What's A Gay Slur? How An NBA Game Exposed Our Problem With The Question

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Technically, the saga revolving around the use of a gay slur between Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo and NBA referee Bill Kennedy is over.

On Friday, Rondo was suspended by the league for "directing a derogatory and offensive term toward a game official and not leaving the court in a timely manner upon his ejection" during a Dec. 3 game against the Boston Celtics in Mexico City.

The story, as described by NBA super reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, details Rondo first received the ejection as a result of two technical fouls in quick succession for a seemingly unrelated reason, and then began unleashing his controversial words.

A video of the incident shows the nature of the encounter though the player's words are inaudible.

According to Kennedy and referee Ben Taylor, who was also working the game in Mexico City, Rondo's words were,

You're a motherf*cking faggot… You're a f*cking faggot, Billy.

Rondo's punishment? A one-game ban without pay, due to be served on Tuesday night during the Kings' game against the Houston Rockets.

It's likely no further punishments will be given to Rondo. This disciplinary case, technically, is closed.

But that hasn't stopped people around the NBA from talking about it, especially after Kennedy revealed he is, in fact, a gay man.

ESPN's Bomani Jones, for instance, asked how a player could say such a thing in the actual workplace and receive a punishment that differs so much from what former Clippers owner Donald Sterling received for saying racist things in his own home.

My thing on this: If Sterling lost his team for what he said, how did Rondo only get a single game? not asking for banishment, but how? — El Flaco (@bomani_jones) December 14, 2015

Serial NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris mused on the background of the encounter and, like others, floated the idea that a contentious relationship between Kennedy and Rondo extends back to Rondo's days on Doc Rivers' Boston Celtics.

Good for Bill Kennedy, one of the most famous ref beefs vs a coach was him vs Doc. Doc used a derogatory term vs him — Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) December 14, 2015
I heard what Doc called Kennedy, it wasn't too hard to predict Doc getting the shaft in future Kennedy games. Grudges are real. — Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) December 14, 2015

After Kennedy "came out," an action that deserves quotation marks as his sexual orientation seems to have been an open secret within the league, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix asked the inevitable:

First question: Did Rondo know Bill Kennedy was gay when he made berated him with homophobic slurs? If so, that's a bad, bad look for Rondo. — Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 14, 2015

All of these questions are interesting and fair ones to raise. But here's one that's much more important, particularly in regards to the way we think about derogatory terms in relation to people who identify as homosexual: Does it matter?

Does it matter whether Rondo knew Kennedy's sexual orientation when he said those words to him in an obviously insulting manner?

Does whether a person directed a certain word at a someone based on their sexual orientation as opposed to saying it for an unrelated reason change how acceptable we think the use of the word is?

The answers to such questions are hardly black and white, admittedly. And as always with sensitive topics, a nuanced discussion is the proper recourse.

But the NBA seems to have already taken a side in that discussion.

A few years ago, Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, then playing for the Phoenix Suns, appeared in a commercial aimed to discourage fans from using the word "gay" as an insult, regardless of who or why such an insult would be used.

The commercial was presented as a message from the league, its players association and the Ad Council.

It's not hard to gather the underlying message of their ad, either: It doesn't matter whether a word with etymology rooted in describing homosexual persons has now found a new, trendy use as a euphemism for "stupid," or what have you. It's not OK to use.

But the league's message totally conflicts with the picture San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich paints when it comes to other players' use of the word.

Popovich told the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps,

Why would I be surprised? You see it all the time. It’s unfortunate, it’s disgusting because Billy is a great guy and has been a class act on and off the court.

Pro Basketball reporter Kurt Helin, for his part, added the word used by Rondo "gets thrown around entirely too casually in NBA locker rooms (and around professional sports all together)."

And therein lies the problem with how we discuss these things, particularly in considering whether or not Rondo's punishment was adequate.

We still haven't reached a consensus (or, as close to a reasonable consensus as you can reach these days) when it comes to what is considered a gay slur.

Call a gay person the other F-word? Totally out of the question.

Say it to someone else? Well, maybe that’s not too bad.

But if we’re willing to accept that, we can’t do it without considering the opposing argument.

If we take these words that were first introduced to us in a pejorative way to describe gay people and now tolerate them as ways to describe cowardice, stupidity or other unenviable traits, how much does it help preserve certain stigmas against those who identify as homosexual?

The answer to that question might just go a long way in figuring out our problem.