Barnes to Barkley to ESPN — No One Learns

It is done out of defiance, not from a place of intellect or social savvy or fundamental human couth. When Matt Barnes says he’ll continue to use the N-word, and Charles Barkley says he’ll continue to use the N-word, and rappers say they’ll continue to use the N-word, then how are we supposed to tell our children — our future in America — not to use the N-word when they’re hearing so many other people clouding the air with the N-word?

The N-word should not be uttered by anyone, white or black, just as I never should refer to a fellow Italian-American as a Wop. We are trying to advance as a society, respect the battles fought by Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson and the many other pioneers. To ignore history and mindlessly spew racial epithets, just because you can, is sheer stupidity and an insult to those trying to make the world a better place.

Yet there was Barnes, known throughout his NBA career as a hot-headed enforcer, compounding the damage of one error with another. After he was ejected for shoving Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, the Los Angeles Clippers forward marched off to the locker room, where he later resorted to the angry man’s best friend — his Twitter feed — and let loose. “I love my teammates like family, but I’m DONE standing up for these n—as! All this s— does is cost me money, …” Barnes wrote. He apparently was referring to Clippers teammate Blake Griffin, who, as the star of TV commercials and a known NBA flopper, has developed a largely unfair league reputation as soft. Barnes shoved Ibaka merely because his arms were entangled with Griffin’s after Ibaka had blocked Griffin’s shot. It wasn’t necessary to defend Griffin, but that’s Barnes in a nutshell, as unpredictable as he is volatile. He apologized quickly, on Twitter and directly to his teammates, and though the NBA was weak in fining him only $25,000, the episode seemed dead.

Until Barnes yanked open the wound … and said he’ll use the N-word anytime he so desires.

“The word I used is a word that’s used on the court, used in the locker room, used amongst my friends and family; it’s a regular word to me,” Barnes told reporters. “I think my mistake was using it in a social manner, which I regret and I apologize for it. But you guys have to get used to it.”

Why must we get used to it?

“If you look at the particular way I said it, kids are seeing that through music, through their favorite artists, and probably some of their favorite movies and even on TV now,” Barnes said. “The word is not necessarily a racial slur. Everyone is trying to paint it like I made some kind of hate crime or something. It’s a word that I guarantee you will be used out here on the court today. It’s a word that I’ve already heard in the locker room. It’s not as big a deal as people are trying to make it. My mistake was making it in a social manner in the platform I used it on.

“This is a new day and age, and for my generation that’s a very common word. You hear it on the radio, you hear it in movies, you hear it on TV. It is what it is. It was never intended for any person on the team.”

Yes, Matt, the N-word is perceived in our society as a racial slur first. And if it’s used irresponsibly in the context of creative license by rappers, comedians and movie directors, that doesn’t give you the green light of acceptance to use it at will as a well-known pro basketball player. We’ve come so far in this country — elected an African-American president, shattered color barriers, blown up and rebuilt the culture of race. Why are people like Barnes almost mocking progress? “I think the way it’s said makes people cringe,” he said. “I think if you put an –er at the end that makes people cringe, but if there’s an –a at the end that’s like people saying, `bro.’ That’s just how we address people now. That’s how we address our friends. That’s how we talk. That’s how my wife talks. That’s how my family talks. People talk that way now. I think if you put the –er on it it’s offensive and if you have an –a on it it’s more slang.”

How about just ditching the N-word altogether instead of stretching and straining to justify its use? It would help if an influential commentator such as Charles Barkley, whose word goes far in race-related debates, said there is no place for such slurs. But when he discussed the Barnes story on TNT, Barkley disappointed me.

“I’m a black man,” Barkley said. “I use the N-word. I will continue to use the N-word among my black friends and my white friends.

“What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me. The language we use (in the locker room), sometimes it’s sexist, sometimes it’s homophobic, and a lot of times it’s racist. We do that when we’re joking with our teammates, and it’s nothing personal.”

White America? No, Charles, it’s America, period, and you are sounding like the president of the Free Richie Incognito bully mission. The locker room is not a special place. In fact, as we’ve witnessed in Miami with the Dolphins debacle, it can be a sick, twisted place, and the jock culture is about to change for the better whether Barkley likes it or not. I might say that anyone who separates part of the nation as “White America,” while referring to “(w)hat I do with my black friends,” is a racist himself. I don’t like racists.

Nor do I respect those who don’t learn from the precedents of previous slurs. At ESPN last year, a SportsCenter anchor was suspended 30 days and a website copy editor was fired when both used the phrase “a chink in the armor” in describing Jeremy Lin, the NBA’s first Amercan-born player of Chinese origin. As a well-worn cliche in American culture, the comment, I suppose, could be pardoned as a dumb, unintentional slip. But there is absolutely no defense for what another SportsCenter anchor, Jorge Andres, said Thursday night when describing a Lin highlight.

“He was cooking with some hot peanut oil,” Andres said.

That would be a blatant, unforgivable Asian stereotype. Minutes later, Andres was apologizing on the broadcast. “Earlier in this show I made a comment about a Jeremy Lin basket that I should not have made,” he said. “This was clearly a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize. I am very, very sorry for offending anyone, that was never my intention.”

Hot peanut oil? Really?

Rob Gronkowski, too, went down the wrong road the other day. As someone who has been caught on camera doing regrettable things, the wild-child tight end of the New England Patriots should have learned long ago to be on his best professional behavior in public. But there he was this week, mocking a man of Asian heritage at a bar near his suburban Boston home. Gronkowski called the man a friend, but, again, why not come up with a smarter way of addressing a friend?

“They told me he could only cook fried rice,” said Gronkowski, armed with a house microphone and hamming it up for the crowd. Then there was his unfortunate reference to “Leslie Chow,” the character in “The Hangover” movies.

“I feel bad, personally. I feel bad,” Gronkowski told the media later. “I talked to (the man), and he assured me that he took no offense in any way. I know others did, and I apologize to those who took offense.”

So, we will remember November 2013 as the month when no one heeded a lesson about sensitivity. Matt Barnes didn’t learn from Richie Incognito. Charles Barkley didn’t learn from Matt Barnes. ESPN’s Jorge Andres didn’t learn from ESPN’s Max Bretos and ESPN’s copy editor. And Rob Gronkowski didn’t learn from Rob Gronkowski.

Question is, will we ever learn?