WHITEFISH BAY – More than two years ago, Meyers Leonard uttered an antisemitic slur while live-streaming his video game play.
Since then, he’s met with rabbis, gone to Chabad Shabbat dinner, cried, and apologized repeatedly, even as he was shunned by his NBA team at the time, the Miami Heat.
Now with the Milwaukee Bucks, the seven-foot-tall player met with Milwaukee’s Jewish community on June 14, 2023, where he restated his regret and his commitment to “not run from this” and “be a man.” The session was open to the public, held at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, Whitefish Bay, and attended by several Milwaukee media outlets.
“I made a big mistake. I sure did,” Leonard said. “And I’m ashamed of that moment. But everything that’s happened since, absolutely not. I’ve learned. I’ve grown because of therapy. And because I felt like the whole world hated me, I finally went to therapy. I’m more whole as a human.”
In a post-speech Q&A, Jewish Milwaukee seemed to largely accept his contrition, meeting it with kind words and forgiveness, though several people indicated he could be more effective speaking to a different crowd – don’t just speak to the Jewish people, help those outside our community learn to be more accepting and exhibit better behavior.
Surely, the manifold increase in antisemitic incidents nationwide in recent years weighed on the questioners.
“You come to all these Jewish communities, which is amazing. And I think it really shows your commitment to being forgiven and doing the right thing,” said Sophie Packman, speaking from the audience during the Q&A. “I think it’s also important to recognize that there probably were a lot of people who didn’t care, who weren’t hurt by what you said. And I think that those people, in a way, are the people who need to hear these things the most.
“I’ve been the only Jewish person in a lot of rooms,” Packman continued, “and I have met Holocaust deniers and it’s difficult to get through to people. And I think that you have a lot of power.” Packman wanted to know, how can Leonard help others outside the Jewish community to do better?
Leonard said he didn’t foresee the question: “If I ever hear anything within the vicinity of me, I’m going to handle it right away. But you’re right, there are more things, probably, that I can do or speak out on and just make people more aware … and there are surely hateful people out there, as you mentioned.”
He talked for a bit more about it and reached a conclusion: “Wow, this is great. I was not expecting this. I do have more of an opportunity,” he said. “As I drive home, I’m sure I’m going to be thinking of this …. It is just so important to me to continually push myself as a man in uncomfortable situations. And I mean, you’re right.”
Along the same lines, Felicia Miller asked if he’s spoken with other professional sports players who have made missteps. (Answer: Not really; they don’t get a lot of quiet moments together.)
Another question: “So where are you on the journey of teaching what you did wrong, to others, versus getting absolution or teshuva from us?”
How the slur happened
Despite the pointed questions, there was plenty of love in the room, with about 100 in attendance, and the mood was upbeat. One audience member invited him to Shabbat dinner. Questioners told him they forgive and appreciate him. He was told this happened for him, not to him.
“I think it’s amazing that you’ve taken the time to talk about mental health tonight,” said Mark Shapiro, president and CEO of the JCC. “It is powerful to see anybody stand up in front of a group of people and say, ‘I’m dying from the inside out. I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to get help.’”
Specifically, Leonard talked about how personal issues had led him to immerse himself in video games, into a digital culture of name-calling and outbursts. “I didn’t normally use an antisemitic slur,” Leonard said. “I had no clue that I had done that, that I had ever even used the word.”
Vince Vitrano, morning news host for 620 WTMJ, interviewed Leonard on stage at the event, and asked him to get more granular on his use of the slur.
“And so you’re in a moment where it’s heated in the game, right? Didn’t you let out a string of expletives, including the aforementioned slur?” Vitrano continued, “you have been careful in choosing your words to offer an explanation that you did not fully understand what that word meant, but also not offering that as an excuse. That said, offer to us, if you didn’t know what it meant, how was it in your vocabulary to come out at that moment?”
Leonard said he asked his therapist that question, and she responded that “it was high intensity. You know, there’s a lot going on, because of the headset and you’re reacting from the game …. And unfortunately, there’s extremely unfortunate, vile language, in Call of Duty lobbies …. And she says in a moment almost of sporadic-ness, almost like ADD-esq it came out.”
He said therapy helped him greatly and he recommended it for literally everybody.
“These things are what matters to me in life, of course, my family, my son, and my friends and everybody, but you guys are now a part of that. Because I feel that this was very real, very open and important,” Leonard said. “And I’m just really grateful for the opportunity. And, you know, I love basketball. I love everything about it, but this is what fills my heart out. Just to hopefully be able to have an impact on people, even through a horrible mistake of mine.”
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Meyers Leonard is welcomed
One audience member invited him to Shabbat dinner. Questioners told him they forgave and appreciate him. He was told this happened for him, not to him.