Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has been in the sports news as of late, after Miami Heat Forward Meyers Leonard used an anti-Semitic slur during a live stream on Twitch on March 8. After media backlash, Meyers promptly issued an apology, stating, “While I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, my ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong.”
Almost immediately, the Heat and their Jewish owner, Micky Arison, suspended Leonard from team activity indefinitely. The NBA quickly followed suit by fining Leonard the maximum fine of $50,000 and suspending him from all Heat facilities and team activities for one week. Six days after the incident, Leonard was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, where Leonard is not expected to play a single minute.
The Meyers Leonard affair is one of many anti-Semitic incidents that have taken place over the past few years. In December of 2018, NBA superstar LeBron James was in hot water after re-posting lyrics to a rap song by artist 21 Savage on Twitter, about “getting that Jewish money.” The lyric echoed a historical anti-Semitic trope dating back to the Middle Ages about Jews controlling money and boasting too much power. James immediately apologized for reposting the rap lyrics, stating, “That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people.” James did not face any consequences from the Los Angeles Lakers nor the NBA.
James’s former teammate, ex-NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade, while not overtly saying anything anti-Semitic, did come to the defense of someone who did. After comedian and actor Nick Cannon made anti-Semitic comments on his podcast and received backlash, Wade defended Cannon in a tweet. Wade wrote, “We are with you. Keep leading.” Additionally, over the summer, NFL player Desean Jackson posted a quote falsely attributed to Hitler which said that the Jewish people planned to “extort America” and “achieve world domination”. Ex-NBA star Stephen Jackson then came to Jackson’s defense in an Instagram video in which he said that Jackson was “trying to educate himself, educate people, and he’s speaking the truth. Right?” Both Wade and Jackson received no condemnation from the NBA.
Does the NBA have an anti-Semitism problem? All of these occurrences are wrong, and claiming ignorance is definitely not a sufficient excuse. However, in the age of “cancel culture,” maybe we should not be so quick to judge. Take the Meyers Leonard case: It is plausible that Leonard did not understand what the slur meant, even if he did know that it was a vulgar term. While critiquing Leonard, ESPN commentators Stephen A. Smith, Robert Horry, and even Yiddish-speaking Max Kellerman all admitted that they did not either understand the origin of the word or did not know what it meant. However, all of them assumed that Leonard knew what the word meant. If he didn’t, what Leonard did was inexcusable, but more ignorant than malicious.
Situations like these are rarely black and white. That is why it is important that we analyze the situations for what they are, not what we presume them to be. With that being said, it is important to educate NBA players so that ignorance can never be an excuse for hatred or bigotry.