Kevin Garnett Talked Trash About Cancer. So What?

During an NBA game on Tuesday, Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics supposedly called Charlie Villanueva of the Detroit Pistons*, who is hairless because of alopecia, a “cancer patient.” At least, that’s what Villanueva went on Twitter and accused Garnett of having said . Not seeing anything else in the world to freak about this week, the sports-journalism community decided it was time for everyone to lose their minds about this.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports denounced Garnett as “cruel” and “twisted.” Conveniently for Wojnarowski, former All-Star Maurice Lucas had just died of cancer, allowing the columnist to accuse Garnett of dishonoring the memory of one of the league’s “true tough guys,” an honorable he-man who only ever picked on guys his own size and bigger (except maybe that one referee who had a scowling Lucas lay a hand on his whistle chain ). Garnett, Wojnarowski wrote, had “stained his legacy.”

“This one promises to chase him into retirement,” he wrote.

This one shouldn’t even have chased Kevin Garnett into Wednesday. Is it awful to mock an opponent for a physical condition? Sure. It’s nasty and rude. It’s also unfortunately normal. Athletes say vicious and insulting things to each other all the time. Ask Dummy Hoy . But Villanueva’s decided to whine about this one on Twitter, giving the press license to get flappy about it.

For context, Deadspin did the public service of reprinting Michael Jordan’s tirade against his own teammate, Kwame Brown, a teenager who Jordan himself had decided to draft. “You fucking flaming faggot,” the most revered player in NBA history said, and then kept going, and going. Great players are bullies . So are the mediocre ones, when they can find someone to bully.

The moral panic on this one is not about Garnett’s meanness, but about the fact that he said something about cancer. Even Villanueva took umbrage in the name of people with cancer, rather than people with alopecia—though it’s the latter for whom Villanueva is an advocate.

Why is it worse to call someone a “cancer patient” than to call him a “faggot”? Or a “bitch”? If Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a column denouncing every player who said something insulting to women or homosexuals, his fingers would fall off from overuse, which would be nice.

Garnett issued a statement saying that Villanueva had misquoted him and offering a blithely disingenuous anti-apology :

“I am aware there was a major miscommunication regarding something I said on the court last night. My comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact ‘You are cancerous to your team and our league.’ I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything that distasteful. The game of life is far bigger than the game of basketball.”

Trying to keep the issue alive, J.A. Adande of ESPN wrote that people in the sports world need to

stop tossing around the word “cancer”

so lightly:

We use cancer in the most casual ways. Locker room cancer, clubhouse cancer, on and on, as if anything an athlete does to disrupt team harmony is the equivalent of mutating cells that attack bodies from within and take the lives of our loved ones.

Yeah, and San Francisco Giants fans were waving signs about how their ”


” was over. Torture. Torture might be the worst thing one human being can do to another. All around the world, right now, actual people are being actually tortured. How dare the Giants fans compare the feeling of not winning championships to real, monstrous human suffering?

How do the victims of railroad accidents feel when a losing sports season is called a ”

train wreck

“? How do the victims of assault and battery feel when a lopsided defeat is called a ”


“? How do victims of bear attacks feel when the read that this team or that team got ”


“? People use figurative speech. If the only appropriate way to talk about sports is by referring to things that are less serious than sports, then there won’t be very much to say.

It’s wonderful that everyone has gotten the message that it’s important to be sensitive. But cancer is far down the list of things society needs to be more sensitive about. Adande compares careless remarks about cancer to jokes about AIDS. Wrong. People with AIDS were mocked, despised, and ignored because the majority of people without AIDS believed that they themselves were safe from the disease, that it was something patients had brought on themselves by being homosexuals or drug abusers. That was offensive and intolerable. It killed people.

Getting upset on behalf of cancer patients because of Garnett’s remark is like seizing the high ground in


. Here’s the thing about cancer: anyone can get it. I could finish this blog post, make cancer patients angry at me, and wake up tomorrow with back pain from a tumor. Kevin Garnett could get cancer. The stupid part of Garnett’s statement was where he said he had lost loved ones to the disease. Of course he has. So have I. So have you. It is indiscriminate.

[* Correction: This post originally said Villanueva was with the Toronto Raptors, not the Pistons.]