The issues in Wayne Simmonds' version
Given how the National Hockey League summoned him for a face-to-face meeting Tuesday within hours of what he'd allegedly done, plus the seemingly incriminating video footage in which Wayne Simmonds appears to shout an obscenity and a gay slur, plus the presence of a linesman holding him back from clambering over the boards ... there seemed to be little chance the Philadelphia Flyers forward was going to go unpunished by the NHL this week. Nor did he seem likely to win many hearts and minds in the league office if he repeated the tepid defenses he used with reporters Monday night when asked if he had called New York Rangers forward Sean Avery a homophobic slur during a game in Philadelphia.
Immediately after the game, Simmonds offered up the heat-of-the-battle argument and an amnesia defense: "I can't remember what I said." And just in case those attempts weren't convincing enough, he exhorted people to remember exactly who he had insulted: Avery, one of the most volatile and notorious bad boys in the league.
The fact that Simmonds, who is black, seemed to be the target of a racially offensive display on Thursday in London, Ontario, when a fan threw a banana onto the ice didn't seem to factor into his thinking at all.
Nor did he flatly deny Avery's accusation about the slur, though he was given a chance.
"I might've said some things he didn't like. ... It's Sean Avery, come on, now," Simmonds scoffed to reporters Monday night, as though Avery's reputation as one of the most despised instigators in the league and a vocal supporter of gay rights creates some sort of blanket amnesty for anyone to call Avery whatever they like.
Imagine the surprise on Tuesday when Simmonds' memory had improved by the time he arrived at league offices.
All of sudden, he had a new defense: He now clearly recalled he hadn't called Avery a gay slur after all. And a few hours later on Tuesday, the NHL released a statement to explain why senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell wouldn't be punishing Simmonds.
The statement read, in part: "Flyers player Wayne Simmonds has expressly denied using the homophobic slur he is alleged to have said. Additionally, none of the on-ice officials close to the altercation in question heard any inappropriate slurs uttered by either of the primary antagonists. In light of this, we are unable at this time to take any disciplinary action with respect to last night's events."
Without the benefit of interviewing everyone the NHL was able to talk to during its Tuesday look into the incident, it's hard to say with certainty that anyone except amateur lip readers took a beating here. The point is to arrive at the best available version of the truth. And if there's a reasonable doubt about whether Simmonds is guilty of dropping an F-bomb on Avery, as Avery alleged, then the league has to err on the side of caution.
A LEARNING CURVE
In the wake of recent incidents involving the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds, ESPN.com hockey writer Scott Burnside says players and fans still have some learning to do about what is acceptable on the ice. Read his analysis here.
That said, when I watch the raw video of Simmonds shouting at Avery (here's a sanitized version, suitable for this website), it looks to me as though he's saying exactly what Avery accused him of saying. And video was enough for the NBA to take action against Kobe Bryant last season when Bryant was caught on camera calling an official a gay slur.
So how could this happen? Especially since the NHL has a good history of punishing people who have been caught using racial ephitets?
Does the NBA merely employ better lip readers than the NHL? Does the chain-clanking, scythe-wielding specter of Donald Fehr, the new head of the NHL Players Association who used to clobber Major League Baseball's management on player disciplinary issues as head of its players union, make NHL league office afraid to drop the gloves and have a go at him? Or is this merely a case of the NHL -- which has also been slower than other hockey leagues worldwide to take head shots completely out of the game, and historically has explained away its unique nightly bare-knuckle fist-fighting phenomenon as the spontaneous emotion that just comes out of the frustrations of the game -- showing cold feet or conflicted feelings about getting involved in a hot-button issue such as gay rights, despite all the disclaimers in Tuesday's statement to the contrary?
Just askin' -- because that ambivalence wouldn't be a first in sports, either. Even as NBA commissioner David Stern was taking a strong stand in his league against Bryant and Joakim Noah for uttering gay epithets this spring -- Bryant to a ref, and Noah to a fan -- and fining them $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, Stern also said: "I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue."
When push comes to shove, CEOs -- which is what sports commissioners such as Stern and the NHL's Gary Bettman are -- will always be risk-averse deep down.
So I'll give Simmonds this: He's a quick study, if nothing else. It's hard to know if Bryant would've been fined as much as he was if he hadn't admitted what he'd done and apologized. By changing his story, Simmonds didn't repeat Bryant's mistake -- if that's what it was.
But the silliest argument in Simmonds' defense has been the contention in some quarters that his race, or past brushes with racism as recently as last week, might preclude him from uttering some homophobic rant.
At this point in human existence, there's a pretty mountainous pile of evidence showing that even if racial or sexual epithets have been a part of life and/or sports competitions for forever, not all slurs are created equal in some folks' minds. There is a hierarchy in play at times. It's often highly idiosyncratic, and it can be based on anything from a person's race to gender to religious background to ethnicity to sexuality. You name it.
Being part of a group that has been historically discriminated against doesn't necessarily inoculate you from being intolerant yourself.
A lot has been written and said over the years about how the African-American community's attitudes toward homophobia can be distinct, and sometimes more critical, than other groups' responses. James Baldwin was among the first "out" gay writer to tackle the topic. But countless others have since.
And so, while we may wish for a perfect sports world in which everyone can be as logical and progressive as, say, Charles Barkley or Michael Irvin -- who have each said that as African-Americans, they can't condone when anyone is discriminated against, including gays -- it's clear that not everyone feels that way.
Before Bryant or Noah or the Simmonds-Avery incidents came along, baseball had given us Angels' outfielder Torii Hunter, who said last year that Hispanic baseball players are "imposters" for American-born blacks -- then apologized for the poor choice of words. And golf had given us Jim Dent, who was among the first African-Americans allowed to play the Masters after Augusta National's all-white membership was attacked, and yet saw nothing odd about coming out years later against women being admitted to the club when Martha Burk was carrying that fight. "They should just back off," Dent said.
When it comes to gay rights specifically, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has been told for years that its fight for equal rights doesn't equate to the civil rights movement because a person can't hide his or her skin color like a closeted gay person can hide their sexuality. In that specious line of thinking, you can't choose to be black, brown or Asian the way some folks allegedly "choose" to be gay. And the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has long been accused of seeking approval when it just wants tolerance.
But here's the good news about how all of that pertains to sports: Even if homophobic slurs remain part of the sports vocabulary, sports and league offices increasingly have changed the way they tackle the argument. Now, it's something like this: If we can prove you are guilty as charged, there are no excuses for what you've done.
The emerging new consensus is that slurs or discrimination of just about any kind simply have no place in sports or a civilized society. It doesn't matter if the topic is black vs. white, gay vs. straight, heat-of-the-battle or not. Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of the Phoenix Suns have spoken out against the bullying of teens. Steve Nash made a public service announcement in support of same-sex marriage, as Avery did. Tim Hardaway, who once said he "hated" gays, has now made an affecting personal migration.
Simmonds, who is 23, might be too young to have heard the stories about how American black civil rights activists in the 1960s actually used to march with signs that read, "I Am A Man." It's almost incomprehensible today to think there was ever a time when that sentiment even had to be uttered.
But at times, it can feel like the gay rights movement is at a similar juncture. As current Golden State coach and former ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said after the Noah incident, "That is a human being [Noah] said that to. You don't speak that way to another human being."
Sports isn't the only battlefield where these issues are being fought. And Simmonds was right about this much: Talking junk has always been a part of sports. But the real takeaway from his story isn't that even a black guy might or might not be homophobic. It's that if anyone is, and they choose to express it, sports and the people in them are saying -- louder than ever, in numbers greater than ever: Get that junk out of here. We don't tolerate that around here anymore.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.