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Friday, June 14, 2013
More than words

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert was fined for using inappropriate language during a rant.

Nyjah Huston was planning to defend his Street League Skateboarding gold at X Games Munich this week. But on Tuesday, he withdrew from the competition due to a rib injury. This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 24 Money issue. Subscribe today!

BEFORE BEING SENT home for the summer by the Heat, Roy Hibbert (above) used the words "no homo" in a weird postgame rant and was fined $75,000 by the NBA. Days before that, Adrian Peterson offered his opinion on gay marriage, stating elegantly, "I'm not with that." After some backlash, the Vikings running back underwent a predictable reprogramming and offered that a gay teammate wouldn't bother him "that much."

Mike Wallace, Mike Rice, Chris Culliver -- they too can tell you how much the sports culture has evolved, both before and after Jason Collins' announcement that he is gay. Instead of debating whether an open player would be welcome in the clubhouse, the real battleground now is over language -- which words are acceptable, what intent is behind them. The culture is moving so much faster than the language, in fact, that the emergence of what can now safely be called the Open Era can be captured and dissected through sound bites and the reactions and overreactions they give rise to.

For decades, male lingo, especially within sports, has equated weakness with two primary demographics: women and gays. It's everything from "throwing like a girl" to the more graphic slurs that don't require much explication. (Just check out the video of Rice berating his players.) Of course, it also must be noted that the reason weakness is often equated to being a woman or gay is because, for decades, the culture at large encouraged misogyny and homophobia as acceptable. The language followed suit, whether in the locker room or the boardroom. It is who we are, who we have been.

But we are changing, and the language must change with the revolution. There are numerous examples over the course of history that suggest that it will. Once, in the early 1960s, a member of the Red Sox made a racial slur as Pumpsie Green, Boston's newly arrived first black player, stood nearby. A white player intervened. "You can't talk like that," he said. "We have Pumpsie with us now." Stewardesses are flight attendants now, and secretaries (or administrative assistants) aren't called "sweetheart" anymore, especially not by their superiors who care to avoid a miserable trip to human resources.

But this change in language doesn't happen overnight. And until it does in sports, we'll be dealing with the mess of gauging intent. There is a difference between using offensive words out of ignorance and out of hatred. There is also a difference between stupid, nonsensical comments by an athlete and discrimination against an executive or player.

The latter demands swift recourse, of course, but there is danger in turning every instance of nonsense into a referendum. Male athletes' identification with toughness hasn't changed and never will; being labeled as soft will always be Kryptonite for them. Just ask Chris Bosh. The problem is that sports is still grasping for new, nonhomophobic words to describe softness. These words haven't yet become ubiquitous, or even tested. And so while the culture reshapes and rebrands, some players will reach for the old, offensive words, if only out of bad habit. If we overreact every time they do, we risk turning the clumsy, the unrefined and the homophobic alike into martyrs, ostracized through exaggerated fines and overheated news cycles.

As the Open Era progresses forward, players will always have a right to their opinions, which they should be able to express without having (to first call Jason Collins and later issue a public apology. It should be remembered that the transition into a new time isn't nearly as much about the gay athlete as it is about the straight public and how it treats its fellow citizens. This is just the beginning.

Besides, history, as always, will be the harshest judge. Most of the players and executives best known for using racial slurs or refusing to accept integration after the Jackie Robinson revolution have never lived down those words. Family and friends are still trying to redeem the names of people such as Dixie Walker and Tom Yawkey, Ty Cobb and George Preston Marshall, even decades after their deaths.

The words exposed them, and none was ever washed clean.

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