How should we deal with Noah’s comments?


May 23

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I probably shouldn’t write this column for a few reasons. One is I cannot say just about all the words I’d like to in order to make my point, though that’s also probably the point of writing it in, anyway.

The day off between Games 3 and 4 in Miami Monday was a lot less interesting to most of the media, as often happens midway through a series, than Joakim Noah’s homophobic accusation, which cost him a $50,000 fine by the NBA later Monday.

It probably was a bit of a break for Derrick Rose as well since the hungry beast known as the media needs some bones to pick over after a loss. The MVP with two points in the fourth quarters of the last two games, both Bulls losses, would have been the carcass to chew on. But, instead, it was Noah for a chance to widen the playing field to a morality play.

Noah addressed his blunder with reporters in an exceptionally long session, accommodating three or four waves of media asking basically the same question over and over until a top NBA staffer pleaded, “OK, guys, give Joakim a break.”

Noah was appropriately contrite, embarrassed and hardly running away from it. He said he was wrong and deserved the punishment. He said he was equally ashamed that he may have proven a distraction to his team at such an important time with Game 4 Tuesday and the Bulls trailing 2-1.

He hardly was minimizing his behavior and was hoping that he would be forgiven.

We all know this is a different media time, especially for celebrities, unusually intrusive, and I already wrote after Sunday night’s game that I feel the use of microphones at the bench and in huddles seems unnecessary and more likely to produce an aberration than any true insight.

That said, and Noah wouldn’t let anyone make an excuse for him even as teammates said Noah was being bombarded with slurs about his mother, Noah shouldn’t have said what he did even if he didn’t mean it that way.

We all learn this eventually, and I did as well at about Noah’s age. It’s hardly unusual, especially when angry or emotional, to repeat something you’ve heard said without even thinking about or understanding the meaning.

Just because we treat them and pay them like adults and professionals does it always mean they are capable of acting that way? No, excuse, I know, for even kids are taught, or should be, to know better.

I remember being in a car accident, hit from behind, and stopping. The guy behind got out. There was glass on the road from where my friend’s tail light was broken. I was a passenger. The driver said it wasn’t him, that the light already was broken. We said there’s glass on the road. He said it already was there. And began to get in his car to leave.

So I called him one of those street names with “mother” as a prefix that you hear people, mostly kids, just say. I still hear it on the El in general conversation. The guy turned and headed for me, very, very angry. Fortunately it was decades ago. If it were today he’d probably have had a gun. He said to not talk about his mother.

I paused. I wasn’t talking about anyone’s mother. I was just cursing. Then I got it. Words have precise meanings, and they can be upsetting, hurtful, mean.

We all have read about the slurs against gay people and the after effects, many of which have been fatal or life changing. It’s nothing new in our world. My own family was chased out of Russia for the crime of being Jewish. The comments were none too kind at the time, I have heard. The punishments were more severe.

We, of course, are supposed to be much more enlightened and accepting in this era, and we are.

Much of the time.

I am hardly social friends with Noah. But it seems clear to me being around him four years this is a kid who doesn’t discriminate by lifestyle. I have no doubt when Noah used the gay slur the definition never occurred to him. Sure, he should know. But people don’t always.

There has been considerable publicity of late regarding gay awareness in the NBA with Kobe Bryant fined $100,000 for a similar slur at an official and a Suns executive announcing he is gay and dramatically relating his story. Most every one I talked to around the NBA gave it a shrug of the shoulders.

Not that gays haven’t suffered with their secrets and their lives and discrimination. But one of the reasons I am most proud to be around the NBA is the color blind, non discriminatory aspect of the league. There isn’t a better place in the United States where people of different races, religions, backgrounds and orientations work seamlessly together and promotion is less based on color or personal bias.

I know there’s the jock, locker room stereotype about gay men and some hurtful comments a few years back by Tim Hardaway when John Amaechi announced he was gay. But Charles Barkley said it most accurately, as he often does, that NBA guys hate incompetents and frauds, not differences.

“People who know me know I’m an open minded guy,” said Noah. “I’m not here to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m here to try to win a basketball game. Sometimes fans say things that are a little overboard. It’s on you not to react. If you react, they win. And I did. It was a bad decision on my part. I’ll remember (this) for a long time.

“You learn from your experiences both good and bad,” said Noah. “It (being a celebrity) is becoming more and more (open). It’s still a pretty good job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There’s nothing easy about this. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But I’m living my dream.”

It didn’t include the events of the last few days, which we lately call a teachable moment.

Not surprisingly, as we’ve seen with this Bulls team in its unselfish play, teammates stood behind Noah. Luol Deng, who isn’t usually particularly outspoken, seemed the most upset.

“I think what Jo said is just something out of frustration,” said Deng. “He’s got to do a better job of controlling his emotions. But at the same time, as players, everyone is always watching us. And Jo kind of lost his temper. He shouldn’t have. That fan should have been out of the game. He should have been thrown out way before. He just kept going at him. An emotional game like that, and things not going Jo’s way, it’s human nature to react. I know Jo, and I know he didn’t mean what he said at all. At the same time, there’s times where a fan like that honestly, I feel like jumping in the crowd and hitting him. We’re human. The camera is not on that fan at all. I know Jo apologized and everything. People got to see it the other way, too. Everyone says things they don’t mean. He let the emotion get the better of him. Honestly, with the game like that, hearing that fan, I wanted to do something about it, too. Unfortunately for Jo, he had to pay the price.”

So perhaps it was best that Noah slipped and not Deng.

Still, at the same time, our sensitivity to words seems only to escalate. Can’t we view things in context more? Yes, I know had someone made an African-American slur it could have been even more provocative. I’m hardly in favor of excusing verbal misbehavior for it often has fatal consequences. But like the difference between a shooting foul and not, which also is becoming indistinguishable on the NBA these days, shouldn’t there be a bit of context and intent? It’s difficult to believe that someone who looks and acts like Noah would even have any intent of diminishing another’s lifestyle or that others would be influenced that way by Noah.

I just wish there was less passion in America for such gotcha moments and more for why we are sending thousands of young men into peril in faraway lands in wars we cannot always understand, for people who cannot get help in saving their homes because it’s more profitable for banks to depose them, for people without health care or who could lose their Medicare or Social Security in the name of budget cutting, for people out of jobs while corporations continue to use tax breaks to outsource work and combine to enhance stockholder value.

Joakim Noah becomes a teaching moment while we have so much else to really learn.

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