An Open Letter to Matt Barnes and the NBA

David Stern is retiring soon, because apparently Satan’s powers are more limited than once thought, but before the man leaves us with the yawn-fest that is on-court NBA basketball, we get one more parting gift of his organization’s focus on profits at the expense of integrity.

Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers was fined $25,000 by the NBA for “inappropriate language” based on a Tweet that included the word ‘niggas’. With Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins and Riley Cooper of the Eagles getting lots of super positive press for their own private-turned-public exhortations involving racial expletives (God bless Twitter, camera phones and texting, for how would professional athletes be able to get into as much trouble without it?) we’re living in a golden age for athletes who enjoy using racial epithets and then scrambling to justify/apologize for their conduct.

Private matters turned public, as is seemingly the case with Incognito, is one thing, but Twitter is a whole different animal, and everything about the League’s response to Matt Barnes just reeks of desperation. Sheer, unadulterated desperation to avoid taking a stand on an issue that can only detract from the shiny product free of flaws the NBA has worked so hard to cultivate and project to the world during Stern’s tenure. But is it really that much of a stretch to firmly tell employees that using a racial slur is inappropriate work-place conduct?

After all, just about two years ago, Stern levied a $100,000 fine against Kobe Bryant for calling a referee a “fucking faggot”, language which Stern deemed “offensive and inexcusable.”

No longer armed with the moral high-ground of an unassailable black and white position, Stern and his office are silent on the use of a word that is commonplace amongst the league’s players. There was a fine this time around, sure, but it wasn’t all that much for someone making over 3 million for this season alone in salary and it’s impossible to notice the penalty didn’t directly reference any specific wording in the player’s Tweet and, most importantly, contained no condemnation. The immediate lesson the NBA imparts here is obvious. It’s four times worse to call someone a ‘faggot’ in the NBA than it is to use the word ‘niggas’ or some derivation therein, we can only presume.

This is, of course, snarky and unfair. There’s the larger issue at hand, however, which to me appears blatantly obvious. I don’t think the NBA has any idea how to tell it’s African-American players to stop using racial slurs because they don’t know whether or not they should.

It’s easy to tell white people to refrain from racial epithets, this requires no tangled moral complexity whatsoever, but to condemn black players for using the same words brings about an uncomfortable internal debate. Stern can sermonize from the high ground all day and night about slurs directed against gays, this does nothing to directly confront the vast majority of the players in the league, but to come down on specific language used almost exclusively by African-Americans is to attack an embedded standard in our popular culture, and a directive which NBA players are perhaps unlikely to appreciate coming from the commissioner. As Charles Barkley, one of my all-time favorite players, recently said, “White America don’t get to dictate how me and Shaq talk to each other.”

The problem isn’t the word itself as a standalone, nor an argument over context, but rather the refusal to take responsibility for using it. The moment you broach the public sphere, there is an obligation to not behave like a gigantic ass, and taking into account people’s feelings is step one on the guide to being a decent human being. If you are going to say things that are potentially inflammatory, then there better be a good damn reason for it. I thought about being even more specific in my use of words and descriptions in this article, but what’s the point? Everyone knows what I’m talking about, why excessively employ terminology that might offend someone when there’s no reason to do so?

The word in question is just a shit word in regards to everything it has even meant to express, and this is ultimately why Barnes was wrong to use it on Twitter. Just because he likes to use it doesn’t mean that others will define it the same way. I make use of it (and other slurs) here for basic descriptive purposes, to take a measure of responsibility for discussing the issue in the first place, and to adequately convey the nature of the debate in a way that doesn’t completely hide behind abbreviations.

I hate the hangman version ‘n—er’ or the more common ‘N-word’ that newspapers trot out whenever the word becomes topical. It’s such a copout. It’s a way to put all the connotations the word has into another person’s mind without actually embracing the ugliness of it all. But as the clip below explains in jokey format, that’s what language is, it’s the attempt to convey meaning, so if that mission is accomplished in shorthand, how is it really any different from saying/writing the word in full save to abdicate any personal culpability in its power to injure?

