Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Tim Hardaway, Homophobia, and the Ethics of Hate

Retired NBA superstar Tim Hardaway told a local sports radio show that he hates gay people. “Well, you know, I hate gay people,” Hardaway told an interviewer inquiring about Hardaway’s take on another retired player’s revelation that he was gay. “I let it be known I don’t like gay people. I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic. It shouldn’t be in the world, in the United States, I don’t like it.”

This was no Snickers bar. Hardaway immediately was condemned from all sides, and Commissioner David Stern banned him from the league’s All-Star Game festivities. Hardaway quickly apologized without really retracting his comments, which were pretty unretractable. The ethical question is a complicated one, however, though many assume the answer.

What did Hardaway do that was wrong?

Are his beliefs wrong and unethical? Hate is an emotional rather than a rational response; surely many people hate Hardaway for his sentiments. But hate doesn’t hurt anyone until it leads to conduct. The conduct can consist of words, if a hateful individual causes others to hate the same targets, or injures the hated person or group’s status or standing in the community. But hating someone or something is a personal feeling that has no impact on the effect on the outside world if the hater confines the emotion to his mind. In the United States, you have a Constitutional right to hate whomever you please, as long as you don’t deprive them of their rights in the process. Everything that the majority of Americans finds repugnant isn’t unethical, and we dare not declare it unethical to hold an unpopular view. So we must conclude that absent more, Hardaway’s hatred of gays isn’t unethical.

Was it unethical for him to say that he hated gay people? Interestingly, Hardaway didn’t accuse gays of anything or denigrate them. You could take his statement and substitute “birdwatchers,” “Republicans,” or “New York Yankee fans” for “gay;” it would be essentially the same statement. Hardaway, in fact, didn’t make any assertions about gays at all. He made a statement about himself; the effect of his statement was to change how others felt about Tim Hardaway, not gays. Moreover, Hardaway was being honest. Can we really say that the person who is open and honest about his prejudices is unethical while the individual who hides them behind false smiles and counterfeit friendship is not? John Amaechi, the ex- pro basketball player whose recent disclosure that he is gay triggered Hardaway’s declaration, actually complimented Hardaway for his willingness to tell the truth. The Scoreboard has to agree.

So is it accurate to say that Hardaway, while making an unambiguous statement of unabashed homophobia, never left ethical territory?

It is not. In the abstract, neither hatred nor a factual statement that one hates is unethical. But there was more to Hardaway’s announcement that this, because of who he is and whom his words were spoken to. Tim Hardaway is a high-profile ex-player who is still admired by many fans, including children. His opinions do not carry the same potential to influence others as the average American; they carry far more. When an influential individual proclaims his hatred of a minority group in the media, it gives the aura of legitimacy to it, and may embolden others not only to hate, but to act on that hate. Hardaway’s unethical act was being reckless and irresponsible by openly associating himself with an attitude that many use as justification for active discrimination and even violence against gays.

Tim Hardaway can hate whomever he wants, and he can be honest about his biases without crossing any ethical lines. But when he broadcast his biases to his fans and supporters across the country by discussing them with the media, he ignored the special power of celebrity to bolster positive values or endorse negative ones. As a sports hero and a role model, it was unethical for him to imply that hating gays was nothing to be ashamed of because Tim Hardaway hates them too.

Hate is contagious, and if you’re infected, you have an ethical obligation not to spread it around.

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