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On Kobe Bryant's Homophobic Slur, And What We Should Make Of It

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Kobe Bryant's Homophobic Slur, 'Othering,' And Hate In Sports

Hate is part of the framework of sports: fake, fun enmity for the away team, or for the in-state rival, or for the other side or the other player, is what allows us to root against teams and players and rejoice when underdogs win. And, thanks to the overlap between athletes and despicable people — which resembles a greater overlap in society — there are authentic villains who get less playful hate: think of Ben Roethlisberger, or Michael Vick. Most sports fans — most people — would like to think they're good at separating the two things.

But what compels Kobe Bryant to call a ref a "f—king f—got," or compels Landon Donovan to call Kings fans "Queen(s) fans" — "hate" in the sense of prejudice and discrimination trickling out with unfunny pejoratives — isn't so different from our traditional sports hate. It's an interest in "othering," in marking someone as different and, usually, weaker, that fuels remarks like those.

Othering is a sociological concept, and it's about reinforcing what a person, group, idea is by setting up an opposition that's different from it. Generally, that's done in terms of good and bad: the pro-life movement calls itself that to other those who believe in abortion rights as anti-life, and abortion rights proponents call themselves pro-choice to make the idea that being anti-abortion is anti-choice more potent. Othering takes place in so many different ways and contexts that it's virtually impossible to not other, fairly, but there are those who try to mitigate their othering, or at least use it to understand rather than to divide.

We use othering in sports all the time. We don't like the Cowboys because they're arrogant enough to call themselves "America's Team," and we're not arrogant; we call Florida's teams the "Gaytors" because HA HA GAY IS WEAK AND LAUGHABLE (and we are strong and funny); we see Tony Dungy's anti-gay rhetoric as archaic, so we call him a bigot to emphasize that we're not. When we define people and things as what we aren't, we enable ourselves to hate people and things without hating ourselves. Othering is insidiously useful like that.

People like Buzz Bissinger and Louis C.K. will tell you "f—got" is a word that gets used to call someone weak, one that has nothing to do with gays, one that works when it's said with love, because they are dividing people who use the word into those who use it right and the other people who use it wrong. (C.K., to his credit, has since been a lot better than that in his show Louie.

I was part of a group of friends in high school who, for a year or so, attached the first half of "f—got" to the ends of surnames as a way of, I dunno, being cute? I was wrong then, and I regret it, but I can't disown it. The friends who used (and use) f—got around me in college don't get me not playing into that, and not playing into "gay" being used to call something dumb or weak or stupid. They're my friends, though, and so I try to admonish rather than cut ties. I know enough gay people who have worried about and struggled with acceptance and know enough about their ongoing struggle for it that I can't imagine calling someone f—got.

But I get that there are probably people who feel comfortable using it. That's fine with me, because I know every person creates and owns a particular reality. Mine involves not writing "his or her particular reality" there because, well, there's more than his or her. Mine involves being upset when sitcoms set up men as dunces with attractive wives or beer commercials make men laughingstocks should they be even one iota feminine. Mine includes a distaste for making women out to be shrews and harpies if they don't subscribe to traditional, typically male-created societal niceties.

And my reality requires me getting angry when people use language to divide and demean. That's what Kobe Bryant did in calling a ref who didn't give him a call in a basketball game a faggot, and that's what Landon Donovan did in calling fans of a team that wasn't his "Queen(s) fans": they set themselves up by knocking others down.

I tweeted my displeasure at Landon Donovan last night — I tweeted him enough times, and apparently angrily enough, to get blocked — and I tweeted about Kobe's slur on Tuesday night. That's what I do when I see things that disgust me: I tweet about them, or, in this forum, write about them. At the very least, I want people to realize why the things they say or write to demean can cause pain and upset; I want them to see how some of the others feel about being othered. As a white, straight, middle-class man in America, I'm not the target of much othering. But I've developed a damn good sense of how people can other.

And Bryant and Donovan both did that, then both apologized lamely, with Bryant saying his remark wasn't intended to be homophobic while Donovan never addressed why his remark might have upset more than Kings fans. (Donovan, to his credit, at least said "I'm sorry.")

