February 19, 2012
The alleged "Worldwide Leader In Sports" woke up Saturday morning, only to find that it needed to wash an entire farmhouse full of eggs off its big, dumb face. ESPN's epic and well-discussed faux pas -- putting a "Chink in the Armor" headline on a story about New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin -- was an embarrassment of fairly colossal proportions, especially since the network had spent most of its previous two weeks living off the name of the Asian-American basketball player who had been on quite the impressive run.
ESPN's Saturday apology wasn't rehearsed, but it sure read as if it was.
Last night, ESPN.com's mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.
Wednesday night on ESPNEWS, an anchor used an inappropriate word in asking a question about Jeremy Lin. ESPN apologizes for the incident, and is taking steps to avoid this in the future.
In a Sunday morning statement, ESPN said that the headline writer for ESPN Mobile was terminated, anchorman Max Breton of ESPNews would be suspended for 30 days, and a radio commenter who apparently made a similar on-air remark "is not an ESPN employee."
To end that statement, ESPN's Kevin Ota said this:
We again apologize, especially to Mr. Lin. His accomplishments are a source of great pride to the Asian-American community, including the Asian-American employees at ESPN. Through self-examination, improved editorial practices and controls, and response to constructive criticism, we will be better in the future.
The real problem, of course, isn't that ESPN made a bunch of stupid remarks. According to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times, ESPN also used the "Chink in the Armor" phrase during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The real problem was how quickly so many people went from a series of cringe-inducing "Linsanity"-style puns to something far darker and more malevolent -- without hesitation -- in the first place.
If you want to know how that made Asian-Americans feel, well, Jensen's article is a good place to start.
Being one of the few Asians in my schools, I endured all the unoriginal and ignorant comments, references and stereotypes, many of which I've seen since Jeremy Lin emerged from NBA benchwarmer to NBA world-beater.
But there was one word I couldn't brush aside: chink.
That word triggers something inside me, taking me back to some of the ugliest racial incidents of my life. Hearing the word in a gym, while playing basketball, or on a highway, after accidentally cutting someone off. Or hearing it in the basement of a friend's house as a teenager when another kid — in an effort to antagonize me — called me a chink and dropped to the floor when I clocked him.
In this case, Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock got the ball rolling last week with this piece of dreck after yet another transcendent performance by the undrafted star:
Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.
Whitlock later "apologized" in a bizarre column in which he managed to blame Richard Pryor and his own mother more than himself for the comment. And we'll say this for ESPN -- they've made far more of a statement about their mistakes than Fox has about Whitlock's abhorrent behavior.
That Whitlock brought up his own reaction to Tiger Woods' early success as an important sociological benchmark for people of his color was murderously ironic, because Whitlock's first comment was very much like the "tell him not to serve fried chicken next year" comment about Woods that ended Fuzzy Zoeller's career as an after-dinner speaker before it began. In each case, an irresponsible, overstuffed boor took perhaps the most egregious misperception about a people of color and used it as a sword in a public forum. And in each case, the irresponsible, overstuffed boor claimed that people got it wrong.
Perhaps the worst part of this strain of more practiced and subtle racism is that it goes back so many decades, and seems to have died down ... well, not at all. George Will was one of the first people to make me truly aware of it when he spoke in Ken Burns' 1994 "Baseball" documentary about the perceptions of Willie Mays in the 1950s.
Willie Mays was not the first black ballplayer, but he had his own barrier to break through -- a kind of gentle, good-natured racism, but racism nonetheless. If you remember when he came up, people would say, "Oh, what an instinctive ballplayer he is. What a natural ballplayer he is. What childlike enthusiasm he has!" Well, thirty years on, we can hear with our better-trained ears, the racism in that. [Was Mays] wonderfully gifted? Yes. Great natural ballplayer? Yes. But nobody -- nobody -- got to the major leagues on natural gifts without an awful lot of refining work.
[Mays] was an instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart ballplayer. As a rookie, he'd get to second base, watch two batters go up to the plate, and he'd go back to the dugout, having stolen the signs and decoded the sequence. He'd know the indicator signs from the other signs. Natural ballplayer? Sure. Hardest-working ballplayer you ever saw.