It speaks to our overwhelming cultural/societal sense of discomfort with the word, and this cringe-inducing sensibility runs very deep. And for good reason. The word represents oppression, degradation and wholesale destruction for centuries on end. While I’m not especially bothered by the word when used in a descriptive sense, i.e. ‘here’s an excerpt from an article that informs us Matt Barnes used the word ‘niggas’ in a Tweet’, I am very aware of the word’s history and meaning, and so while I am indeed taking the easy way out by putting the word into your mind at every turn without going into detail, I see no reason to employ offensive terminology over and over without more cause, because, again, there’s just no need to do so.

And of course the word still has enormous power to hurt and offend! To think otherwise is laughable. I roll my eyes every time someone argues that it’s automatically different when African-Americans use the word because it somehow devalues the power of it for those who would use it with original intent. The word hasn’t lost any of its brutality to me, if anything I might argue it has become even more insidious now that it’s societally unacceptable to utter if you’re not in the appropriate racial group. Like when you ban a book or what happens to a Jedi Knight when you strike them down.

Of course it means different things when Matt Barnes and Richie Incognito write racial epithets for the world to see, and nobody has to pretend they know the true meaning of every sentiment for everyone in every moment, but the word still means something in every use to everyone. Words do not exist in a vacuum, there are layer upon layers of cultural context integrated into everything we say, for our own ears and others. Racial slurs are not, and never will be, value neutral.

Words on their own don’t bother me much. Meaning bothers me occasionally, but it’s only the absence of meaning that really offends me. Justifying words with the explanation, as Barnes did earlier today, that “It’s just a regular word” goes to the heart of why it’s wrong to blurt out racial slurs without a measure of thought to the world around you. With his rationale, Barnes is like an eight year old kid in the lunchroom who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to stand on the table and yell ‘cunt’ at the top of his lungs, and then gets pissy when parents get offended because he didn’t mean anything by it, all his friends say it and that’s just how people talk in the younger generation.

Matt Barnes

Matt Barnes

Frankly, it doesn’t seem to me that Barnes even remotely appreciates the severity of his position. In response to the fine, he gave one of those great apologies that’s not really an apology. Talking to reporters, Barnes said, “The word I used is a word that’s used on the court, used in the locker room, used amongst my friends and family; it’s a regular word to me. I think my mistake was using it in a social manner, which I regret and I apologize for it. But you guys have to get used to it.” (Bold/Italics mine)

Say what you want to say with your friends in the confines of your own life and justify your words as you like, and who are any of us to define context as a straight line? Barnes is absolutely right, and to apologize for putting in on Twitter, as he sort of did, is also the right move, but to cap it off with the middle finger of “get used to it” seems aggressively dishonest in its understanding of just why he should have probably refrained from using a racial slur in public in the first place.

I believe him when he says it’s “common” as he goes on to describe the word’s use in his life, and consequently doesn’t automatically imply anything negative or disparaging to him. And I won’t even begin to go down the road about how my vantage point as an old white guy lecturing black people on, well, anything, really, invalidates my soap-boxy proselytizing since that is a painfully accurate argument to which I have little to offer in response. Maybe it’s not to me to offer my delicate sensibilities up to such a discussion. And words and their meaning do change over time. And there are racial issues too numerous to count that are far more important to spend time and energy visiting, such as our flawed and pernicious criminal justice system, that it makes me cringe a little to write so many words about something as ultimately harmless as a word. But it can’t completely invalidate the noise it makes in the public sphere, and the word means something to an awful lot of people, regardless of vantage point. And what it means is so potentially ugly and sad that it should be painfully clear to anyone with any measure of empathy that it’s wrong to use such words haphazardly to describe something as trivial as the events of a basketball game.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the NBA and their part in all this. It’s a tough position to be in, and their policy seems firmly planted in the style of ‘let’s all just hope this goes away like the Tim Donaghy scandal’, though perhaps the NBA could forget their potential profit margin for a moment and build up the backbone to come out and say that using racial slurs in the workplace, regardless of who utters them, is wrong and will not be tolerated.

It’s not surprising that the NBA can’t get it’s head above water on an actual issue of social importance, after all, rigging playoff games takes a lot of time and energy, but it is disappointing that it hasn’t enough internal fortitude to get on the right side of something as simple as common decency.


I am a hermit living in a cave inside a mountain underneath an abyss. Your comments are the only contact I have with the outside world.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s