Noah wrong, but fans not blameless

May 24, 2011


— A contrite Joakim Noah showed up for his national apology Monday afternoon at the Bulls team hotel wearing red-striped pajama bottoms with a white T-shirt. And it worked for him.

The odd getup was more functional but less flamboyant than the seersucker suit and bow tie Noah made famous at the 2007 NBA Draft.

On a day Noah repeated he was sorry for directing an anti-gay slur toward a fan during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, it was worth remembering how unapologetic Noah always has been about free expression.

This is a biracial player with long hair worn in a ponytail or bun and a face in need of a razor. He grew up the son of an artist and international tennis star, shuttling between New York and France, and owns a home in his grandfather’s native country, Africa. To say Noah is an eclectic mix of cultures is as obvious as saying the South Florida sky tends to be blue.

You don’t live or look like Noah without believing in tolerance.

“People who know me know I’m an open-minded guy,” Noah said before the league justifiably fined him $50,000 for his comments. “I let my emotions get the best of me. It’s not what I’m about. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings. I’m just here to win a basketball game.”

Oh, yeah, the basketball game. For the Bulls to beat the Heat in Game 4 today at AmericanAirlines Arena, for starters, Noah will have to defend Chris Bosh as tenaciously as coach Tom Thibodeau and teammates defended his character.

But whatever comes in the fallout from this, it shouldn’t be just about the league punishing Noah for a heat-of-the-moment outburst. He is a good man who made a bad mistake caught on national TV. It’s more about the league fighting intolerance harder than ever, especially in light of Suns team President Rick Welts coming out last week.

And what’s wrong with that?

There’s nothing wrong with treating the anti-gay slur Noah invoked with the same zero-tolerance mind-set as racial epithets directed at African-Americans. Heck, I would have been fine if NBA Commissioner David Stern had fined LeBron James earlier this month for referring to a reporter’s questions at a news conference as “retarded,” a term potentially as offensive to those with developmentally disabled friends or family members.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to clean up the lexicon of sports culture, one hateful word at a time. The price of doing nothing is potentially much more than $50,000.

“It’s a teachable moment in that it is generating more intelligent dialogue on this topic that is overdue in men’s team sports,” Welts said in an email to the Tribune. “I’m proud that the NBA has made it clear that outbursts like this have no place in our game. I had the pleasure of having dinner with Joakim Noah during his predraft interview with the Suns, and think he’s an outstanding young man who sincerely regrets what happened.”

What also is regrettable is more players don’t comprehend the reach they have. They should thank the league for trying to improve the way the public sees them, the way they represent their brand before, during and after games.

Consider how much discipline it requires to be a pro athlete. Why can’t more take the same rigid approach to language? If they can pay such close attention to what goes into their bodies, they can do a better job of watching what comes out of their mouths.

Those who don’t simply lapse into lazy speech reinforced by years of stereotypes and often inspired by rage. Whether it’s directed at a drunk fan or bad driver, insult by insult, it erodes the way we communicate.

Of course, Stern can follow up his tough stance on slurs by beefing up security around team benches to combat unruly fans who get personal like Noah’s obnoxious instigator.

“I know Jo and I know he didn’t mean what he said at all,” Luol Deng said without totally absolving Noah. “At the same time, there are times when a fan like that — honestly, I felt like jumping in the crowd and hitting him. We’re humans.”

Deng and every player deserve human decency from fans. Just as there’s a difference between Noah calling the fan an idiot and the word he used, criticizing a player for his play pales in comparison to insulting his mother, as Noah claimed. The high price of a ticket doesn’t buy the right to be as rude face-to-face with a player as someone might be on a Facebook page.

No, Noah has no excuse for reacting off-color and out of character. But it takes two.


anakhan 7 years ago

Ah, yes, the native country of Africa.

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