Will they both learn from their actions and the reactions to them? I hope so. Donovan has always struck me as a curious person, and one who isn't bound to a closed mind, while Bryant, for his many flaws, has seemed like someone who can learn from mistakes. But the way the average person ensures the untouchable star learns from things like this is by never forgetting them and eventually forgiving.

And so I'll sit here doing my own sort of othering with tweets that curse the darkness — I'm guilty, too — and trying to remedy a need for it with long-form attempts to light candles or turn on mental light bulbs. Why? Because I want people to see other people not as others worth hating but as people worth understanding.


On Kobe Bryant, His Homophobic Slur, And Understanding

Tuesday night during the Lakers and Spurs game, TNT cameras caught Kobe mouthing a homophobic slur in the direction of an NBA referee, and less than 24 hours later, one gay rights organization has already called it a "disgrace" and "horribly offensive."

One day, the word "f—got" will be considered every bit as evil as the word "n—ger" and we can all live happily ever after. Until then, our reality's more complicated.

As the Human Rights Campaign continued in their critique, they explained, "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 [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] 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."

For his part, Kobe offered an explanation. "What I said last night should not be taken literally," he explained. "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."

Meanwhile, the NBA announced late Wednesday afternoon that the league will fine him $100,000. As David Stern said, "While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society."


And here's where we take a step back... The best treatment I've ever seen of hateful language came from South Park, naturally. In their episode about the N-word, they mocked whites' propensity to overreact to isolated incidents of hate speech and then congratulate themselves for false progress. Then, they hit on the fundamental problem unperpinning everything.

"I get it now," Cartman tells his black friend at the end. "I ... don't ... get it. I've been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but, I'll never understand. I'll never really get how it feels to have a black person have somebody use the N-word." It's as simple as that.

This is why South Park owns satire. They can expose the absurdity of racial sensitivity, and, at the same time, explain why we all need to be more sensitive. And all of it applies to the f-word, too.

(The juxtaposition of the two words is particularly funny here. Because if a Steve Nash ever called Kobe the n-word, he might get beaten to death on the spot. But the f-word remains fair game...)

What's the difference, then? On the surface they're the same, but within a cultural context, it's more nuanced. Where everyone grows up learning that it's "horribly offensive" for white people to say the n-word, we haven't gotten there with the f-word.

As Chris Rock once told America, "You don't have to be gay to act like a faggot. You don't even have to be a man to act like a faggot ... It's not the word, it's the context in which the word is being said." To some people, that makes sense. To 17-year old me, that makes sense.

So within a cultural context, it's hard to hate Kobe for what he said. Some people understand the word to be so despicable that saying it in any context is disgraceful, where others (like Chris Rock) can sometimes understand it differently. We haven't gotten to the point where the weight of that word is a shared cultural understanding, the way it is for white people saying the n-word. We'll get there one day, but right now, we should heed South Park's caricature of the way our culture works.

For instance, the NBA fining Kobe $100,000 grand may look like progress, and indeed, it sends a nice statement about what the league stands for. But it's hard to call it progress when A) that kind of language gets used every single night in the NBA, and Kobe's biggest crime was getting caught Or B) If the NBA wanted to take a stand on actual, tangible discrimination that alters lives, then they would look at Donald Sterling long before they get to Kobe.

"The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone," Kobe said. It may have lacked contrition, but it's sincere. 

So while it's good to see people criticizing the language he used and the culture that makes it so accepted (because that's how we change), that's where this should end. Because this just sucks for everyone.

Regardless of what he said Tuesday night, crying homophobia at Kobe or the NBA is just as ridiculous at crying racism toward the white kid that gets caught rapping the n-word. But at the same time, even if Kobe wasn't talking about homosexuals Tuesday night, it doesn't matter. Some homosexuals may have felt the sting regardless, so Kobe will feel the heat.

Both sides feel singled out and unfairly attacked here, and both have good cause.

That why it's such a crappy situation. It'd be a lot more convenient if we could find true evil to ease our understanding here. But for now, reality's more complicated.

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