Analysis: The Lakers star deserves heat for his slur, but what about the league and its broadcasters, which have become increasingly invasive in their coverage of pro sports? Make no mistake, the game has changed
Yes, sports fans, this is how your sausage gets made.
Kobe Bryant might have uttered a rather unacceptable homophobic slur, but the NBA and its broadcast partners are at least partly to blame for helping him spread it to a nationwide television audience.
Charging Time Warner and Disney $7.4 billion to broadcast its games across platforms over eight years in a deal that was signed in 2007, the NBA has stridently worked to add value to its offering, upping the number of microphones and cameras to capture all the action.
On Tuesday night, with the struggling Los Angeles Lakers locked into a tense game with the San Antonio Spurs — a game that had playoff-seeding implications for Los Angeles — fans at home got closer to the action than they probably bargained for.
After Lakers star Bryant was slapped with a technical foul, the All-Star guard slammed a chair, threw a towel, and appeared to mouth the words "f—ing faggot" at referee Bennie Adams.
"Might want to take the camera off him right now, for the children watching," TNT sportscaster Steve Kerr remarked.
The coarse language probably wasn't all that surprising to Kerr, a former NBA shooting guard who played alongside Michael Jordan, a hoops legend who notoriously uttered a slur identical to Bryant's at a young player during practice late in his career.
Of course, Jordan wasn't caught on camera or microphone when he let loose on young center Kwame Brown that day. Bryant's comments probably would have been largely unnoticed, too, save for rich folks with courtside seats, if they had occured say, prior to 2000, when the league began its quest to get fans "closer to the game" by microphoning coaches and increasing the number of cameras shooting games.
On Tuesday night, there was a camera ideally positioned to let everyone read Bryant's lips.
And suddenly, a macho pro-hoops culture that could get away with yelling pretty much any on-court expletive or slur in the heat of competitive passion is under the same scrutiny that all other television personalities are.
Turner Sports PR rep Sal Petruzzi told TheWrap, "Live television sometimes captures spontaneous moments. The potential [for an offensive moment] exists anytime you are producing a live event."
But in an era of zero tolerance for racial and homophobic slurs, the heat-of-the-game excuse just might not cut it anymore.
Certainly, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation had something to say about Bryant's utterance.
"Discriminatory slurs have no place on or off the court," GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said in a statement.
Barrios went on to say that pro athletes "need to set a better example for young people," while the Lakers "have a responsibility to educate their fans about why this word is unacceptable."
Sensing the brewing controversy, NBA Commissioner David Stern was quick to weigh in, fining Bryant $100,000.
“Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable," Stern said in a statement. "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.”
(It should be noted that, with Wednesday night's Lakers game also holding playoff implications, Stern did not suspend Bryant.)
With television now the dominant portion of the revenue pie for virtually all pro sports, the NBA isn't alone in facing this new-media-age scrutiny. Two years ago — before his infidelities made him a tabloid star — golfer Tiger Woods caught heat when he was picked up by TV mics using the F-word.
Somewhat cornered Wednesday — and only recently having restored his endorsement shine following a 2004 rape trial — Bryant stopped just short of admitting the offending slur.
"What I said last night should not be taken literally," he said in a statement. "My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period," Bryant stated. "The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone.”
With Bryant fined and chastised, the league — and its five-time champion signature star — will move on.
But this will change the game, at least as far as hoops is concerned.
Basketball is particularly problematic where this sort of exposure is involved. Unlike football, where players are spread across a 100-yard field and their utterances are obscured by helmets, basketball is played in a relatively tight, and open, environment. And its fast pace is prone toward producing equally hasty errors in judgment.
Players are encouraged by fans, owners, general managers and coaches to be passionate. But they'll have to watch their mouths. There's now precedent for fines and public embarrassment.
For its part, GLAAD is hoping that the NBA will put greater pressure on its players to watch their words. Calling Bryant's statement "a start," GLAAD president Barrios said that the NBA "has a chance to show leadership by taking disciplinary measures and sending a message that words like this have no place in sports.
"All sports leagues have a responsibility to create a safe environment for fans, employees and players."