On Sunday night, veteran NBA referee Bill Kennedy revealed that he is gay.
“I am proud to be an NBA referee and I am proud to be a gay man,” Kennedy said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.”
His announcement came just days after the NBA announced that Sacramento Kings’ guard Rajon Rondo was suspended for “directing a derogatory and offensive term towards a game official and not leaving the court in a timely manner.”
Kennedy, who has been an NBA referee for 18 years, ejected Rondo due to consecutive technical fouls in a December 3 game in Mexico City. After the ejection, Rondo followed Kennedy off of the court and unleashed a diatribe, which Kennedy and some of his fellow referees reported included homophobic slurs.
“You’re a mother — — — — faggot. … You’re a f — — — faggot, Billy,” Rondo allegedly said.
The NBA spent over a week looking into the incident. Their investigation included taped interviews with three officials, including Kennedy, the day after the game. Rondo was ultimately suspended one game and fined his per-game paycheck of $86,300. (He is making $9.5 million this season.) Many found the suspension to be too light considering the inflammatory nature of Rondo’s comments.
First big PR mistake of the Adam Silver era. 1 game = way too light, sends bad message. Stunningly awful by Rondo.https://t.co/98gfWQ02WK
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 14, 2015
The National Basketball Referee’s Association issued a statement of support for Kennedy to Yahoo Sports: “The NBA referees stand by Bill Kennedy for the job he does and who he is. We stand against bigotry in all its forms.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver also made a public statement supporting Kennedy’s decision to come out.
“I wholeheartedly support Bill’s decision to live his life proudly and openly,” Silver said. “Throughout his 18-year career with the league, Bill has excelled as a referee because of his passion, dedication and courage. Those qualities will continue to serve him well both as a game official and as a positive influence for others. While our league has made great progress, our work continues to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity.”
The NBA has been ahead of other prominent sports leagues when it comes to LGBT acceptance. They already have an out official — Violet Palmer, who is also the first female referee in the league — and an out front-office executive, Rick Welts, the President and Chief of Operations for the reigning champions, the Golden State Warriors.
Additionally, NBA player Jason Collins became the first pro athlete in any of the big four American sports — baseball, football, hockey, or basketball — to come out when he announced that the was gay on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2013. He was a free agent at the time, but Collins did end up signing with the Brooklyn Nets and playing most of the 2014 season with the team. He was accepted publicly by his coaches and teammates, but did say that he was taunted with anti-gay remarks from at least one opponent.
So while Kennedy’s announcement is an important step forward, Rondo’s remarks are another sign that the NBA still has a ways to go until the NBA truly becomes a safe space and inclusive space for the LGBT community.
According to Yahoo Sports, Rondo is the third player in the NBA who has been punished for using homophobic slurs since the league added a non-discrimination policy in 2011 that levied a minimum $50,000 fine on any player who uses anti-LGBT language. Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 for hurling an anti-gay slur at a disruptive fan, and Los Angeles Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 from directing homophobic language at an official. Rondo is the first player suspended for such comments.
Both Noah and Bryant apologized for their comments, and recently, Bryant even scolded a fan on twitter who used the word “gay” in a derogatory manner.
Rondo denied to league officials he made the comments. When reached on Monday, a Rondo spokesperson declined comment.
Rondo addressed the incident on social media on Monday, tweeting: “My actions during the game were out of frustration and emotion, period! They absolutely do not reflect my feelings toward the LGBT community. I did not mean to offend or disrespect anyone.”
The Sacramento Kings also released a statement; Vlade Divac, general manager and vice president of basketball operations, said “Rajon’s comment was disrespectful and offensive, and we wholeheartedly disapprove of any language that discriminates or disparages others based on sexual orientation or anything else.”
“Rajon’s comment is not reflective of the culture of the Sacramento Kings organization or the world we want to live in, owner and chairman Vivek Ranadive added. “He’s apologized, and has been suspended by the NBA. On behalf of the team, I apologize to Bill Kennedy for any harm this may have caused.”