Hello! I hope this finds you well and enjoying spring, as well as the best time of year for professional basketball fans—the playoffs! I have my favorite NBA teams and will be following with interest.
But, as always, it is difficult to separate the game of basketball from the business of basketball– and even from the society in which it is played. That has become painfully apparent this week. The most compelling NBA headlines haven’t been about who gets the #2 seed in the West or the impact of Ginobili’s elbow injury or the resurrection of the Bulls with another star guard, this time named Rose. No, the most-talked about headlines have been your fines against Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.
You fined Phil Jackson and the Lakers organization $75,000 apiece for talking out of turn about a potential lock-out next season. That’s the business side of basketball. Then you fined Kobe Bryant a cool $100,000 for his tirade against an official that contained a slang term for homosexual persons that you deemed out of bounds. That’s the intersection of basketball and society.
In reference to what has largely been reported as a “gay slur”, you said, “While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society.” In a number of follow-up interviews since, you have also talked about how quickly you were contacted by gay advocacy groups, about the league’s commitment to taking a stand against bullying based on sexual orientation or other things.
I applaud the NBA’s desire to be a positive role model and to even use the popularity of your game and stars to exert positive pressure on important issues. I think that’s a part of being a good corporate citizen. You do have a certain moral responsibility. Thank you for that impulse.
However, you’re not going far enough in your battle against terms that are “distasteful….insensitive or derogatory”. It probably seems unrealistic to ask you to reign in the profanity that flows from the mouths of the players and can be clearly heard by the excellent microphones that your broadcast partners place all over the court. Most games “feature” a pretty steady stream of the worst sort of vulgarities that watching children and teenagers hear.
But I want to get even more specific. Just so you know, there are thousands of fans who watch your game who live with a life-defining, identity-shaping commitment to Jesus Christ. We find the constant curses using God’s name from many of your coaches and players to be “distasteful… insensitive and derogatory.” When a member of an NBA team yells out “Jesus Christ”, it is not a prayer that the ball will go in the hoop. It is using as an expletive the name of one that many of us see as the beautiful Center of our life and our identity. Then there is the big one- “God d _____” — which is an awful curse that both libels God and degrades a human being who is God’s precious creation.
Here’s the thing. If a player or coach began using white supremacist taunts on the court, I have no doubt you would act with swift justice. If a member of an NBA team regularly made anti-Semitic (or even anti-Muslim, Mohammed-mocking) statements in press conferences, the fines would fly fast and furious. (The league fined Dennis Rodman for a slap at Mormons in Utah a few years ago) If a referee were of Middle Eastern heritage and a player lashed out calling him a terrorist, you would not stand silent. Why? Those are forms of offensive speech that “have no place in our game or society”.
Why, then, have you deemed it perfectly acceptable to condone by silence for this speech that is offensive to people of Christian faith? These are people who love and follow the game, and are as much a part of the society you want to positively impact as the gay people you acted to defend this week.
Again, you were right to act. But integrity means you cannot be selective about which identities you protect and which groups you avoid offending. You can’t choose the offense at all; the offense is in the eyes and ears of the offended.
Now, we don’t have paid lobbyists or communication directors with access to your office hotline so we can gripe and complain. We’re just ordinary people who love basketball. But we love Jesus more. And we would like to enjoy the games and not have what we hold precious slapped around and treated as insignificantly as the sweat rags that mop the floors after players collide and fall.
It’s almost Easter, Mr. Stern. Christians mark this week because we believe that Jesus died to bear a curse for us, and rose again to give us life—all out of sheer love and mercy. We’re celebrating the good news that because of who Jesus is and what He did, people’s hearts and behavior can be transformed from the inside out. That’s the only way we get a better, more kind and just world.
I’m not insisting that you believe that (though I would encourage you to consider Jesus’ claims) I’m just asking you to realize that curses using Jesus and God are deeply offensive to a lot of people who follow your league– and that they really have no place in our games or our society.