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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 f—got, 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.