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Accidental foibles often say as much about us as our intentional acts. When faux pas occur, we need not overreact â€" but we should not ignore them or simply chalk them up as "just" aberrations.
Thus in the span of one week this month Kobe Bryant and Tara Sullivan found the media spotlight sweeping over them: Sullivan at the close of the Masters golf tournament she was covering as a reporter, Bryant during a Los Angeles Lakers game against the San Antonio Spurs on the eve of the National Basketball Association playoffs. The reactions have been more illuminating than the moments themselves.
We begin with Bryant because, well, because he is arguably the current face of the NBA. Distraught with an official, Bryant referred to the gentleman on national television with an alliterative homophobic phrase that rhymes with "mucking maggot."
In predictable order, television apologists â€" err, I mean, analysts â€" began parsing Bryant's words to minimize the damage, gay rights groups raised their hackles, Bryant issued a non-apology apology, the NBA announced a $100,000 fine against the player (which he says he will appeal), and the Human Rights Campaign said it accepted Bryant's apology and would work with him to raise sensitivity. Move along folks, we are told, nothing to see here.
Not so fast.
Let's start with the studio "analysis" provided on ESPN almost immediately after the incident. Commentator Ric Bucher said punishing Bryant for the slur was "a slippery slope because this happens all the time." And by that he does not mean that it is frequently broadcast on national television, but that players routinely say it.
(By the by, if you do a Google search for "Kobe Bryant Ric Bucher ESPN," you'll find a pretty slick YouTube video of Bryant wiping snot on Bucher. Hilarious.)
Ahhh, but then Bucher goes further and tells us why it is wrong to object to the phrase. "They refer to it as a homophobic slur," he said, "but I believe it was just meant to be derisive."
To quote Scooby-Doo: "Huh?"
As in not homophobic (mocking, jeering, contemptuous, and politically incorrect), just derisive (mocking, jeering, contemptuous but politically correct)?
Bryant, of course, is a master of the Teflon apology. In having a sexual assault case against him dropped and settling with the woman who accused him of raping her several years back, his mea culpa was, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did." Translation: I did nothing wrong but I will pay you to go away and say we agree to disagree. This go round, he said he was sorry "if I offended anyone." In a later written apology, he said, "The words expressed do not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone."
Hold on to that thought for a moment. Let's turn to the Masters tournament a few days earlier.
Sullivan, a journalist from New Jersey, was walking with her fellow reporters as the golfer they were interviewing headed into the dressing room. The other reporters were allowed in, but an unidentified female security guard barred Sullivan, saying club policy did not allow women reporters in.
No national camera caught it, but this being the instant information age, Sullivan tweeted her plight on Twitter: "Bad enough no women members at Augusta. But not allowing me to join writers in locker room interview is just wrong."
Fellow reporters shared their notes with Sullivan after the incident, club officials apologized, saying the security guard was incorrect and that was not club policy, and say, isn't that green jacket lovely. Move along please, nothing to see here.
Again, not so fast.
The inappropriate action in Augusta and the inappropriate language in Los Angeles did not occur in a vacuum. They were not virgin births spontaneously summoned up from nothingness: they are artifacts of institutionally tolerated or mandated prejudice. The barring of female members is a fiercely defended policy at Augusta; the accidental barring of one female reporter was predictable collateral damage of that policy. NBA Commissioner David Stern says there is no room in the NBA for such language as Bryant used, but "fucking faggot" is a favored and frequently used invective: institutionally tolerated on the bench, in the locker room, on the practice floor and on plane rides, and enabled by fellow practitioners and apathists.
"Just" a mistake by a security guard who used the first policy she could think of. "Just" an excitable utterance in the heat of the game that was the first thing that occurred to a player to say. Nothing "just" about them.
We cannot excuse one because it is so rare and the other because it is so common.
When you reach into the toolbox and the first thing you grab is a useless piece of crap good for nothing, you should throw it away â€" not put it back. Time for the NBA and the Masters to clean out their toolboxes and clean up their behavior.
And not just for the cameras.