Adam Silver needs to give himself a mulligan.
The NBA commissioner has proven that he is tough on hate speech by anyone involved in the league; he proved that with his actions in the Golden State and Atlanta ownership situations.
That’s why he needs to revisit the one-game suspension handed to Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo for using a homosexual slur against referee Bill Kennedy in a Dec. 3 game against the Boston Celtics in Mexico City.
The suspension was never long enough—imagine if a white player had used a racial slur against the African-American Kennedy—but subsequent actions have made it even worse. First, the incident prompted Kennedy, an 18-year veteran, to acknowledge that he is, in fact, gay.
“I am proud to be an NBA referee, and I am proud to be a gay man,” Kennedy told Yahoo Sports. “I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.”
That, though, is exactly what Rondo intended to do. Despite the best efforts of Jason Collins and John Amaechi, the NBA doesn’t have a single openly gay player, and until Monday had never had an openly gay male referee.
The math doesn’t work—there are too many players for all of them to be heterosexual—so when Rondo or any other player uses homosexual slurs with little or no punishment, it puts more pressure on any gay player to stay in the closest. After all, if being called gay is insulting to someone who isn’t gay, what would they think of someone who actually is a homosexual?
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is one of the few people in the NBA who has been willing to call out Rondo and the people who use the same kind of language.
“Why would I be surprised? You see it all the time,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s unfortunate. It’s disgusting. Bill is a great guy. He’s been a class act, on and off the court.
“As far as anybody’s sexual orientation, it’s nobody’s business. It just shows ignorance. To act in a derogatory way toward anybody in the LBGT community doesn’t make sense. But surprised? Of course not.”
Rondo “apologized” on Twitter, in a way almost as insulting as his original comments. His comment, broken up over two tweets, said, “My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period! They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.”
My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period!
— Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo) December 14, 2015
They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.
— Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo) December 14, 2015
There are three sentences, all of which have major problems.
- Apparently, when Rondo is frustrated, the first insult that pops into his mind has to do with sexual preference. That’s not a good sign.
- Using homosexual slurs absolutely does reflect his feeling toward the LGBT community—he’s using membership in that community as an insult.
- If Rondo thought Kennedy was gay, he clearly meant to offend him. If he didn’t think that, he clearly meant to disrespect him.
There’s good reason to believe that Rondo knew exactly what he was doing when he leveled the slur at Kennedy. Kennedy has famously not gotten along with Doc Rivers over the years, and disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy claimed in 2010 that the official’s sexuality was the cause.
“It was no secret that he’s a homosexual,” Donaghy said of Kennedy. “It was known around the league, it was obvious during a game Doc Rivers questioned his sexual orientation, and I think that has stuck with Kennedy over the years, and he has no love for Doc Rivers and the Boston Celtics.”
In 2010, when Donaghy made those remarks, Rondo was an All-Star point guard for Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Both Rivers and Kennedy have denied the event ever took place, and Donaghy’s reputation is not exactly stellar, but the story has been circulating around the NBA for at least five years, tying Kennedy’s sexual preference to Rondo’s team and coach.
At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t matter if Rondo knew Kennedy was gay or not. What matters is his decision to use homosexuality as something to be mocked and insulted.
Silver’s one-game suspension wasn’t enough, but perhaps the next step needs to be taken by the Kings instead of the league. They were also quick with an apology:
“Rajon’s comment was disrespectful and offensive, and we wholeheartedly disapprove of any language that discriminates or disparages others based on sexual orientation or anything else,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said in a statement. “Rajon has apologized, and this is not the sort of behavior we condone nor is it representative of the Sacramento Kings organization.”
The Kings can, as much as any other NBA team, point to a serious record of inclusion. After all, they have Nancy Lieberman on the bench as an assistant coach, making her not only the second female assistant in the league but one that has dealt with questions about her own sexual preferences throughout her career.
If Rondo got angry with Lieberman during a practice and used a homosexual slur against her, would the Kings take action? If not, why not? If they would, why would they be OK with Rondo using it against a referee in the same position?
The Kings have taken a positive step by making Lieberman an assistant coach. Now they need to back that up with serious action against a player who is taking the entire league in the wrong direction.