CHICAGO — Meyers Leonard wanted the world to know his heart was in the right place.
Flanked by kneeling teammates, the Miami Heat center stood for the national anthem when the country’s racial reckoning reached the NBA bubble. He cited family involvement in the military and received cover from his franchise, as is the Heat way. Scores came to Leonard’s defense and declared he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He echoed that sentiment.
“I am a compassionate human being and I truly love all people,” Leonard said in August. “I can’t fully comprehend how our world, literally and figuratively, has turned into Black and white. There’s a line in the sand, so to speak: ‘If you’re not kneeling, you’re not with us.’ And that’s not true.
“I will continue to use my platform, my voice and my actions to show how much I care about the African American culture and for everyone. I live my life to serve and impact others in a positive way.”
Those words proved hard to live by for Leonard, who showed Tuesday he learned little about tolerance when he used an anti-Semitic slur during a video game stream on Twitch.
Leonard, who played at Illinois, received a swift rebuke from the league, being hit with a $50,000 fine — the highest allowed under the collective-bargaining agreement — and one-week suspension from team activities. Leonard underwent season-ending surgery in January and was not with the team when they played the Chicago Bulls on Friday.
Along with Leonard’s suspension came an admonishment from Commissioner Adam Silver and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
“Meyers Leonard’s comment was inexcusable and hurtful and such an offensive term has no place in the NBA or in our society,” Silver said in a statement Wednesday. “Yesterday, he spoke to representatives of the Anti-Defamation League to better understand the impact of his words and we accept that he is genuinely remorseful. We have further communicated to Meyers that derogatory comments like this will not be tolerated and that he will be expected to uphold the core values of our league — equality, tolerance, inclusion and respect — at all times moving forward.”
The NBA and Heat did what they were supposed to, holding Leonard accountable for using a despicable word and putting his prejudice on display. But that will all be for naught if Leonard doesn’t become a full participant in the process and if his attempts to skirt accountability continue.
He failed the first test Wednesday when he released a statement.
“I am deeply sorry for using an anti-Semitic slur during a livestream yesterday,” Leonard wrote in an Instagram post. “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. I am now more aware of its meaning and I am committed to properly seeking out people who can help educate me about this type of hate and how we can fight it.”
The lack of accountability in the first half of his statement is striking.
Far too often when bad actors use offensive words or receive backlash, the reflex is to apologize while feigning ignorance. Leonard put on a master class.
In truth, even if we give Leonard the benefit of the doubt, his ignorance should be alarming.
But we can approach this at a basic level. Basketball has gained so much from Jewish people as players, coaches, commissioners, owners and passionate fans.
Silver is Jewish. The late David Stern, who modernized the NBA, was Jewish. Heat owner Micky Arison, who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, is Jewish. How hard is it to learn about the people you interact with in daily life?
What Leonard — and countless others don’t realize — is that allyship is all-encompassing. That doesn’t mean addressing issues after you commit offense. It means learning about other races, religions and cultures because you care to do so.
At some point, we have to admit this isn’t rocket science and recognize that much intolerance is rooted in ignorance.
“I acknowledge and own my mistake and there’s no running from something like this that is so hurtful to someone else,” Leonard continued. “This is not a proper representation of who I am and I want to apologize to the Arisons, my teammates, coaches, front office and everyone associated with the Miami Heat organization, to my family, to our loyal fans and to others in the Jewish community who I have hurt. I promise to do better and know that my future actions will be more powerful than my use of this word.”
If the second, more sincere half of his statement is where he truly stands, then so be it. And as Silver noted, Leonard has started to take steps to rectify his mistake.
It’s great to talk to the Anti-Defamation League and engage in diversity training — but those teachings must be applied. Leonard donated $100,000 to the City of Miami to combat voter suppression and COVID-19 after his NBA bubble experience. That had real-world implications, yet Leonard finds himself in a worse position today.
Nothing can replace lived experience, and part of this is just about reading the room for Leonard. We’ve observed an alarming rate of overt hatred directed toward the Jewish community, Black people, Asian Americans and Mexican Americans in recent years. With that backdrop, it should be clear now is not the time for well-meaning people to learn about slurs through trial and error.
If Leonard’s heart truly is in the right place, he should grasp this concept and move accordingly. And he should figure that out before causing any more harm.
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