On Mark Cuban’s gay joke about Bill Simmons, what the NBA does about it and ESPN scrubbing the decks (UPDATES)

UPDATE #1: Mark Cuban published a post on his personal blog discussing this matter on Friday afternoon. In the post, titled "Am I a Homophobe ?," the Dallas Mavericks owner characterizes the comment detailed below as "totally sophomoric" and writes that making it was a mistake. He also shares his thoughts on prejudice, his sense of humor and the challenges of "being the person I want to be." It's worth a read.

UPDATE #2: Deadspin's Erik Malinowski posted a recording of the relevant bit of audio on Friday afternoon, confirming the "you and your boyfriend" comment.


The final session of last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was intended to be an entertaining spectacle, kind of an easy comedown after two full days of high-minded discussion of advanced statistics. The main attraction? A live recording of "The B.S. Report," the ESPN podcast hosted by columnist and Grantland.com editor-in-chief Bill Simmons, where "The Sports Guy" would interview Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Cuban is a slam dunk at Sloan. For one thing, he's an owner with a high-tech background whose Mavericks have long been at the vanguard of the NBA's analytics movement. Cuban brought in Roland Beech, the creator of advanced stat haven 82games.com, to consult for the team, and actually had Beech seated behind the bench, there to "interface" with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, during Dallas' championship run.

Beyond that, of course, Cuban's famously quotable, liable to say just about anything when put in front of a microphone. Hence the podcast. Simmons and Cuban have publicly sparred before — why not close down the conference with them stepping back into their rhythm for some good-natured banter?

From the start, though, something seemed a little off. As Simmons and Cuban began to talk, what was intended as jocular back-and-forth felt a little more adversarial than it seemed like it should. The vibe felt off.

And then, as Carly Carioli of the Boston Phoenix wrote in a blog post accompanying an excellent feature story on the conference, "the atmosphere turned even weirder."

... Cuban began telling the story of how he'd almost fired a Mavs employee for encouraging Dallas fans to do the wave. Cuban hates the wave. "I'd rather have 60 minutes of Kiss Cam," he said, to laughs. Simmons has long been on record as being a fan of the Kiss Cam [...] and piped up in favor of it. "I like the Kiss Cam," Simmons said.

"That's because you and your boyfriend are always on it," Cuban spat.

Chances are, if you've read or listened to content created by Bill Simmons over the past seven years, you've caught wind of the fact that he's married to a woman, and that the two of them have children. Not that those things would, or do, preclude a man from also liking men and/or having boyfriends, but, y'know, for the record, there's been no public indication that Bill Simmons is gay. This is presumably something that Mark Cuban knows. For his part, Simmons declined to reply, pressing on with the interview and asking about the Mavericks' arena.

Fast-forward to the Monday after the conference. The recording of the conversation is uploaded to iTunes and ESPN.com's Grantland Network as a podcast. Upon listening, Carioli finds that "the entire 'boyfriend' exchange was noticably [sic] absent," an omission that he claims "protects Cuban, a valued ESPN source ... from further scrutiny for that remark."

ESPN says the changes to the Cuban podcast fell in line with standard practices related to editing for both content and length.

"'The B.S. Report' podcasts are routinely edited and it was decided to drop those remarks out of the posted podcast," ESPN spokesperson Jay Jay Nesheim told me Thursday.

The journalistic questions at play here — If a comment like the one Cuban made is worth censoring, isn't it also worth reporting on? Does scrubbing the podcast make ESPN derelict in its duty as a news organization? — are certainly worth asking. They may well be batted around in media circles in much the same way that ESPN's decisions surrounding cases like Arash Markazi's LeBron James story, the Bruce Feldman-Mike Leach-Craig James fiasco and the dismissal of baseball analyst Harold Reynolds were.

Carioli notes that Cuban, met with silence by the packed ballroom of conference attendees, "quickly tried to backtrack." He cites my tweet from the @YahooBDL account about the Mavs owner's rushed tack-on — "Or his girlfriend, this is gender-independent commentary," Cuban said — and my assertion that the "commentary" pretty clearly wasn't gender-independent.

