Joakim Noah had to pay a $50,000 fine and endure increased media scrutiny after joining Kobe Bryant in the NBA Players Caught On Camera Calling People A Gay Slur Club. Bryant's fine was $100,000 because he directed that epithet at a referee, while Noah used it against a fan.
There's no excusing Noah's word choice here, and he knows it. Use of that word, in this country, in 2011? We ought not tolerate it. But Noah's teammate Luol Deng raises a good point: what about the hecklers who incite players with possibly even cruder rhetoric?
Here's Deng's reaction to the situation, as quoted by Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
"I know Jo apologized and everything, but people got to see it the other way, too. Everyone says things they don't mean, and he let the emotion get the better of him. But honestly, with a game like that, hearing that fan, I wanted to do something about it, too. Unfortunately for Jo, he's got to pay the price."
Taj Gibson told the media the particular fan who drew Noah's anger was "really loud," "a big guy," and "intoxicated." This fan "kept going and going at Joakim." I think we can agree, based on Gibson's version of the events, that security ought to have ejected this fan from the arena long before the situation with Noah escalated.
A ticket to a sporting event entitles the bearer to sit in the seat the ticket designates; it does not entitle the bearer to do any old thing he pleases once he's in that seat. Such fans pose a danger to the players and themselves. Suppose Noah had tried to enter the crowd, for instance.
Again, I'm not excusing or condoning Noah's word choice here. I do think, though, we should consider what prompted him to use it in the first place.