Foul language: Talking NBA trash talk
Just weeks after Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for yelling an anti-gay slur at an NBA official, Joakim Noah yelled a similar insult at a fan and was hit with a $50,000 fine.
What's going on? Is there too much trash talk? Are cameras too intrusive? Are fans too abusive? Are things getting better?
For this special edition of 5-on-5, we actually have six leading voices, including two former NBA players, addressing the topic:
1. What's your take on the insults by Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: It's shameful that thanks to the NBA's macho culture, its gay players are among the last in America to come out of the closet. Shameful that bullying, complete with these kinds of epithets, drives a high suicide rate among gay teens. Delightful that the NBA wants to be part of the solution. Questionable that fat fines will drive enlightenment.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: It shows how deeply ingrained these words and attitudes are in our culture. Both players said the word came out in the heat of the moment, but if that's their default insult when they're angry, it means they're predisposed to thinking that way. It's an environment where feminine and gay terms are constantly substituted for "weak," and what we've learned from Kobe Bryant to Joakim Noah is that not even the threat of a heavy fine can change that mindset.
Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: When a player wants to retaliate for a bad call or an insult, there's still nothing more emasculating than "f-----." There's something so primal about the way it spews from the mouth like ammunition from an assault rifle. Whether or not the user hates or tolerates gay people, the power of that epithet is just too tempting.
Tim Legler, ESPN: Any types of slurs are extremely hurtful, and you have to be very careful of your language. But if you look at the context in which both of those guys used the words, it was the heat of the moment, and the last thing on their minds was the sexual orientation of that person. I think it was just frustration.
Jalen Rose, ESPN: When NBA players get really upset at someone, they may call him a name that means he's less than a man in order to demean him -- a female dog, a part of a female's anatomy, that sort of thing. What Bryant and Noah were thinking when they used that slur had nothing to do with sexual orientation. Parts of our society have framed gay men as being soft. Each race and each sex has generalizations and stereotypes. What they said was wrong, but Bryant and Noah didn't create that. Unfortunately, they perpetuated it.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: These insults spark a lot of reactions, but sadly, surprise isn't one of them. It's such a routinely used slur on the floor ... and there are so many more.
I can't quite understand how Noah got a lesser fine than Bryant when what he said came after Kobe's incident -- and when it was directed at a fan as opposed to a ref -- but I do sympathize somewhat with the league here. It's clearly not sure how to handle these situations, and I'm right there with it.
Where's the scale that helps us determine which slurs are over-the-line offensive and which aren't? How do you deal with all the harsh words exchanged on the floor that the public never hears? Or that these incidents come to our attention only because a camera is zooming to a place it didn't used to go?
2. What's your take on player-to-player trash talk?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: I'm a huge fan of creative vocalization. Because of the adrenaline and pace, I recognize that taking time to consider what you'll say is impossible, so bring thick skin to this game. However, out there a country mile past basic human decency, when we're talking about cancer patients and moms and sexual orientation ... I put it to you that basketball can be played infinitely hard without that.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Trash-talking between players is a part of the game, and I love the most creative practitioners. But some things, such as family or medical conditions, are strictly off-limits. It's like the difference between allowable contact and a flagrant foul.
Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: Even the most puritanical fans have been amused by the stylings of the league's truly gifted trash-talkers. It can add an interesting psychological element to one-on-one matchups. The problem arises when trash-talk advances beyond the generic into a personal sphere -- attacks on a player's medical conditions, perceived sexuality, origin, etc. That's uncool.
Tim Legler, ESPN: These are grown men, and they're fighting for every square inch. They're fighting for their professional careers, their lives. Certain guys trash-talk more than others, and other instances flare up from time to time. But I think trash talk went on back when they had peach baskets hanging on the walls, and it still goes on today.
Jalen Rose, ESPN: If your trash talk has nothing to do with what's happening on the court -- mom, kids, some trouble you were in off the court -- it's out of bounds. But if it has to do with someone's game, of course you should say something. I want to create doubt within that player's mind and among his teammates. But you also have to be careful that riling someone up doesn't make him play better. Know your target.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I totally understand our idealism here. We're all asking: Why do players have to go so far with their trash talk? But this is athletic competition.
You'd like to think that there are lines that players know they shouldn't cross, but again, these are competitors liable to do (or say) anything they can to get in each others' heads. And how we evolve to the point where some limits of common decency are established is hard to imagine, because the NBA, as we've just seen with the disparity between the Bryant and Noah fines, isn't even sure how to police the incidents we are aware of. Would suspensions really clean up the dialogue and gradually nudge us away from the mindless trash talk about race, appearance, sexual orientation and the like? I'm skeptical.
