a volunteer (without pay) during the 30-day period. Effectively, the 30-day suspension without pay is recorded permanently in his personnel file, and it is a significant monetary penalty."

Wasn't Coach McMackin already in line for the salary reduction you describe? In what way is a previously agreed-upon pay reduction any kind of a penalty?

"Coach McMackin has a contract that does not require that he participate in any university or state-wise reduction in pay. However, prior to the WAC Media Press Conference, Coach McMackin had made a public pledge to participate, voluntarily, in a reduction in pay because of the economic situation facing the university. On Friday, July 31st, Coach McMackin voluntarily agreed to take a 7% reduction in his annual salary, and we decided to clarify that amount at the press conference. You can request a copy of Coach McMackin's contract via a 92F request to check for yourself that there is no language in his contract that could compel him to participate in a reduction in pay."

Do you believe that what the coach said was actually wrong? Or are you "punishing" him in this manner simply because it seems like he needs to be punished?

"Coach McMackin violated official university policies and that is the reason for this disciplinary action."

I'd like to thank AD Donovan for taking the time over an August weekend, and a busy one no doubt, to answer my questions so graciously and honestly.

The way I break down the punishment then, is this:

  • Coach McMackin is forfeiting one month's pay, which is $91,666.
  • The pay cut of seven percent should not be counted as part of the penalty because, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, he was willing to accept the reduction before the incident ever happened.
  • If he's still coaching the team for those 30 days, even on a "voluntary" basis, then the "suspension" is no suspension at all. I understand the impulse not to punish the athletes, not to penalize the team, but to live up to the anti-discrimination policy of the University of Hawaii, maybe that's what has to be done.
  • Still, the coach is out 92 grand, and the university has to spend the entirety of its late summer putting out public relations fires. You can choose to feel bad for everybody involved.

    A couple of thoughts here, mid-column, to anticipate the comments thread before we get there:

    • For those who misunderstand the First Amendment, a reminder that the coach exercised his right to free speech, as may we all. But he also bears the responsibility for what he said. Each of us has the freedom to say what we like and to suffer the consequences for having done so.
    • For those who'll complain about the intrusion of "political correctness," or "the PC Police" on their right to use certain words or phrases in certain ways: most of those arguments are a crock, and the people making them are mostly bullies in life or online who don't want their favorite weapons taken out of their hands. There's a genuine discussion to be had in this country about the nature and evolution and responsibility of language, and about the changing dynamics of cultural relations. But some of the folks you see hiding behind anonymous screen names online aren't interested in the nuances of those arguments. They just don't want to lose their right to be gratuitously cruel.
    • Don't think for a minute that I don't understand how weird and Orwellian it is that I can't use in this piece the very words under discussion. By the time you read this, there will have been a long, awkward negotiation over which number of asterisks or dashes placed in what order can indicate the offensive language without actually giving offense. This, I think, is as much an impediment to understanding one another as it is a sop to corporate correctness. Because the point being made by that timidity isn't that there's some human moral standard to which the company must now at last adhere, but that there's a corporate fear of liability to be accounted for. We don't want to get sued, and we want to protect the brand. Which, ironically, is one of the things that holds back the frank discussion of language that might eventually liberate us all. This I believe. Ergo, I get it.
    • I also get that this little sports column plays out in tandem or in parallel with things like our government's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" intolerance; of Ann Coulter making her bones by knee-jerking our bigotry; of Proposition 8 breaking hearts coast to coast; and of this terrible, terrible weekend in Israel.

      I don't want Mr. McMackin punished for society's larger troubles any more than I want Prof. Henry Louis Gates or Sgt. James Crowley to bear sole racial responsibility for every inflexible cop or every hotheaded homeowner with an ego. The Gates/Crowley matter is in its way a reflection of the same civic problem -- intolerance. And whether you believe it's the intolerance Crowley showed Gates, or the intolerance Gates showed Crowley -- or the knuckleheaded intolerance Coach McMackin showed about lives different than his own -- it all gets you to the same place.

      So Ecce homo, y'all. Behold the man. And the banality of his every prejudice.

      Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

ALSO SEE