Commentary

Time to rid sports lexicon of 'cancer'

Updated: November 4, 2010, 7:52 AM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Kevin GarnettBrian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett and Charlie Villanueva have two different versions of what was said Tuesday.

It's time to retire the word "cancer" from sports talk. Send it up to the rafters of the Boston Garden, just like all those old jersey numbers.

We know it's time because we've seen Kevin Garnett's response to Charlie Villanueva's angry tweet that Garnett called him a "cancer patient" during the Celtics-Pistons game Tuesday night. Garnett's statement in which he denied calling Villanueva a "cancer patient" but instead said, "You are a cancer to your team and to the league," lets us know Garnett believes that there is ever an appropriate time to make a cancer reference in sports.

Garnett developed that attitude because those of us in the media set the tone. We use cancer in the most casual ways. Locker room cancer, clubhouse cancer, on and on, as if anything an athlete does to disrupt team harmony is the equivalent of mutating cells that attack bodies from within and take the lives of our loved ones.

I typed "Terrell Owens cancer" into Google's search engine and received 165,000 hits. I didn't have the time to go through all of them, but I'm pretty sure none referenced a diagnosis of the disease or a visit to a children's hospital. Shouldn't Owens take offense? As bad a teammate as he's been at times, he's never killed anyone. More importantly, we should be offended by constant misuse of such a serious word.

As it stands we have two versions of what was said during the game. I've sat courtside at enough NBA games to believe Villanueva's account. Players just don't dish out measured, elongated insults at each other in the heat of the moment as Garnett claims to have done. Now I've heard Garnett go off on extended metaphors during interviews (my favorite was when he compared the people in his life to various components of a salad) but on the court I've never heard him or anyone else issue a lengthy proclamation such as "You are a cancer to your team and to the league."

Again, he probably took this way out because he thought it was safe. We created this avenue for him. If we're going to get upset at Garnett for crossing the trash-talk boundary, then we need to attack the problem at its root.

Since the NBA is in the habit of punishing every statement and gesture players make on the court these days the league might as well institute a special ban for any cancer or disease-related comments. The media can do the policing, just as soon as we clean up our own act.

We can do better as a society. For example, we've advanced past the days when Eddie Murphy made AIDS jokes in his "Delirious" comedy concert without getting called on it. Any comedian who tried the same thing today would get booed off the stage. We can become more respectful. Some people call it political correctness; I call it basic human decency.

I'm not opposed to trash-talking. It's a byproduct of the competition. When done right it's very creative. Just as long as it stays within the boundaries.

So let's drop "cancer" from the sports lexicon -- unless the topic is the zodiac sign. Can you just imagine Garnett yelling, "You embody the worst aspects of a Cancer; you let your emotions override rational judgment"?

It doesn't sound any more out of place than his version of the cancer comment.

Oh, by the way, Villanueva is a Virgo. Study up and have at it, KG.