Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

Dick Harmon: Sterling incident, NBA players remind us words matter

By Dick Harmon, Deseret News

Published: Tue, April 29 5:45 p.m. MDT

 Shaquille O'Neal, minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, arrives before the start of an NBA basketball game between the Denver Nuggets and the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Genevieve Ross)

Shaquille O'Neal, minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, arrives before the start of an NBA basketball game between the Denver Nuggets and the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Genevieve Ross)

(Genevieve Ross, AP)

If we’ve learned anything this past week, it is that words truly matter.

You say it; you own it.

And the consequences could be huge.

The NBA found this out the past few days at every level.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a successful billionaire, skyrocketed to the front and center of the nation’s attention the past week when a girlfriend leaked a recording between her and Sterling in which the 80-year-old made disparaging racial remarks.

Folks across the country, from shore to shore, decried Sterling’s words and within days the NBA banned him from having anything to do with the NBA, his team, players, business, arena, coaches, staff and fined him the maximum of $2.5 million. If the league has its way, he will be forced to sell the Clippers.

Sterling has now been labeled a bigot and will be shunned by the public for his remaining days.

In a less publicized incident involving a former and current NBA player, senseless, immature and hurtful comments were used in mocking a disabled 23-year-old man from Madison Heights, Michigan.

The two offenders were Shaquille O’Neal and Jazz point guard Trey Burke.

Both O’Neal and Burke poked fun at how Jahmel Binion looked in a photograph posted on the Internet. Binion suffers from ectodermal dysplasia, which produces abnormalities with the hair, teeth, nails, sweat glands and face. Binion posted the photo on Instagram to help raise support for an anti-bullying campaign.

On its face, so to speak, this was a classless act by two high-profile athletes.

But unlike Sterling, both Shaq and Burke quickly apologized, reached out to Binion, volunteered to correct the wrong in myriad ways, including inviting him to a game and helping him with his “Hug Don’t Judge” campaign to stop bullies.

In Burke’s defense, he thought the photo of Binion was not a real person when he tweeted out and mocked him. After holding back on making a public apology on Twitter to bring more publicity to his error, he did tweet out, “Had the opportunity to talk to Jahmel Binion yesterday and apologize about the post on IG (Instagram)."

Racism, bigotry, mockery of disabled, insensitivity, the list could go on and on how words can hurt folks and bring embarrassment and shame to those that speak them.

I’m not smart enough to know how to rank these offenses. They are just offensive. Do they all deserve the same condemnation or penalty — whether widely known or in relative secret? As a society, does it matter most when it makes national headlines and leads off broadcasts on CNN, Fox News and SportsCenter on ESPN? Or is the weight of the mistake the same when only two parties are involved?

Benion had idolized O’Neal and had seen him as a hero.

“I’ve been getting teased since I was yay tall. People laugh at me, stare at me,” Binion said. “I was kind of hurt because I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve watched Shaq play basketball since I was (inaudible), so I was like, why are you making fun of me? He is supposed to be this role model.”

The O’Neal, Burke situation did make headlines. The New York Post, The Daily Mail in London, the Huffington Post and Michigan Live were some of the outlets that reported the flap and subsequent apologies.

But it was nothing like the Sterling coverage, stupid words said in the privacy of his own home on the phone to someone he knew very well.

What’s the big takeaway from all this?

Words do matter. And in the age of social media, electronics and the digital world, all our words are only a click away.

Two thousand years ago, the danger of words came with a warning by the biblical James when he wrote:

“For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind; but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:3-8).

Sage words for a thousand generations.

And just think, the apostle James had no idea of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or girlfriends with recorders.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

Related Stories
Recommended
1. Jim Cobabe
Provo, UT,
May 2, 2014

I think perhaps a more disturbing lesson is that we can have no confidence that anything we ever say or do is "private" from prying and invasive scrutiny. In any case, as with so many other news-driven feeding frenzies, the media reaction to the "Sterling incident" is so insanely disproportionate and arbitrary. There are countless examples of such incidents that the media yawns past every day. In this case there is far less than meets the eye.

2. Henry Drummond
San Jose, CA,
May 5, 2014

I grew up in a world where everything Sterling said was socially acceptable. Maybe another take-away of this incident is to recognize how far we've come and who paid the price to get us here.