There is no question that the emergence of Jeremy Lin has been “linspirational” to millions of benchwarmers everywhere, but I’ve really been avoiding writing anything on the topic. Many people have asked me why, probably because we have amazingly similar stories. We’re both male, we both have spent time living in Manhattan, and we both have some trouble dribbling a basketball with our left hand. But the story had been so thoroughly covered, I couldn’t think of much to add. That is until earlier this week when ESPN published a now infamous headline. After the Knicks finally experienced their first loss in eight games with Jeremy Lin as their starting point guard, ESPN published a headline on their mobile sites that read “Chink in the Armor”.
The offending headline was pulled after approximately 30 minutes, but not after being re-reported on ESPN News and viewed by possibly millions of ESPN customers. A day later, ESPN issued a formal apology and announced the dismissal of one employee and the suspension of another. That’s the part that got my attention.
When I was a young investment banker, one of my many altruistic and spiritually fulfilling duties was to assemble pitch books, or lengthy sales presentations for prospective clients. The pressure to produce a pitch book quickly was intense, and staying at my desk all night was an expected and frequent occurrence. One day, a peer of mine was cranking away on a pitch book for a potential initial public offering. Who knows how long it had been since he had last slept, but when the books went out the door, the title pages didn’t read “Initial Public Offering” but rather “Initial Pubic Offering”. Even the spell checker can’t help you with that one. The partners ripped off the covers before they got to the client’s office, and we all got a hearty laugh about it later.
Now in my example, no customers were offended, our brand was not marred and it ended with a successful pitch. No one lost their job as a result of what was probably a stupid oversight. Not the case with ESPN. It is certainly reasonable to assume that the writer of the headline was a bigoted jerk who thought he was being hilarious with the timely use of a not so subtle double entendre. If so, he can enjoy the next phase of his career as an unemployable writer. More likely, in my opinion, is that you had a late-20s employee who was scrambling like crazy to get a headline published after a high profile event before millions of customers cut over to Sports Illustrated to see who won the game. The phrase “chink in the armor” does fit the context of an “undefeated” team experiencing its first loss. Hours later the guy is out of a job.
I don’t blame ESPN for the actions they took. They are a business, and if an employee does something that infuriates a group of customers, it can’t go ignored. If the terminated employee had editorial responsibility, then looking out for offensive contexts was kind of in his job description. My concern comes from the public reaction.
Even after the rapid apology and subsequent employee actions, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund called on ESPN to go further such that the apology “be aired prominently on ESPN’s television programs, so that it is clear to all viewers that this racist language is unacceptable.” Jay Caspian Kang, writer for ESPN property Grantland.com, wrote that the headline “was completely unacceptable and made me seriously reconsider my continued employment with the company.” Really? Even if the comments were intended in the worst manner possible, would you really leave your job because a single employee out of your 6,500 co-workers was an a-hole who was quickly fired? Heads up Jay, because with that many employees you probably also work with an anti-Semite, a communist and a felon.
Look back to my first paragraph, and note that I pointed out that Lin has trouble “dribbling” a basketball with his left hand. In reality, no one who covers the sport will say it like that. If you watch ESPN, or any other network, instead you will hear commentators say Lin struggles to “drive” to his left. Wait a minute, is that some kind of shot at the stereotype that Asian’s can’t drive? Of course not. I did a Google search for the phrase “nipped at the buzzer” and got 492,000 results. Are editors across the country scouring rosters to ensure there were no players of Japanese descent featured prominently in those contests?
I don’t mean to make light of racism and the smoking hole it continues to leave on the fabric of our country and the world. Reactions to bigotry and racism are justifiably harsh and swift. But the reactions to an appearance of racism seem to have become grossly disproportional. ESPN commentators and analysts have had their own share of trouble, with arrests for everything from DUI to domestic battery. Some have been dismissed, but some have not. Even in the cases where an employee was dismissed, it took days, weeks or months for that to happen. In the case of the Lin headline, justice was meted out in less than 24 hours. I have no doubt that management at ESPN decided an overreaction was the only acceptable reaction.
The part of this story that scares me is that as I work to start my writing career, another may have just been ended over what could have been a naive, completely unintentional misstep. Racism certainly still exists. Lin reportedly heard racist taunts during his Harvard playing days, but even he when asked about this incident was quoted as saying, “I don’t even think that was intentional.” I’m not Asian, and I’ve tried to recall the last time I’ve heard the offending remark used in an intentionally offending context. I’d literally have to go back decades. I asked some of my friends what their perspective was, and the reaction varied from “I kind of forgot that could be used as a slur” to “Do people still use that term? Seems like a word someone in their 80s might say”. It is possible that the culprit in this case wasn’t even aware there was a slur involved. In fact, it has to be an encouraging sign that I can’t remember the last time I heard any racial slur that was not used as an odd term of endearment by the targeted culture or used in conjunction with some kind of artistic expression, like music or film.
When I first considered writing on this topic and the fear of unemployment that came with it, I wrestled with the concern that the piece itself might contain some unseen slight that made trouble for me somewhere. Similarly, I bet there are not a lot of people who will pose in public that this entire episode may have been a tragic mistake. For doing so could get them branded themselves a racist, and few can afford to have that happen.
But after I’ve given it more thought, a job is just a job, and the loss of that is not my true source of concern. In reality, the outcome of this for me is that race will be a topic I stay far, far away from. The real fear is that I and others will be intimidated into avoiding discussion of the issue entirely. Constructive dialogue is a leading strategy for pushing racism out of a society, and the fear to talk about it serves to perpetuate the problem.
In addition, while bigoted perspectives should be addressed, foolishness or carelessness should not be dealt with the same ferocity. By doing so, we not only stifle legitimate discourse, but we dilute incidents that are a cause for justified outrage. An Asian friend summed it up like this, “There’s real racism, real racist remarks and there’s this. They aren’t equal. Firing the guy makes us think it’s all equal.”
In the meantime, it seems we’ve moved our focus from vilifying real persecution to protecting against perceived insult, and I’ll leave the discussion of race to the independently wealthy or the successfully self-employed. And I won’t write about Jeremy Lin either.