3. Is it fair to judge players based on what courtside cameras pick up?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: It's fair to judge the league's Q-rating that way, and I'm not sure there's another measure that motivates anyone who matters.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Players have to be aware that these days they're always "on," whether they're stepping off the bus into the arena or relaxing on a beach in Cancun. Someone's always recording them, be it a network camera or a cellphone camera. If it is done in public, it's in play.
Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: Should we implant nanobots into all the NBA players to pick up everything that comes out of their mouths? No. But those courtside cameras allow NBA basketball to be broadcast to billions. If players want to reap the benefits that come with that technology and exposure, they have to deal with the ancillary effects.
Tim Legler, ESPN: No, it's not. It's just something that you come to accept. It's not fair that you have to live differently now because people invade your privacy all the time, but it's the reality. It's not going to get better; it's going to get worse. So you have to be more cognizant about the technology, and you have to make the adjustment.
Jalen Rose, ESPN: The key word in "professional athlete" is professional. Technology has evolved, and more eyeballs means more diligence to behave responsibly is needed from the player and the fan. If someone throws a beer, cameras can catch that. I saw footage of myself getting ejected from a game in 2002, and I've since stopped cursing. As leaders of teams, households, communities, you have to be more disciplined.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Not completely fair, no. Can't lie: I do have some sympathy for the players here, too. We keep going deeper with our cameras, farther and farther onto the field of play, only to be shocked and outraged by what we get sometimes. We can't have it both ways. If we're going to zoom all the way into the paint and onto the bench, we're going to hear things we don't want to hear.
4. What, if anything, can and should be done about abusive fans?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: People sitting near them in the stands should shoot a bunch of video of those fans on their smartphones. Then that video should be shown whenever and wherever it would be most problematic for those idiots.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Abusive fans should be ejected immediately and have their season tickets revoked if they're regular customers. Hold them accountable for their behavior and language. I don't buy that nonsense that buying a ticket gives them free license to say whatever they want. Point 'em out, kick 'em out.
Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: Fans who buy tickets to NBA games aren't entitled to First Amendment rights. The producer of a private event has the right to demand a level of acceptable behavior from its guests. Because the NBA and its franchises host the events, they call the shots. If a fan violates the conduct code, the NBA has every right to show him the door.
Tim Legler, ESPN: If there's one area the league needs to look at, it's the verbal abuse that's directed at players from the stands. Some of the stuff that we listen to crosses the line, and no one ever finds out. There needs to be a more diligent watch in the lower sections, especially around the bench, to make sure that if someone does cross that line, he needs to go.
Jalen Rose, ESPN: The NBA must do a better job of protecting the player -- additional security closer to the court, punishing fans who cross the line. I don't think paying for a ticket means you should be able to demean me. NBA players are at work. I couldn't walk by someone's desk right now and start screaming personal things without any ramifications.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: If we can conclusively identify the line crossers, yes, by all means, punish them as well. As J.A. said, abusive fans should be ejected immediately and face potential bans if they're regular customers when they go too far. Fans, though, have to be willing to police other fans to point out the offenders. Are they?
5. Is the NBA a more civil place than it was the night of the Palace brawl?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Yes. Mostly because, for whatever reason, a huge percentage of the young players who have entered the league in recent years -- Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, etc. -- have been all about hard work and winning.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Can't recall anyone throwing a drink at a player lately, so I guess the arenas are more civil. It can get really ugly on the Internet, though. A lot of Twitter tough guys are out there.
Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: When you think back to November 2004 and how toxic the environment was coming out of Detroit, it's hard not to appreciate where we are today. The game isn't perfect, but when the NBA presents Ron Artest with its Citizenship Award and NBA players record anti-homophobic PSAs, I'd say we're doing OK -- though we can always do better.
Tim Legler, ESPN: You still have that same very small niche of people who go overboard. And even though some of the verbal abuse might have been cut down because of what happened that night at the Palace, you still have people who go there trying to be a part of the game and trying to incite the other team. I still hear it when I go to games with my kids.
Jalen Rose, ESPN: Technological advances have upped the ante. There has been improvement, but there needs to be more. Baseball does a good job of not showing everything. If a fan streaks onto the field, they try not to stress that with footage. In basketball, they show players walking to the bench, exhaling frustration, etc. The ratings are up across the board because of the exciting basketball being played, not the reality-show camera approach.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Yes. Because the league and its players are trying and have been doing a lot of impactful NBA Cares work since 2004 that we're all too quick to ignore in the cynical media. In a lot of ways, though, I think it's largely the same NBA. The difference is that we inch a bit further behind the curtain every year. Which exposes us to more and more of the warts that we all have.
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Henry Abbott, J.A. Adande and Marc Stein are senior writers for ESPN.com. Tim Legler and Jalen Rose, who you can follow on Twitter @jalenrose, are NBA analysts for ESPN. Kevin Arnovitz, who writes for ESPN.com, interviewed Joakim Noah on Monday.