You know how I know that? Because if it was gender-independent, the "and your boyfriend" part wouldn't have been there. The joke would have been about Simmons actively pursuing the Kiss Cam in every arena he visits, working overtime to make sure he's always able to give someone a Jumbotron-broadcast kiss. Which actually would have been a pretty OK joke.

More to the point, though — and let's throw out a big ol' "obviously" and "duh" here — Cuban's goof also wasn't free of connotation. It was evident that Cuban's intent in the moment was to toss out a burn about Simmons' sexual orientation. Namely, that Bill Simmons is gay and likes to kiss boys on camera.

You know how I know that? Because I am a human adult who is alive. So was just about everybody else in that room, because when Cuban dropped his zing, as Carioli wrote, "You could practically hear the crickets chirp."

Set aside for a second the predictable duality of responses to this sort of thing, where some people are bound to be offended by Cuban's remark and others are bound to be enraged at the notion that the P.C. shock troops are trying again to infringe on our right to be men or whatever. That stuff's there, and it's going to be there, and friends bust one another's chops, and there are arguments to be made on both sides of it. That's what the comments section is for, and that's why the comments section is terrifying. Have at it.

[Related: Mavs owner Mark Cuban not sweating trade deadline]

To be honest with you, my immediate reaction when Cuban said what he said wasn't that it was a killer scoop, or that it was proof positive that he's a slimeball, or that he should be run out of the league on a rail or anything. None of that stuff occurred to me. Frankly, it probably should have; it would be awesome if the first place you were hearing about this was on BDL rather than from the Phoenix. But it didn't.

Here's the first thing I thought after I tweeted about it: "What a bummer."

How big a bummer is it that this grown-ass man's — this billionaire's — idea of a killer joke was exactly the same as that of basically every middle-schooler in recorded history? That having achieved as much as Cuban has — or even just having lived 53 years on the planet — doesn't also cause you to say to yourself, "Making fun of people by suggesting they're gay isn't a good thing to do; I probably shouldn't do that"? That's kind of depressing, right? In that moment, I was disappointed in part that Cuban said something that made him seem like a creep, but mostly because what he'd said made him seem like a boring one. A dull one.

That was my issue with it, to tell you the truth. And now I'm pretty bummed out about that, because I wish I'd considered the issue that Carioli raises in his Phoenix post — that from the league's perspective, the issue would seem to be hypocrisy.

Remember, the NBA is less than a year removed from a pair of very ugly, high-profile controversies caused by the from-the-bench utterances of homophobic slurs by Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah. The latter, it warrants mentioning, led to an excellent piece of journalism in the form of a phenomenal one-on-one with Noah by ESPN.com NBA writer Kevin Arnovitz, who is gay.

Now, Cuban by no means went nuclear with his language like Bryant or Noah did. "You and your boyfriend" and "f****t" are two very different magnitudes of stupid and awful. But they share the same root, and as Carioli points out, the league has also "gone so far as to create a PSA begging kids not to use homophobic slurs in precisely the way Cuban did onstage."

The league has established a precedent; when players spout off with slurs on camera, they get raked over the coals for it, and very deservedly so. But when the owner of the defending NBA champions, one of the highest-profile off-court figures in the basketball world, goes to the same well (albeit not as deep) in search of a cheap laugh, nobody says boo? It just goes away?

I don't know Mark Cuban at all. My impression of him is that he's a very smart, very capable guy who cares passionately about the things he loves, sometimes to his detriment. He may be an amazing dude when you get to know him; I have no idea. But in front of a live audience chock full of admirers, he didn't comport himself like one.

Irrespective of what's in his heart, what came out of Mark Cuban's mouth during that interview made him sound like a 12-year-old whose parents aren't doing such a hot job. With one ill-considered comment, Cuban provided a unifying element for the folks who see analytics as a bright dividing line between stat nerds and "real" fans. Sometimes eggheads can be meatheads, too.

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