This is a story about words, which is why the terminology the NBA used in announcing part of its $25,000 fine for Matt Barnes was so revealing in its vagueness: "inappropriate language." Not hateful language, not racially insensitive language, not inflammatory language. Inappropriate. It was both the weakest possible phrase and the strongest indicator that the NBA feels hampered in its ability to police an issue that society is far from resolving: the use of the N-word by African-Americans.
The league had the luxury of lumping Barnes' tweet -- the one in which he said, "I love my teammates like family, but I'm DONE standing up for these n---as! All this s--- does is cost me money." -- in with a multitude of offenses. He was in violation of the NBA policy that prohibits active players from using social media during games, and he had failed to leave the court in "a timely manner" following his ejection for shoving Serge Ibaka near the end of the second quarter of a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. So technically, this is not strictly about Barnes' use of the word -- which serves only to bring the issue to the forefront.
It's so telling that the NBA had a chance to take a stand but punted. And a football term is only appropriate, since the NFL's Riley Cooper and Richie Incognito made use of the N-word a national story earlier this year. Cooper was fined by his team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Incognito was suspended indefinitely by the Miami Dolphins after the leak of a transcript of a threatening, racially charged voicemail he left teammate Jonathan Martin. Both cases involved white men referring to African-Americans. Barnes is an African-American tweeting about a team whose roster is 85 percent black. You'd have to stretch like a ballet dancer to reach the point of interpreting it as racist. But if the NBA didn't act now, how could it penalize a white player who used the same word? (You'll notice Incognito filed a grievance over his suspension, leaving the Dolphins to account for prior, unchecked, uses of the word by Incognito and other players on the team.)
So the NBA tried to suppress it without going out of its way to say "we're suppressing it." That's because the league is trying to tiptoe into someone else's civil war.
You see how this is a difficult situation for the Clippers and the NBA? How does an organization take external control over an internal issue? That's as tricky to determine as why African-Americans feel the need to be the largest perpetuator -- by far -- of a word whose original intent was to demean and belittle them. I've heard the rationale that African-Americans use it to take control of the word. If that's the goal, it's been a colossal failure. Because if African-American use of the N-word had successfully defused it, it wouldn't be such an explosive story when Cooper or Incognito said it.
All that's been accomplished through use of the word in hip-hop lyrics, comedy shows and casual conversation is to integrate it into the national lexicon, for better or (mostly) worse. Young white kids who hear it in their favorite songs think it's funny. Young African-Americans who never heard it while being blasted with fire hoses, attacked by dogs or harassed as they walked into school think it sounds cool. My stance on the word can be summarized by Laurence Fishburne's response to Samuel L. Jackson in Spike Lee's "School Daze." That doesn't mean I won't sing along when it comes up in one of my favorite songs. That's the great paradox. It's inextricably woven into black culture. Where I draw the line is calling anyone else by that word. Or allowing someone to call me that.
Should it be left to individuals, even if it means tolerating use by a white person, as apparently was the case in the Miami Dolphins' locker room? No. If it's offensive to someone, it shouldn't be said by anyone in an area that's under the NBA's jurisdiction. And when players are in a public setting -- be it the court, in the locker room during media access periods, or on Twitter -- there should be a zero-tolerance policy. That way you don't have to worry about making exceptions when the "wrong" person uses a word that's heard in locker rooms daily, whether from players or the music coming through the speakers. For now, according to an NBA office source, the league feels empowered to act when the word is used in a news conference or on social media.
"At the present, the line gets drawn there," the source said. "Will that line stay there? That's the question."
On Thursday, I heard a story about a team executive who overheard a black player in the midst of an on-camera interview call out to a black teammate who was leaving the locker room, "Hey, where you going, n---a?" The executive, who was white, pulled the two players aside and told them they couldn't use that word in front of the media anymore. His rationale: This was a professional work environment, and they had to act accordingly.
And there's the solid ground for a stronger policy. Would people who use the word with their buddies say it in their office? They wouldn't, because they'd know better.
They'd also be more hesitant if the league took a stronger stand. In 2011, when Kobe Bryant was caught on camera using an anti-gay term as he cursed an official during a game, the league hit him with a $100,000 fine that was accompanied by a firm statement from commissioner David Stern, who called Bryant's comment "offensive and inexcusable."
"Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society," Stern said.
The news release announcing the Barnes fine didn't carry a word from Stern or any other league officials. Barnes had already apologized, showing that either his clearer head had prevailed or someone had lectured him. But the league didn't drop the hammer this time. It might be a missed opportunity.
Almost two years after a word cost Bryant six figures, Bryant chastised a Twitter follower for using "gay" as a derogatory term. Will it bring an end to anti-gay behavior? No. But there's a word for the NBA leading one player to positively challenge one person over language on Twitter: progress.