Stu Jackson on Kobe/Noah fines

When Joakim Noah’s fine for using an anti-gay slur at a fan came in at $50,000 in the month after Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for directing the same term at a game official, fans were more outraged at the disparity in money than the actual comment. At least that’s how it played out in my Twitter replies timeline. People felt the NBA was sending the message that it valued its fans only half as much as it valued its officials.

A league spokesman’s statement that Bryant’s fine was indeed larger because it included verbal abuse of an official only seemed to make Twitter users angrier.

NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball operations Stu Jackson was at Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night and I asked him for clarification, specifically the inference that the league’s statement was that insulting a fan is half as bad as insulting an official.

“That’s not the correct statement,” Jackson said. “The issue really is the term. In one case, in Kobe’s case, the term was used but directed at somebody who is in the game, without provocation. With Noah the argument can be made – and it happens to be true – that he was provoked, and he used a statement to a fan that passed by him. So it’s different circumstances. We’ll continue to evaluate each one of these incidents separately and make a determination. But we felt in this case a higher fine wasn’t warranted.”

As Noah claimed in this interview with Kevin Arnovitz, the fan made a derogatory comment about Noah’s mother. You talk about someone’s mom and you get what’s coming to you. It no longer becomes a matter of placing a value on that fan because the fan forfeited that value by crossing the line, just as if he had ventured onto the court. Where Noah went wrong was by slurring an entire group of the population who had nothing to do with this, and reinforcing the notion that being gay or feminine should be considered an insult.

Can the NBA change our society’s biases and the linguistic fallout? Should it try?

We just saw that the threat of a heavy fine wasn’t enough to keep Noah from doing the same thing practically before the check had cleared Kobe’s account. The only true deterrent to NBA behavior is the threat of suspensions. It’s like the difference between a sign that says “No Parking” and one that says “Tow Away Zone.”

We’ve seen how the league’s willingness to suspend any player, any time for leaving the bench area during an altercation has cut down on that action. Since the notorious Amar’e Stoudemire suspension in the 2007 playoffs there has been only one bench-leaving suspension: Lamar Odom in a game at Portland in March of 2009.

Suspensions shouldn’t be used for bad choice of language during the playoffs. The outcome of a playoff game or even a series shouldn’t be affected by an offensive term, no more than a golfer should be disqualified for cursing after missing a putt.

At the same time the league should be aware of how the fans feel, that the bar resides so low that it was easy for them to jump to the conclusion that the league doesn’t care what’s said to them by its players. The NBA shouldn’t worry about insulting the fans who have nothing better to do than yell foul and inappropriate insults. But it should do something to show the vast majority of well-behaved paying customers that it cares about them.

How about not denying them any games with a lockout?