In a matter I suspect the NBA wishes it wasn't dealing with for the second time in about six weeks, Chicago's Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 on Monday for directing an anti-gay slur toward a fan during Sunday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 last month for directing the same slur at referee Bennie Adams.
Contextually, there is a great deal of similarity between the incidents. Both outbursts came during emotionally charged moments, both were caught on camera. Neither player, I believe, used the word with deliberate intent to insult or disparage the gay community, but in a way that has insidiously worked itself into the vernacular. Noah and Bryant displayed ignorance and insensitivity, but I don't think either is a bigot. (For deeper insight into Noah's makeup, click here.) Both players owned their mistake and apologized, rightly recognizing use of the F-word is unacceptable in any context. They both were wrong and both deserved to be fined.
So why was Kobe's fine twice the amount of Noah's?
In a vacuum, I don't actually have a problem with the discrepancy. Kobe earned a shade under $25 million this season, while Noah makes little more than $3 million. Obviously both guys are very, very rich, but as a percentage of his salary, Noah's fine is actually far stiffer (1.6 percent for Noah versus .4 percent for Kobe). Had the explanation simply been "Kobe makes more, so we fined him more," it would make some sense. If deterrence is the goal of fines, the league could very well be better off determining them based on a percentage of salary rather than strict dollar amounts. X offense is worth Y portion of your yearly income. The difference in scale between Noah and Bryant could be justified because of the precedent already set. Kobe's fine wasn't simply a punishment for him but a warning to other players around the league. Noah saw what happened and should have learned.
Except that's not what the league said. According to league spokesman Tim Frank, the offenses were different. "Kobe's fine included discipline for verbal abuse of a game official," he said.
Basically, it's a bigger offense to hurl a slur at a ref than a fan.
Really? The same word aimed at a person in the stands, even one who according to the accounts of Noah's teammates probably should have been tossed out of the arena for loutish behavior? More acceptable than disparaging a ref? I know the league has a well-documented policy protecting officials from this sort of thing, but I'm willing to bet the handbook also includes stuff like "Don't shout epithets at fans."
While the league clearly came down hard on Bryant -- rightly so -- I don't believe David Stern and Co. did so out of some sort of vendetta. It was a strong reaction to a very public, very embarrassing incident with one of the league's signature players. I suspect as well that they didn't think it would come up again so fast, and also wonder whether someone somewhere decided fining Noah more than 3 percent of his salary for his actions was excessive. (Again, this is why fining guys a percentage of salary rather than a straight chunk of cash could make some sense.)
Of course, if any of that is true, and it very well might not be, the league didn't make a point of noting it. Instead, we're left with the fairly nonsensical idea hurling a deeply offensive slur at a referee is somehow worse than aiming it a paying customer.