Learning from Joakim Noah

Yesterday I wrote about Joakim Noah. My piece went up before he was handed a $50,000 fine from the NBA and before Kevin Arnovitz posted a one-on-one Q&A with him that you have to read if you haven’t already. No seriously, if you’re reading this without having read Arnovitz’s piece, stop and go there now.

A couple of days removed from Noah using that ugly word, two things have happened as a result of that TrueHoop post: Noah comes out of this looking more like the open-minded thinker we thought he was rather than another ignorant, intolerant basketball player and we’ve been given another reminder of how long it’s going to take before we get to a point where words like “faggot” are not spoken without thought or consequence. Reading Arnovitz’s TrueHoop post made me feel relieved and disheartened all at the same time.

Noah told Arnovitz that this “isn’t who he is,” and when you hear a little more about Noah’s life and family, it’s easy to believe him. This is the man who was, per the words of his Swedish mother, raised in a “multicultural and multiracial” family. His mother’s best friend was a gay man, whom a young Noah affectionately called “Mom.” When he uses a gay slur in reaction to an obnoxious, profane fan, of course we don’t want to believe that he meant it. We want to believe that Noah, without thought and most likely without literal meaning, used a word he’s had tossed around him enough times to have it weasel its way into his vocabulary.

So Noah didn’t mean to offend people because he doesn’t hate gay people. That’s great news, but … we’ve got to get this to stop. How? We can fine Noah and Kobe and whoever else and, sure, losing money always stings. Maybe it will even make them think twice so that in addition to not losing more money, they’ve realized hurting people isn’t cool. But how do we eliminate this word being used in every day conversation? I don’t have an answer for this, but I do believe continuing the dialogue is the most important step to change.

The conversation that took place between Arnovtiz, an openly gay sportswriter, and Noah, a man facing public criticism and likely some personal contemplation as well, was an important one. It was important for us as a collective readership to learn about Noah’s family and upbringing and to hear him say he’s disappointed in himself and that this isn’t who he is. To hear that despite this word being thrown around by another NBA player, to know that a current player doesn’t feel an NBA locker room is homophobic (echoing on the thoughts of Charles Barkley). It was important for those in the gay community to hear Arnovitz explain to Noah that he did indeed offend people with the slur and it was important for Noah to look into the eyes of someone who could explain this better than a sea of reporters tossing out questions in a crowded media scrum could.

I don’t believe that Noah is homophobic. I believe him when he says he didn’t mean to hurt people. I believe he used a word he wishes he could take back, a word that is tossed around far too often by people who are not intending to hurt those that it does indeed hurt. I wish this wasn’t the case, that this word could disappear, but that is going to take time. Time and conversations and lessons that are hard ones to have to learn, especially when learning them under the spotlight.

When Noah said that word, the disappointment was almost two-fold, because of the things we know about his character and personality. You don’t want to believe someone like Noah would say it, but he did. Here’s hoping he doesn’t use it again. Here’s also hoping that others who use the word — without regard, without concern, without thinking — will hesitate.

The conversation between Arnovitz and Noah was one that doesn’t happen often between reporter and athlete. It’s unfortunate that this conversation had to happen at all, but as we move forward toward a day where this won’t happen, there are lessons to be learned and conversations to be had. Today I’m thankful that Noah agreed to have this conversation rather than simply saying he was sorry and moving on. I’m also especially thankful that our sport has someone with a voice as unique, strong and talented as Kevin Arnovitz to keep these conversations going, even as I look forward to the day when they won’t be necessary.