On LeBron and 'retarded'

LeBron James is being taken to task by some for uttering, “That's retarded” under his breath during the postgame news conference on Saturday night in Boston. A reporter had asked a discursive question to Dwyane Wade about whether his foul on Rajon Rondo was a dirty play and James, sitting next to Wade, was clearly annoyed -- as many were -- by the question.

On Monday, James was asked to clarify his use of the characterization, but declined.

“I didn’t understand the question,” James said. “It is definitely blown out of proportion. I don’t think Dwyane is a dirty player. It’s the same as … I don’t think that is a great question. I think that’s a stupid question. I don’t know why someone would even ask that question.”

Growing up, the use of the word retarded as an epithet was strictly verboten in my home. My parents always preached respect for others, but that wasn't the primary reason for the prohibition. My aunt suffered brain damage at birth. At the time of her delivery, her brain was denied adequate oxygen. As a result, she never developed mental faculties beyond those of an infant. She was what we now call developmentally disabled, though at the time we referred to her condition as mental retardation.

About one Sunday a month, my family would climb into the car and drive over to The Gatchell Home where my aunt lived. It was a live-in facility near Emory University for adults who suffered musculoskeletal or neurological conditions.

I hated these visits, from the time I was a little kid until I left for college. The severity of the residents' disabilities made me uncomfortable, and the manner in which my father tried to communicate with my aunt depressed me to no end. He was completely devoted to her welfare, yet her only capacity to return that benevolence was a series of moans.

During these drop-bys, I'd bid my aunt hello, then retreat to the main sitting area where I would watch the Braves or World Championship Wrestling with the medics and a couple of patients who had minor disabilities.

I regret I wasn't as generous as I should've been during those visits. Mustering the maturity to hang out a few minutes longer with my aunt would've been a nice way to honor my father. Yet I always felt a measure of pride about not using "retarded" the way most kids did and for asking friends to lay off "retarded," particularly when they came over my house or were hanging out with my family.

In fact, refraining from "retarded" was probably the one and only thing I ever gave my aunt -- the dignity of not being stigmatized.

Incidents like the one surrounding LeBron's use of the word "retarded" generally fall into a rote, unfortunate pattern. A few folks will yell that the PC Police are on the rampage or that the whole thing is a media-generated controversy. Some on the other side will tar James as repugnant for using a word like "retarded" as an insult.

We can't expect every 26-year-old in America to pass every test of cultural sensitivity. I actually have a 35-year-old friend with an elite education who still uses, "That's so gay," pretty liberally, even in my presence.

Do I think LeBron hates retarded or developmentally disabled people? No. Do I think my friend is homophobic? Of course not.

But I also don't think it's hypersensitive to ask people to be more precise with their language -- not as a political imperative, but because it's so easy to do.

This is life's ultimate value play: We refrain from stigmatizing groups of people with our speech at very little cost, and we reap the benefit of collective dignity and knowing we didn't hurt anyone.

How does this play out in the practical world?

If a reporter asks a silly or inappropriate question, call it silly or inappropriate.