“You’re a mother——- faggot. You’re a f—— faggot, Billy.”
These were the ugly words uttered by Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo to NBA Referee Bill Kennedy after being ejected from a December 3rd game.
After an eight-day investigation, which included interviewing the two other in-game officials and bringing in two independent experts, the NBA announced that Rondo “has been suspended one game without pay for directing a derogatory and offensive term towards a game official and not leaving the court in a timely manner upon his ejection.” Here is the video (there is no sound) of Rondo accosting Kennedy:
To his credit, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has successfully confronted other pressing social issues in his first couple years in office. These include ousting ex-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league after racist recordings were revealed and suspending then-Charlotte Hornets forward Jeff Taylor 24 games for his domestic violence arrest. This is why this one-game slap-on-the-wrist suspension by Silver was so surprising.
The Crime Outweighs the Punishment
Rondo is the third NBA player to be punished for making on-court anti-gay slurs. Joakim Noah (in 2011 toward a heckling fan) and Kobe Bryant (in 2011 toward a referee) were both fined, but not suspended, for making similar anti-gay remarks.
On one hand, this makes Rondo’s suspension groundbreaking — he is the first player to be suspended for making derogatory slurs during a game. On the other hand,this was Adam Silver’s chance to take a stand on an important and (clearly) ongoing problem in the league. Instead, Silver failed to suspend Rondo for any significant amount of time, which would have hurt his season (the Kings won the game Rondo was suspended for) and his pocketbook (as is, Rondo will only lose $86,300).
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This was Adam Silver’s chance to take a stand on an important and (clearly) ongoing problem in the league.[/pullquote]
Think Rondo was fairly punished? Consider some of the other on-court conduct of NBA players/coaches that lead to a one-game suspension:
- Coach Jason Kidd slaps the ball out of the official’s hands.
- DeMarcus Cousins hits Al Horford in the face with his forearm.
- Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leave “the immediate vicinity of the bench” during an on-court incident.
Are any of these actions even remotely as detrimental to the league as Rondo’s?
Does it matter whether Rondo knew Kennedy that is gay? Not at all. If he knew and still berated Kennedy, that is obviously reprehensible behavior that should be punished more severely than a one game suspension. Such an act would be akin to a white player calling Kennedy the “N” word after disagreeing with a call. Inexcusable, deplorable, and ignorant. Call it what you want but, no matter what, it adds up to more than one game.
Assuming that Rondo had no idea that Kennedy was gay, his remarks were still repugnant and worthy of a greater suspension. Because Kennedy was at the time a gay man (regardless if everyone else knew or not), the remarks toward him were particularly hurtful and inappropriate. This is precisely the reason why this conduct is unacceptable and should be penalized severely.
But consider if Rondo made the same remarks to a heterosexual referee. They would still be used in a derogatory manner and would still be highly offensive (to everyone but particularly the LGBT community).
Silver has the Discretion Under the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement
Paragraph 35 of the NBA Constitution (a copy of which is attached to every NBA player’s contract) gives Silver the discretion to suspend a player if …
In the opinion of the Commissioner any act or conduct of a Player at or during an Exhibition, Regular Season, or Playoff game has been prejudicial to or against the best interests of the Association or the game of basketball,
Nothing else in the CBA forces Silver to limit a suspension for on-court conduct to a certain number of games. As noted above, there is no precedent for Silver suspending a player for a verbal comment. However, a lack of precedent hasn’t held Silver back in the past when it comes to important social issues.
Take domestic violence for example. In November of last year, the NBA suspended Jeff Taylor 24 games after he pled guilty to a domestic violence charge. At that time the previous penalties for domestic violence were as follows:
- In 2013, Jared Sullinger was suspended one game after a domestic violence arrest.
- In 2010, Lance Stephenson received no punishment after being arrested for allegedly pushing his pregnant girlfriend down the stairs.
- In 2007, Ron Artest was suspended seven games for a no contest plea in a domestic violence case.
- In 2003, Jason Richardson and Glenn Robinson were suspended three games apiece after convictions on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Silver admitted that Rondo’s actions were “of a different quality and character than those of other incidents because they [Noah and Bryant] were not as personal.” [/pullquote]
Silver bucked the precedent by suspending Taylor for more than three times as many games as anyone had ever been suspended before. Why did he decide to do it for domestic violence? Here is what he said at the time:
While the suspension is significantly longer than prior suspension for incidents of domestic violence by NBA players, it is appropriate in light of Mr. Taylor’s conduct, the need to deter similar conduct going forward, and the evolving social consensus –with which we fully concur – that professional sports leagues like the NBA must respond to such incidents in a more rigorous way.
In other words, Silver dished out a significantly longer suspension for three reasons: (1) because of the severity of the conduct; (2) to deter future conduct; and (3) because the NBA has a duty to act for important social issues.
Each of these three are present in the Rondo case. First, Rondo’s words were more severe than the Noah and Bryant cases. Silver recently admitted as much on The Vertical Podcast saying that Rondo’s actions were “of a different quality and character than those of other incidents because they [Noah and Bryant] were not as personal.” Moreover, the consequences of Rondo’s actions are certainly more detrimental than the others. In addition to the obvious harm to Kennedy and the terrible example set for anyone watching or following along, Rondo words essentially “outed” Kennedy, forcing him to reveal a very private aspect of his life to the world not on his own terms.
Kennedy’s statement revealing that he is gay is classy and inspirational:
I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.
Second, there is a continued pattern of conduct among NBA players (see Noah and Bryant) and a need to set a strong precedent in order to deter future conduct. In a recent interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Spurs coach Greg Popovich confirmed his lack of surprise of the anti-gay outburst:
Full quote from Gregg Popovich on Rajon Rondo/Bill Kennedy situation pic.twitter.com/Cd3p3n5q3v
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 14, 2015
It is clear that players aren’t getting the message yet. More than anyone, this (still) includes Rondo. Here is his “apology” to Kennedy:
My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period!
— Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo) December 14, 2015
They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.
— Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo) December 14, 2015
Note that the phrase – “I am sorry” – does not appear. This non-apology is rife with excuses and a failure to take responsibility for his actions.
Third, the NBA itself has identified a need to stop derogatory anti-gay slurs. In fact they have a whole advertising campaign dedicated to it:
Each of the three required criteria — as identified by Adam Silver — to “significantly” increase a penalty are present yet Silver failed to do anything more than include a minor increase to previous penalty’s for similar conduct.
Will Silver Revisit the Fine?
It is not likely. Even though Silver determined the penalty before Kennedy’s announcement, the CBA likely precludes him from taking a mulligan on Rondo’s one-game suspension.
The case has many parallels to former NFL running back Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. Both cases involved a regrettable action that was punished before all of the facts were revealed. In that case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games after conducting an investigation. Subsequent to the original suspension, a violent video was released showing Rice dragging his unconscious wife from an elevator and Goodell announced that Rice was indefinitely suspended. In arbitration, a federal judge vacated the indefinite suspension. Here, Silver suspended Rondo and immediately thereafter, Kennedy announced that he is gay.
In both cases, the punishment should have been greater the first time around. In Rice, Roger Goodell knew that he knocked out his girlfriend in the elevator before the video was released yet only suspended him for two games. Public pressure based on video evidence should not have been the reason that Goodell pursued a longer suspension. Similarly in this case, regardless of whether Silver knew Kennedy was gay (he did, although he did not know that Kennedy would announce it publicly until after he released the suspension), he should have — and was legally able to — come down stronger than just one game. Public pressure shouldn’t be (and I suspect won’t) be the reason to change that now.