On Friday, the NBA announced that it was suspending Sacramento Kings’ point guard Rajon Rondo for one game after a heated confrontation with referee Bill Kennedy, a suspension that feels insufficient with the revelation of what Rondo allegedly said to Kennedy that got him ejected.
As first reported by Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski, Rondo screamed: “You’re a motherfucking faggot. … You’re a fucking faggot.”
Lest you think this was just a standard-brand bit of ugliness, some casual homophobia that’s (sad to say) still all-too prevalent in sports, on Monday, Bill Kennedy became the second NBA referee to publicly come out as gay.
“I am proud to be an NBA referee and I am proud to be a gay man,” Kennedy told Wojnarowski. “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.”
But the question that arises is now even more complicated: Was Rondo just resorting to groaningly awful, retrograde insults to generally denigrate Kennedy or was this personal? That is to say, closeted or not, did Rondo know about Kennedy’s sexual orientation beforehand?
There are some rumors floating around which suggest it might be the latter.
In 2010, disgraced referee Tim Donaghy callously outed Kennedy, telling a Boston radio show, “It’s no secret on the staff that Bill Kennedy is a homosexual... It was known around the league, it was obvious during a game Doc Rivers questioned his sexual orientation and I think that has stuck with Kennedy over the years.”
Donaghy reiterated this claim last April, suggesting that Kennedy’s grudge persisted even after Rivers moved on to coach the Los Angeles Clippers. Rondo, of course, played for the Celtics under Rivers from 2006 to 2014.
Granted, Donaghy’s words should be taken with an entire Morton’s container of salt, and Rivers is flatly denying he ever said anything of the sort. “That was not true. Sometimes, I hope I have more credibility than where that came from,” Rivers said Monday, referring to Donaghy.
Haralabos Voulgaris, one of the world’s most successful professional gamblers and an NBA stats expert, tweeted about the incident, initially backing up Donaghy and claiming that he personally was in attendance during the Bulls-Celtics playoff game when it allegedly occurred.
A few hours later, he began to backtrack.
Voulgaris did not respond to The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment.
Whether or not Rondo knew about the gossip surrounding Kennedy isn’t currently possible to ascertain, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. If that’s the case, this is hate speech—a guy calling somebody a vile name while knowing he was both gay and at least publicly still in the closet, and using it in as predatory and threatening a way possible.
Take a look at what happened.
Kennedy calls a technical foul, and then switches places with another official, walking all the way to the other sideline to place a buffer between himself and Rondo. After the free throw, Rondo again marches right up to Kennedy, at which point he whistles him for a second technical foul, booting him from the game. Kennedy once again tries to get away, but Rondo grows livid, chasing Kennedy around the court. It’s only after teammates intervene that he’s finally dragged off.
The manner in which Rondo pursued Kennedy certainly played a large part in the NBA’s decision to elevate the punishment over a simple fine, as was the case in 2011 when Kobe Bryant incurred a $100,000 fine after TNT cameras captured him calling a ref a “fucking fag,” or when Joakim Noah was docked $50,000 after he yelled “faggot” at a fan who purportedly insulted his mother. Roy Hibbert also paid out $75,000 in 2013 for a deeply dumb “no homo” joke he slung during a post-game press conference in which he additionally described the media as “dumb motherfuckers.”
But even if Rondo was totally clueless with regards to Kennedy’s sexuality, this suspension still feels awfully light.
It’s hard to fathom a situation in which a player used, say, an ethnic or racial slur during a game and wouldn’t be sent home for a serious chunk of time. As far back as 2001, Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel received a four-game suspension for barking at an unruly fan, “Go drink another beer, you fucking Mexican piece of shit.”
Just look at the past year and a half. Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life after a conversation, in which he unpacked his reprehensible, bigoted musings with his then-girlfriend, was leaked. Yes, you can certainly make that claim that Sterling’s banishment was reflective of decades of racist actions. But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made it perfectly clear that the league’s punishment was solely in response to the tape in and of itself.
The Atlanta Hawks’ general manager, Danny Ferry was forced to resign before the start of the 2014 season and has been in exile since he read out loud an unnamed scout’s assessment that forward Luol Deng “has a little African in him.” That same summer, one of the Hawks’ owners, Bruce Levenson, sold his shares of the team after he self-reported sending an email in which he fretted that “the black crowd scared away the whites.”
For what it’s worth, the Kings released a formal apology and Rondo himself quickly followed suit, tweeting, “My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period! They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.”
Whether Rondo knew that Kennedy was gay isn’t the point, or at least in shouldn’t have been in the eyes of the NBA. The insult is meant to suggest that someone is somehow less than a man, and that homosexuality is still shameful, a thing that should be kept hidden if at all possible.
For the person on the receiving end of this dreck, like Bill Kennedy, it makes an entire world of difference. But the intent of the insult itself—whether it’s directed at a straight or gay individual—remains the same.
The NBA has done a lot of good when it comes to fighting homophobia, including the celebration and support of Jason Collins’s decision to come out and Monday afternoon’s statement from Commissioner Silver, who "wholeheartedly supports Bill's decision to live his life proudly and openly."
But this suspension isn't good enough.