My last conversation about the F-word was with a recently retired NFL player who might one day go into the Hall of Fame. By the end of our chat, we were screaming at one another.
He had used the F-word -- you know which word I mean, the derogatory one used to describe gays -- several times during a talk we were having about the NFL's toughest players. The player, who is African-American, called one of my player suggestions a f-----. He used the word repeatedly.
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"A black man should never use that word," I said. "We should know better. It's the moral equivalent of the N-word."
"It's not the same," he said.
"The F-word and the N-word are exactly the same," I responded.
"Not even close."
"Tell me how it's different."
He couldn't, and our conversation ended with him calling me a dumbass. He's right. I normally am a dumbass. Just not about this.
That word, like in so many other sports, is used constantly in NFL locker rooms. Homophobia is a disease that has long gone viral in the NFL and across the sports world, the Andromeda Strain of slurs. The F-word is used so much in football and other leagues its true power and ugliness has been lost.
But there's a more disturbing problem: the use of the F-word by African-American male athletes.
Look at the two most recent high-profile cases involving slurs against gays. Kobe Bryant, who is African-American, and Joakim Noah, who is biracial (his father is a famous tennis player of African descent and his mother white) were both fined by the NBA for using the F-word. There was Kevin Garnett a few years ago and the remarks of Tim Hardaway. Kenyon Martin was caught on video screaming at Mark Cuban and calling Cuban a "fa---- mother------."
During an NFL season, players have told me over the years, the word is used hundreds of times in individual locker rooms, many times by African-Americans.
That word is the same as the N-word. Yes, it is. Don't look at me like that. Yes. It. Is.
This won't be a popular stance among some of my African-American football acquaintances, but it's a truthful one and it's a conversation that needs to be had.
When black men degrade gays, we are hypocrites. We cheapen our own history and struggles. It remains stunning to me why more African-American athletes (not all by any stretch but enough) don't understand this. When a slur is aimed at us, we feel the impact. So why wouldn't gays?
There's no question the N-word has deeper historical context and is among the ugliest ever used (and I don't care what some rappers say). Because the F-word hasn't been utilized as a weapon as long as the N-word isn't justification for its use.
"I find it sad and ironic that athletes from a group long oppressed by language and the power of certain slurs would easily toss them around about another group," said Jim Buzinski, who runs Outsports.com, a site dedicated to the coverage of gay athletes. "There will be people who will argue there are historical differences, and while true, does not somehow make one slur 'more acceptable' than another. Hateful words are hateful words, period."
"Professional sports seems to be the last bastion of homophobia in this country; Kobe Bryant's antigay slur is just the tip of the iceberg," Robert Volk, professor at Boston University's School of Law with expertise in area of the law and sexual minorities, told the Christian Science Monitor. "A number of professional athletes that came out after they left their sport commented on the impossibility of coming out while a professional athlete, given the extremely homophobic atmosphere, and Bryant's fine is not enough to change the atmosphere."
Athletes who use the F-word aren't alone in their bigotry. Recent polls have shown only half of Americans find being gay morally acceptable. Marriage between gays is illegal in most states ... the way interracial marriage once was. Many parts of this country, unfortunately and disgracefully, truly despise gays.
Instead of helping to alleviate the experience of gays being the last acceptable group to bash, some athletes are aiding in the ostracizing, and too many of these athletes are African-American.
And I love this justification from some athletes post-gay slur: it was made in the heat of the game. Sure. If a white NFL player yelled the N-word during a game and later said it was only because he was in the heat of battle, that would be OK?
Gay slurs also aren't the same as saying a curse. Someone saying ass---- isn't the equivalent of the F-word. Ass----s aren't a group of people. Well, OK, in some cases they are, but you get me.
Do you know when homophobia in sports will stop? It will end when athletes see gays as human beings like them, just as large swaths of discrimination against African-American athletes stopped (though certainly not all) when whites saw blacks the same way.
They are the moral equivalent. They always will be.