Kobe Bryant slur: A window into 'last bastion of homophobia'?

Basketball star Kobe Bryant has been fined $100,000 for yelling a homophobic slur at a referee. Some observers say it points to a persistent and deep homophobia in pro sports. Others say too much is being made of a single incident.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (l.) argues with a referee after getting a technical foul during their NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in Los Angeles Tuesday.

When pro basketball superstar Kobe Bryant mouthed a homophobic slur on national television Tuesday, he did more than offend the gay and lesbian community, he gave a glimpse into what one expert calls "the last bastion of homophobia in this country."

Bryant was fined $100,000 by the National Basketball Association Wednesday – a decision Bryant says he will appeal – and gay-rights groups challenged him to back up his apology for the slur with actions. But the deeper question is whether this will become a "teachable moment" about the strongly antigay attitudes that pervade professional sports, says Jarred Chin of the Society for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

“A lot of people are condemning Kobe for this, but it is language that a lot of men use in our society without knowing what it really means and how ignorant and hurtful it is,” says Mr. Chin.

On a nationally televised broadcast, a frustrated Bryant clearly called the referee who gave him a foul and a technical foul a "f-----." Bryant later issued a statement saying that this outburst was a product of frustration and did not reflect his feelings toward gays.

Yet the challenge revealed insidious elements of pro sports culture, says Chin. “When you use that word ... you are calling out that person to prove that they are really a man, and to do that, they have to assert it through physical violence.”

It speaks to the unique ecosystem of professional sports, which has remained largely resistant to the rising American acceptance of homosexuality, say others.

“Professional sports seems to be the last bastion of homophobia in this country; Kobe Bryant’s antigay slur is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Robert Volk, a professor at Boston University’s School of Law with expertise in area of the law and sexual minorities. “A number of professional athletes that came out after they left their sport commented on the impossibility of coming out while a professional athlete, given the extremely homophobic atmosphere, and Bryant’s fine is not enough to change the atmosphere.”

Civil- and gay-rights groups agree.

“If he believes that what he did is wrong, he needs to take action," says Tom Watson, cofounder of Love Honor Cherish, a Los Angeles-based organization that advocates for the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry in California.

"If he’s got time to make ads for Turkish Airlines and Vitamin Water, he’s got time to make public service announcements about gay-bashing,” he adds. “He’s got time to fundraise for gay organizations. He’s got time to use his celebrity to help fix the world that he made a little bit more broken through his comments.”

Some observers, however, say the matter is a single incident that is being played for too much drama by the media.

"Kobe Bryant has reached 'the [Charles] Barkley zone' whereby he doesn't care about the damage he does or foibles he commits. Whether you love or hate him, the slur probably didn't shift you off your position one way or the other,” says Jason Maloni, who chairs the sports and entertainment practice for Levick Strategic Communications. “But observers who are calling this yet another sign that pro athletes are Neanderthals are wrong. It only means one pro athlete is inconsiderate of others and not looking out for his brand."

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