Commentary

Kobe Bryant's response appreciated

His reprimand of a Twitter follower for homophobic tweet can carry much weight

Updated: February 12, 2013, 11:39 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

It took me far too long to recognize the importance of what Kobe Bryant did with 140 characters Sunday night.

It was a battle in which he had no stake. A fight in which he had no dog. A tweet he could have simply ignored.

Instead one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet took a very public stand.

"It's the right thing to do," Bryant told ESPN.com's J.A. Adande on Tuesday. "I couldn't help myself. I saw it, I was like, 'I can't help myself. I have to respond.' "

On Sunday evening, as Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers were picking up the pieces from a disappointing loss to the Miami Heat, one of his 1.3 million Twitter followers used the phrase "you're gay" to insult another Twitter follower. The exchange showed up in Bryant's timeline, and for some reason he felt compelled to respond.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesAthletes the stature of Kobe Bryant usually don't take stands on touchy issues, but the Lakers superstar didn't hesitate Sunday on Twitter.

"Just letting you know@PacSmoove @pookeo9 that using 'your gay' as a way to put someone down ain't ok! #notcool delete that out ur vocab."

Later, when another Twitter follower reminded Bryant that he had been fined $100,000 by the NBA for directing a gay slur at a referee in a nationally televised game in April, Bryant responded, "exactly! That wasn't cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others."

There are those who will think the previous incident is precisely why Bryant piped up here. He's polishing his legacy these days and this is an easy smudge to clean up.

But if that's even partially true, who cares? Because in one tweet, and yes it matters that he was simply responding to a tweet (anyone can shoot a public service announcement or weigh in on the topic when it's in the news), Bryant cut deeply and meaningfully into the ignorant, often homophobic culture of the sports world.

He knows exactly how powerful his words can be. It's why the NBA made an example of him by fining him $100,000 for that careless homophobic slur last season.

So when a superstar of his magnitude makes a statement like this, an unprovoked, authentic statement that came out of a random conversation on Twitter, there can be an opposite and equally profound reaction.

A reaction among his peers and his fans. A reaction that diffuses rapidly throughout the collective anonymous soul of the Twitterverse. A reaction that might one day make it easier for a gay player in a major professional sport to come out publicly and be accepted in his locker room.

Or at least there should have been.

Instead I saw all those tweets Sunday night, thought it was cool and moved on. The Lakers had practice in the morning, a thousand issues on and off the court to address, and another game on the calendar.

The question of the day was whether Dwight Howard could and should be a Laker for the rest of his career given his refusal to fully commit to the franchise since he arrived in a trade last summer.

Was Dwight worthy of succeeding Kobe as the standard-bearer for this 16-time NBA championship franchise? Did Kobe say too much last week when he seemed to urge Howard and his ailing shoulder back into the lineup? Should coach Mike D'Antoni have stood up to Kobe after he made those comments and taken a stand for Howard?

All day Monday that's what seemed important. That's what always seems important in a Lakers world that turns on every headline and quote like the women on "Real Housewives of Atlanta," who lose their minds with every perceived slight.

But then I tried to sleep.

To move on to the next day and the next story and whatever seemed important next. And I couldn't get over the fact that earlier in the day at Lakers practice, myself and 20 of my colleagues had failed to ask Kobe Bryant why he decided to take a stand for the gay and lesbian community in 140 characters on Sunday night.

I'd like to say it's because I live in a world where Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe have been publicly and profoundly applauded for standing up for gay marriage.

Or that I was heartened by the immediate backlash to San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver's insensitive comments about gays during Super Bowl week.

Or that so many strides have been made on behalf of gay rights in the political and cultural theaters over the past decade.

But honestly, I think it was because I just missed it. Like we all miss the ugly references and insinuations hiding in our conversations every day.

I'm talking about the latent racisim, sexism and homophobia in so many of our common phrases and in casual conversations that does far more to reinforce ugly stereotypes and affect cultural norms than outright slurs.

We say insidious things all the time without repercussion. We say them unwittingly. We say them carelessly and mostly without malice.

But ultimately, we say them because no one corrects us.

Which brings us back to Bryant and his 140 characters Sunday.

And the fact that he said something. Unprompted and unprovoked, he said something.

One of the cardinal rules of marketing to a broad audience is to maintain a broad appeal. That means playing it safe, offending no one, watering it down.

People buy your shoes because you're a great basketball player, not because of your political beliefs.

For anyone to step out of that lane takes guts. For a superstar the magnitude of Kobe Bryant to do so is extraordinary.

"A lot of celebrities, they want to get on Twitter, but they don't want to address anything," Bryant told Adande. "They just want to be plain vanilla, not say anything that rubs people the wrong way. That kind of defeats the whole point of being on Twitter, to me, anyway.

"It's a pretty simple one for me. You learn from your f-ups and you try not to make them again. It's really that simple. ... You have an opportunity -- especially on Twitter, you have that kind of platform and so forth, I think it's important to do so."

I'm not sure why so many of us missed it the first time around. Perhaps it's the same reason we don't stop all the latent racism coming out of our mouths every day that doesn't feel important enough to quibble over.

It's easy to spot a wrong. It's infinitely harder to make it right.

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