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It may be a new year, but the National Basketball Association has more of the same old things. Like the pro-league’s double standard when it comes to racism.

Dan Issel, head coach of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets knows about this double standard well. Actually, he’s now former head coach because of comments he made to a Hispanic fan after a game. While many black NBA players who make up the bulk of the league’s roster have made similar offensive remarks, they remain on the multi-million dollar payroll. But Issel, who is white, starts 2002 looking for work.

On Dec. 11, after a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Issel was heckled by a fan, who uttered, “You suck, *******!” Issel replied, “Hey go buy another beer. Go drink another beer, you ****** Mexican piece of ****.” The Nuggets immediately suspended Issel for four games without pay – a loss of over $112,000. The next day, Issel apologized for his “uncaring and un-Christian-like comment.”

But that wasn’t enough for the Hispanic community of Denver, who demanded Issel’s head. Thursday, Issel resigned under pressure.

Were Issel’s comments insensitive, improper and bigoted? Yes. As a professional coach in the big leagues, shouldn’t Issel have expected to be heckled and to ignore it? Certainly. (In fact, in another publicized incident, Issel himself benched player Tariq Abdul-Wahad for using such language with him.)

But did Issel deserve to be fired? Definitely not.

The NBA has a hypocritical double standard on racism. Minorities in the NBA can say and do whatever they want with apparent impunity, or in the worst case scenario, a slap on the hand.

Whereas Issel apologized, was fined significantly, met with leaders of Denver’s Hispanic community, etc., other NBA employees have made equally bigoted comments – unprovoked by drunken, obnoxious fans – with no penalty. And little remorse.

Take New York Knicks’ Charlie Ward. Last April, he and teammate Allan Houston made blatantly anti-Semitic comments about Jews. What happened? No Issel treatment. Instead, NBA Commissioner David Stern said, “Despite suggestions that the NBA should penalize Ward for his words, I am not planning to do so,” claiming that punishment would somehow “enhance his sense of martyrdom.” Huh? More like it would have hurt the NBA’s pocketbook and the Knicks’ – in the midst of the playoffs at the time. Stern added that Ward’s only punishment would be having “to accept the reactions and judgments of fans.” That reaction was a loud boo at the beginning of his next game and cheers ever since.

Big punishment.

True, Ward apologized. But so did Issel. And only one of them is out of a job. One could argue, as Nuggets supporters do, that a third of the population in Denver – and a large percentage of the Nuggets’ customers – are Hispanic. But the same argument can equally be made about heavily Jewish New York City and the Knicks.

The difference is that Hispanics and blacks are politically correct minorities in the NBA’s eyes. They can’t be insulted, but other groups apparently can. And minorities in the NBA can get away with saying just about anything. That’s the not-so-subliminal message the NBA sent last week. And while Issel’s fine, suspension, and subsequent “resignation”/”buyout” were forced by the Nuggets, omniscient Stern was definitely involved every step of the way.

This isn’t the first time the NBA employed double standards on bigotry. In 1987, after the Boston Celtics beat the Detroit Pistons in the seven-game East finals due to Larry Bird’s fantastic performance, Isiah Thomas remarked that, sure, Bird was good, but, “If Bird was black, he’d be just another good guy.” He said this to confirm his then-teammate Dennis Rodman’s racist comments. Never one to miss out on media publicity, Rodman whined that Bird was “overrated” and received media praise and attention only “because he is white.” (Not apparently because Bird – with several MVP seasons and the first NBA player to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line for consecutive seasons – had just spanked Thomas and Rodman on the court.) NBA response to these comments: nothing. Stern: silent. No punishment for Rodman or Thomas.

Then, there’s the not-so-genteel Sir Charles Barkley. In response to reporters after a game, he said, “That’s what I hate about white people.” NBA Response: nothing. Stern: silent. No penalty for Barkley.

Then, of course, there’s Philadelphia 76ers’ gangsta-in-residence, Allen Iverson. Not only did he blow up at a heckling fan, a la Issel, last season, but he also made a gangsta-rap album, promoting murder and violence against women and gays. Again, not wanting to alienate its politically correct minority customer, the NBA’s response was: nothing. Stern made another slap-on-the-hand statement. No penalty for Iverson.

And who can forget professional choker (and basketball player), Latrell Sprewell? With a great deal of his punishment overturned, quickly reinstated to the NBA, and now playing for the Knicks, USA Today reported that he and former chokee/coach P.J. Carlesimo (now a TV hoops commentator), were all lovey-dovey, wishing each other a happy holiday, as if this “saint” wasn’t a thug who violently assaulted his former boss.

No one’s asking the NBA to be the thought police. But it’s time for the league to stop deeming some animals in its Orwellian barnyard more equal than others. Since our taxes fund their arenas, we must demand no less.

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