It’s also an F-word, but not of the four-letter variety. This particular F-word has six letters and is a slur meant to disparage, belittle and dehumanize gay people.
Rajon Rondo, the talented but mercurial Sacramento Kings point guard, was issued a one-game suspension by the NBA for using the F-word to accost referee Bill Kennedy during a game Dec. 3 in Mexico City. In announcing the suspension Friday, NBA officials had kept it vague, saying the punishment was for directing “a derogatory and offensive term” toward a game official after Rondo was ejected in a dismal loss against the Boston Celtics.
More details emerged this week, when Kennedy told Yahoo Sports he was gay, and the exact nature of Rondo’s rant became public. In the ensuing hours, a national story took shape: Rondo had hurled an ugly invective at one of the game’s top referees, who was motivated by the incident to tell the world he was a proud gay man.
“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,” he told Yahoo.
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Rondo’s actions that night – the icy stare he directed at Kennedy and his look of disdain as he spit out his insults – took on a completely different meaning. It no longer seemed as simple as a moment of unchecked “frustration and emotion” as Rondo initially suggested on Twitter.
It looked callous, purposeful and bigoted. Why would that word come to mind when he is roiling in anger? If you are going to have a disagreement with an official during a game, what does the sexual orientation of that official have to do with anything? It doesn’t. But the F-word, used in anger, is all about abuse and contempt.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the word has its origins in the 13th century as a description of a bundle of sticks. That bundle was considered a burden, and the word carried a negative connotation. Later, it became a description of heretics, who were required to wear the word embroidered on their sleeves.
By the early 20th century, it became a derogatory term reserved largely for gay men.
Too often, this particular word has been screamed at gay people as they were being assaulted and attacked. And we’re not talking decades ago. In a criminal trial that began Monday in Philadelphia, a 25-year-old woman is accused of repeatedly bellowing the F-word at a gay couple who were subsequently beaten by her friends. One of the victims, Andrew Haught, suffered a fracture to his jaw, which had to be wired shut for weeks.
Steve Hansen, the first openly gay person to be elected to the Sacramento City Council, said someone scrawled the word on one of his campaign signs the first time he ran for office. “It’s a heinous word used to bash people,” Hansen said. “It has perpetuated a lot of violence.”
In a sports context, the F-word is used to convey contempt in a culture that remains an inhospitable place for gay people, despite recent advances. Male professional sports in America remains among the last bastions of homophobia. There are openly gay people in the American military. But there are no openly gay athletes currently playing in any of America’s Big Three male sports leagues.
Jason Collins played 22 games with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 after he had come out to the world, but he was in the twilight of his career and retired soon after. Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams of the NFL, but he was cut before the regular season started.
The NBA has a better reputation among sports leagues because Collins was openly accepted by teammates and opponents. In this regard, Rondo’s words marked a disturbing step backward. And he made it all the worse by waiting 24 hours before apologizing unequivocally in a written statement.
This was a public-relations nightmare that a struggling Kings franchise did not need, though Hansen praised the Kings’ ownership for quickly condemning Rondo’s words. “Rajon’s comment is not reflective of the culture of the Sacramento Kings or the world we want to live in,” owner Vivek Ranadive said in a statement.
Mike Tentis, a member of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, said his group will perform at a Kings game in February, just as it did last year. Before that, it had been 20 years since his singing group had been invited to a Kings game, back in the days when the Sacramento Gay Men’s Choir was known as the Sacramento Men’s Choir. He said the Kings’ new owners are reaching out to Sacramento’s gay community in a more meaningful way than the previous owners.
Initially, Tentis said, he thought the Rondo issue was a bit of a “tempest in a teapot.” In the big picture, he said, Sacramento has come a long way in the last decade, with public support of marriage equality and the ascension of public leaders such as Hansen.
But there are still setbacks. “The F-word is still used in anger in Sacramento,” he said. “It’s frequently used when people are beat up.”
That’s the legacy that Rondo ripped open when his anger became intolerance. “I want to be clear, from the bottom of my heart, that I am truly sorry for what I said to (Kennedy),” Rondo said in a statement. “There is no place on or off the court for language that disrespects anyone’s sexual orientation.”
Hansen welcomes the conversation.
“When somebody does something like this, it’s an opportunity to engage and move society forward,” Hansen said.
“When doors are shut, it’s hard for people to grow. I’ve always chosen these opportunities to try to engage. We’re all learning. We’re all growing. I believe redemption is possible for everyone.”