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The debate over what is and isn’t a racial slur was raging Thursday on social media after it was reported that an NBA head coach used questionable language while speaking with his mostly Black players recently. John Beilein, the first-year head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, referred to his team as “thugs” before being forced to explain and walk back what may have been a Freudian slip.

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It all started on Wednesday when ESPN reported Beilein told his team during a recent meeting that they were not playing “like a bunch of thugs” anymore. The Cavaliers have one of the worst records in the league and have been hovering near or at the bottom of the standings all season long, so that “thugs” reference seemed to catch the players off-guard. Citing “league sources,” ESPN wrote that the “players left the room initially stunned and were increasingly disturbed as they dispersed out of the meeting.”

After the Cavalier’s general manager learned of the controversy, he told Beilein about it, prompting the coach to offer a mea culpa and inexplicably offering up the excuse that he was unfamiliar with the connotations behind the word “thug.” Further, Beilein said he meant to use another word that rhymes with “thugs,” ESPN reported.

“I didn’t realize that I had said the word ‘thugs,’ but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein said to ESPN on Wednesday night. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”

The thing is, though, that no one seems to believe Beilein and his excuse.

No one, that is, except for the Cavaliers, which, according to, has decided against firing Beilein for the use of a word that has increasingly been associated with racially-charged, if not flat-out racist, language against Black people in particular. That was in spite of suspicions that Beilein’s possibly implicitly biased subconscious may have informed his choice of words unbeknownst to him.

With Merriam Webster also defining “Freudian slip” as “a slip of the tongue that is motivated by and reveals some unconscious aspect of the mind,” the above could very well be true.

The “thug” trope is one that Black people can’t seem to escape despite the word literally being defined by Merriam Webster as “a brutal ruffian or assassin,” two terms that are more readily associated with the highest levels of the U.S. government and the mass shooters who have infested this country instead of Black people.

Still, the word has remained being used to convey negative connotations for African Americans, like a Houston high school’s annual “Thug Day” that saw white students wearing cornrows, fake tattoos, bandanas, gold chains, du-rags and other accessories stereotypically associated with Black people.

In the meantime, the players on the Cavaliers will now have to play for a man who uttered that fateful word, forcing them to wonder for at least the remainder of their underwhelming season what, if anything, he may have truly meant. Of course, taken in full context, whether Beilein said “thugs” or “slugs,” the larger point would have been that he didn’t want his players competing like that, which lends credence to his claim that he meant it as a compliment.

But being that we live in an age of fake outrage and hyper sensitivity — coupled with a reputation for having racist fans — the last thing the NBA needs is a coach suspected of harboring racial resentments.


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