Sports Slurs: When Words Go Foul

DivacShaquille O'Neal uses made-up Chinese words and Kung Fu-style gestures to taunt fellow NBA player Yao Ming.

A Serbian player for the Sacramento Kings uses a three-fingered hand gesture that some Muslims compare to a Nazi salute.

And a Major League Baseball umpire leaves a recorded phone message using the words "stupid Jew bitch."

O'Neal apologized, though not in a way that satisfied everyone. The Kings player says his hand gesture is not intended to be offensive, though some remain very offended. And the MLB umpire was suspended for 10 games, a move lauded by the Anti-Defamation League as "swift and appropriate."

The latest rash of slurs from the sports world isn't all that surprising. Slurs have been spewed by John Rocker and Reggie White in the recent past, Marge Schott in the not so recent past, and Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis in the more distant past.

While it's not a new trend, observers do say it is a growing one.

"It's definitely changed in the past 20 years," said Charles A. Maher, the psychologist for Cleveland's major league baseball team and a psychology professor at Rutgers University.

Changed how? "Getting worse," Maher said.

Based on the growing diversity in professional sports, with athletes coming to the United States from all over the world, increasing tension and missteps don't necessarily surprise Susan Leitao, director of Project Teamwork at the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

"We see a growing number of people from all different countries," she said. "We usually tend not to embrace new ways. Different and strange usually ends up being negative at first."

Damage done, apologies made

What happens when a sports slur draws media attention?

"For the general public, it reinforces the image of athletes as egotistical, selfish and out of control," Maher said.

It also sometimes brings a backlash, to individual athletes, teams and leagues. Sometimes that backlash is big, as with the Asian community's ongoing complaints about Shaq, which has included letter-writing and e-mail campaigns and has involved sports and news columnists, elected officials and others.

Other times, the offended group is smaller, less vocal or less organized, and the matter doesn't rise as high in the public eye. Isa Blumi, a graduate student at New York University, is a Muslim Kosovar Albanian, a U.S. citizen and, in Blumi's own words, "extremely upset" by Divac and teammate Peja Stojakovic exchanging the three-fingered salute. Blumi has written to the Kings, the NBA league and Sacramento-area media outlets, without satisfaction.

The history of the three-fingered salute is complex, tied in part to the trinity of the Serbian Orthodox church. But some say it has moved beyond religion to become a nationalistic, anti-Muslim salute. Casual viewers might see the symbol as a celebration of a three-point shot; Blumi and other Muslims, though, see it as a gesture of hate.

The Sacramento News and Review, an alternative weekly, published a story about Divac's salute. In it, the newspaper quoted a 21-year-old Muslim woman who fled Bosnia as a child. When she saw a professional basketball player making the same salute that had terrorized her as a child, "It's like somebody kicked me in the stomach," she told the newspaper.

Divac's response? "I know the soldiers did it, but that's not what it means to me," he told the newspaper.

That's just not good enough for Blumi, who, in an e-mail interview said, "Divac knows perfectly well what he is doing."

Clearly, among some, the salute carries the weight of hate. Consider online commentary about the News and Review story in which a Serbian writer stated, "It fills me with great pride that the Orthodox sign of the Cross fills the hearts of Muslims and Croats with fear just like a cross frightens vampires."

Blumi said, "If an NBA player on the international stage ... would display anti-Jewish or Nazi-era symbols, there would be immediate uproar."

Current events support Blumi's view. While complaints about the Serbian players' three-fingered salutes have drawn little media attention, reaction to umpire Bruce Froemming's remarks was swift and conclusive.

"If the group who is offended is small, the complaint sometimes get lost," said Leitao of Northeastern University. "That's not the way it should be, but it's the way it is. Unfortunately, it often comes down to volume and size, and smaller groups might get ignored."

Even when an apology comes, it sometimes is less than satisfactory, feeling more image-driven than heartfelt. In his apology, umpire Froemming has said, "There was no anti-Semitism whatsoever on my part."

More than one sports columnist has pointed out that anti-Semitism covers only one-third of the offensive remark, leaving "stupid" and "bitch" unanswered for. "That's one out of three, Bruce," wrote Elliott Harris of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Not bad if you're batting. Not good if you're apologizing."

Shaq's apology -- "If I offended anyone, I apologize" -- also was unsatisfactory in some people's minds.

"If he offended anyone? I don't see that as an apology at all," California state Assemblywoman Judy Chu told a newspaper columnist.

Phil Yu, who runs the popular website, added, "He has turned it around and attributed the controversy to a lack of a sense of humor on our part."

The trickle-down effect

Where does responsibility for such slurs lie?

"First, it's personal," Leitao said. "It starts with personal responsibility, on the part of the athlete."

Maher said these situations sometimes happen out of "just plain ignorance," an athlete being unaware of the offensiveness of a remark. Other times it's impulsiveness. With some, being brash is "part of their style."

Combine that with cameras and recorders rolling, and the impact of such statements becomes even greater.

Do Something

Don't let your silence become tacit approval for insensitive, derogatory or racist remarks made by professional athletes.

Send letters or e-mails of complaint to the athlete, the team and the league. If that doesn't work, widen your circle to include newspaper columnists, elected officials, humanitarian organizations and others. The more pressure you bring to bear on a situation, the more likely change will come.

Without action, the damage can grow.

"A lot of times kids will repeat (gestures or words)," said Susan Leitao of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "They take things on, and they have no idea of the meaning or the harm."

Maher said leagues and team owners have a responsibility to teach media awareness and respect for diversity, but, like Leitao, he said the ultimate responsibility lies with the player. And that responsibility has a trickle-down result, he said.

"This kind of incident is increasing at the college level," Maher said, citing a "modeling effect," as young players base their behavior on star athletes. "Then college leads down to high school, and high school leads down to the more competitive middle schools."

So every time a Shaq or a John Rocker goes off, it gives tacit approval for younger players to do the same, Maher said.

Maher said pro scouts, looking for future professional players, now consider level-headedness and awareness of diversity when choosing new players.

And just as players carry responsibility for their words, viewers and listeners -- and other pro athletes -- need to embrace their roles as vigilant watchdogs.

"If other people, especially other players, speak out (against slurs), that can have a very positive effect," Maher said.

Often, the response needs to be one of education, informing the player and the viewing public why such words or comments are offensive.

"Education," Leitao said. "That's usually how change gets made."

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