I really didn’t want to hear the way Bob Huggins so casually dropped his anti-gay slur and his anti-Catholic barb in a recent call-in to a Cincinnati radio show, but sometimes it’s important to be reminded that such easy, hateful language is used in daily conversation. And so I listened, two minutes of my life I can’t get back, and can’t forget.
Yet as much as my initial reactions were the predictable mix of disgust and anger, I find myself feeling mostly sad, sad that Huggins has carried his prejudices for so long throughout his career as a coach, a job that has put him in position to influence so many young lives. That the West Virginia men’s basketball coach is just now, at age 69, opening himself up to learning about the damage of his flippant, hate-filled words speaks only to the fact that he got caught, not that he is suddenly enlightened.
And when I think about all the athletes he’s encountered across stops at Cincinnati, Kansas State, and his alma mater WVU, when I think of any such athletes or students or opponents in the LGBTQ+ community who crossed paths with him, it makes me sad, sad to think of how he might have been talking about such humans behind their backs, sad to think of how they would feel if they were to come face to face with his real thoughts.
Now, here we are, with Huggins outing himself with a phone call last Monday, when he called fans of Xavier basketball games a homophobic slur and invoked their Catholicism, spewing the phrases with such ease and familiarity you know this wasn’t the first time they rolled off his tongue, words that were met with such agreement by the two radio hosts that they signed off laughing in agreement about how “great” they believe Coach Huggins to be.
And so did we enter the predictable cycle of exposure, anger, outrage, review, and rebuke, waiting only for whatever performative action the bigwigs at West Virginia would do and whatever acts of contrition Huggins himself would submit. To the former, Huggins remains the men’s basketball coach of the Mountaineers, minus $1 million of his salary and three cupcake games on the schedule, a reality that tells you plenty about the pecking order of priorities at the university.
And to the latter, Huggins issued a statement in which he said, “I deeply regret my actions, the hurt they unfairly caused others, and the negative attention my words have brought to West Virginia University,” adding, “I have no excuse for the language I used, and I take full responsibility. I will abide with the actions outlined by the University and Athletics leadership to learn from this incident. I have had several conversations with colleagues and friends that I deeply respect and admire over the last 24 hours, and I am keenly aware of the pain that I have caused. I meant what I wrote on Monday — I will do better.”
West Virginia is promising to help him. Maybe that’s a better alternative than firing him. One person did lose a job over this, and that was podcast host Josh Neighbors, who made the mistake of playing the radio cut without bleeping out the offensive language. Go figure.
Although WVU would have been justified in canning Huggins, it clearly wants him to keep on winning basketball games. And hey, in a state that is ranked 47th in education by a recent US News & World Report survey, any education programs are both needed and welcome.
To wit, West Virginia, while calling Huggins’s language “inexcusable,” also declared it “a moment that provides the opportunity for learning. A moment that can shine a light on the injustice and hate that often befall the members of our marginalized communities. While the University has never and will never condone the language used on Monday, we will use this moment to educate how the casual use of inflammatory language and implicit bias affect our culture, our community and our health and well-being.”
In partnership with the campus’s LGBTQ+ Center, Huggins will be required to attend training to “address all aspects of inequality including homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, and more,” lessons the school says will also be required of all “current and future athletics coaching staff.” The $1 million slashed from Huggins’s salary (how will he get by on a mere $3.2 million a year?) will go directly to the campus groups that support marginalized communities, and Huggins said he is donating another $1 million to Xavier’s Center for Faith and Justice and its Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
Additionally, WVU says it will alter Huggins’s contract to a year-by-year renewal status (big risk for a 69-year-old, huh?) and warned him that any repeat offense will result in “immediate termination.”
Listen, here’s hoping Huggins is truly changed by this mistake, that he can separate himself from the insidious brand of thinking that casts gay people as aberrant or deserving of derision, that somehow sees acknowledgment and inclusion of the gay people who populate our daily lives as akin to indoctrination of our youth, that includes narrow-minded thinkers such as a parent in Florida who objected to a school library’s inclusion of a children’s book biography of tennis star Billie Jean King for the temerity to mention her love for her wife. Huggins should be better than that. We should all be better than that.
Again, it bears repeating that Huggins has every right under the Constitution’s First Amendment to use any words he wants, and that he is free from governmental laws or punishment for using them. But he is not free from consequence by his employer, or free from judgment in the court of public opinion.
No, I didn’t want to hear what he said. But it’s important to listen, if only to expose it, and to call it out as an unnecessary and damaging entry into our daily discourse. Important, but sad.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.