More than 60 years after Mays broke into the big leagues, can we still hear it with our better-trained ears? Did we really ever?
Go ask Cam Newton, who underwent a baseless character assassination before the 2011 NFL draft at the hands of several analysts. Go ask Ichiro Suzuki, who's been the target of a not-so subtle Seattle media lynch mob for years because he doesn't make more of an effort to speak English and connect with certain local writers and radio guys. Or, at least that's what certain local writers and radio guys say, by way of excuse, when they call Suzuki a selfish, "me-first" player who needs to walk more and should hit wherever the heck the manager tells him to. Who does he think he is, anyway?
In cases like these, it's generally good to assume that what people say, and what they actually mean, are very different things.
Ichiro's case reminds me a bit of Roberto Clemente's. When the late Hall of Famer first came up with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955, the team and the local media insisted on calling him "Bobby." Clemente preferred "Roberto," because that was his name, and he made it stick through time and his own excellence. Along the way, he was called everything imaginable -- a malingerer when he was hurt, difficult when he did speak out, and a subset of names I'd prefer not to repeat here. Are we that different when we castigate Ichiro, even after 10 straight 200-hit seasons, for not playing that game and fitting in to our narrow pathways?
It's the same school of "thought" (if you want to call it that) that made pro football wait far too long before making African-Americans quarterbacks and middle linebackers -- the gridiron's primary or perceived positions of intelligence. It's the same school of thought that had Bob Gibson's first manager, Solly Hemus, claim that Gibson wasn't tough enough to make it in the major leagues, which has to be about the funniest thing ever heard to anyone who knows Gibson's life story. It's the same school of dumbassed thought that has held far too many people back for far too long for no damned good reason.
This isn't the crushing, institutional, government-subsidized racism America saw for far too long in different dimensions -- that's another book entirely, and people far more talented than I'll ever be have already written it many times over. This is the quiet bias that slips into conversation, sometimes unconsciously, and scurries away just as quickly.
And just because Jeremy Lin isn't restricted in the same ways Rube Foster and Buck O'Neil and Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood and Marlin Briscoe and so many others have been, doesn't make this any less dangerous. In fact, it's even more dangerous now, because instead of using the decades of actual progress that we have seen to inform their world view, some people with a pen and a "publish" button have taken any new awareness and simply used it to cloak their own neuroses in far more eloquent ways. Things get hidden, and go slipping away without recrimination. People are minimized with malice aforethought, and the perpetrators get away with it, because "we're better than that now."
The hell we are. Until and unless we become aware of the pain these things can cause on a daily basis, to ourselves and to others, we are as we have always been.
The ESPN employee who should have been most relieved that things were going nuts within his own company was Rick Reilly, who pooped out this passage in his take about Lin's rise to the NBA:
Fortune lies in front of Lin like a golden highway now. And it should. He paved it. Congrats to him. Without his will and effort, the poor kid probably would be stuck running Goldman Sachs by now.
Yikes. Well, at least Reilly didn't write that Lin built a railroad. Somebody else will probably use that one.
I thought the last part of ESPN's second apology cut to the real heart of the matter. Why do Jeremy Lin's accomplishments need to be specifically collated as a point of pride for Asian-Americans? Isn't it a point of pride for anyone who follows sports when somebody who nobody expected to make it shocks the world? Doesn't the story of Jeremy Lin make us feel the way the stories of Kurt Warner, and Bill Russell, and Hank Greenberg, and Billie Jean King, and Cito Gaston, and on and on and on, make us feel? Don't we all like it when somebody beats the odds and shoves "You can't do this" right back in somebody else's face? Doesn't that make us all believe that we can beat the odds in our own lives?
I've always believed that we'll truly be beyond all this garbage when a person of color -- any color -- goes 50 feet above the line, and it isn't a big political thing anymore. I thought that maybe, just maybe, we'd gotten halfway there when Tony Dungy coached against Lovie Smith in Super Bowl XLI and most people didn't seem to hold it up as any specific milestone. These guys are qualified to do this. What's the big deal?
Nope. Not just yet. Some people have simply switched continents as the targets of their sophomoric ire. Until they run out of continents, and other perceived dividers, we've got that many miles to go before the real work is done.
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