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Harold KoplewiczBack to OpinionHarold Koplewicz

Kobe Bryant and the art of gay bullying

It’s a truism to say that basketball stars should be good role models for children — and that they sometimes (and sometimes conspicuously) aren’t. But a recent event offers a particularly bruising example of that, and a response that zeroes in acutely on why it matters so much.

A piece on the The New York Times website Friday caught my eye, headlined “A Gay Former NBA Player Responds to Kobe Bryant.” What had the Los Angeles Lakers star done now? It is now well known that, during a game last Tuesday, Bryant became so incensed with the ref that he called him a “faggot.” He was fined $100,000 and apologized — kind of — but he also says he’ll appeal the fine.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant looks at his hands after missing a basket on April 5, 2011. Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong

The “gay former NBA player” in question is John Amaechi, who left the league in 2003 and came out in 2007 — the first NBA player ever to do so. In an eloquent and emotional rebuff to what he calls Bryant’s “sorry-if-you-are-oversensitive” apology, Amaechi makes crystal clear how words can isolate, hurt and even drive kids who are “different” to take their own lives.

“Right now in America young people are being killed and killing themselves simply because of the words and behaviors they are subjected to for being perceived as lesbian or gay, or frankly just different,” Amaechi writes. “This is not an indictment of the individuals suffocated by their mistreatment, it is an indication of the power of that word, and others like it, to brutalize and dehumanize.”

And Bryant is not just another person throwing around these hurtful words. He is important to young people, particularly young men. He could be a hero — there is certainly no shortage of kids who need him to be one.

“A young man from a Los Angeles public school e-mailed me. You are his idol,” Amaechi writes to Bryant. “He watched every game you played this season on television, but this week he feels less safe and less positive about himself because he stared adoringly into your face as you said the word that haunts him in school every single day.”

Sports stars, parents, teachers, coaches — anyone who looms large in the lives of children has the power to combat bullying and stigmatizing that terrorizes children who are perceived as different, whether because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or psychiatric or learning disorder. Not only do adults set the tone by their example, studies show that when an incident of bullying occurs, an adult’s response is key to whether other kids pile on.

Adults also have the power to pass on hurtful attitudes and perpetuate stigma — and, as Amaechi notes, sacrifice young lives in the process. What Bryant said was wrong, but his response to the backlash was even worse — “more like a squirming politician than a national hero,” writes Amaechi. And as every parent should know, squirmers are not the kind of authority figures and role models that kids need.

Amaechi, on the other hand, is acting very heroically, and I want to applaud him. He calls Bryant on his non-apology apology, which implied that only the oversensitive could be hurt by a word spoken in anger. He calls on Bryant to stop whining about the fine and make it clear, by paying up and speaking out, that he’s not on the side of gay bashers. As a sports star, he’s under unusual scrutiny, but as a sports star he also has unusual opportunity to send a positive message to kids — the kind that can save lives and change lives.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist. He is the president of the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming mental health care for the world’s children.