Linfusion: ESPN, And What Happens When Words Go Wrong

Social media exploded this past weekend, or at least the sporting side of it.

On the heels of the New York Knicks’ first loss with Asian-American, game-saving sensation Jeremy Lin at the point-guard helm, ESPN, early Saturday morning, posted a headline on its website, the article querying possible weaknesses in Lin’s ability.  Those queries were understandable, as Lin had, in ten days, captured media attention that rivaled and drew comparison to the ebullience that greeted Denver Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow throughout his similar, though different, rise to the media spotlight.  Tebow, a familiar character to athletic obsessives due to his stratospheric collegiate career at the University of Florida, stunned his massive audience with a series of dramatic come-from-behind wins, belying a widely-accepted status as “not built for the NFL,” or some such; Lin, unfamiliar to almost any obsessive of any kind, ascended to greatness via chance, injury to teammates, familial loss by teammates, a series of unsuccessful stints with smaller-market franchises, and the desperation of a squad in the country’s largest media market, foundering, its coach’s employment in jeopardy, its performance in an abbreviated season already the source of nationwide derision.  Tebow, an avowed Christian, drew mockery and unavoidable debate over his behavior regarding his beliefs; Lin, his ethnicity an anomaly in the sporting arena of his talent, inspired wordplay.

“Linsanity!”  “Linsane!”  “Lindemonium!”  The first of those puns endured the most, but sports writers, sports fans, all stripes, seized by the unpredictable nature of this particular character enlivening this particular team, piled upon themselves to address the unbelievable aspects of this athlete’s improbable ascent to stardom.  Wordplay became a part of the phenomenon.  All the while, discussions, sports radio, sports journalism, addressed the obvious, that such production from so unusual a source, a basketballer of Asian descent, had captured the zeitgeist.  Articles came in an open flow from fellows of similar heritage, praising the doors opened, the prejudices denied, by the undeniable success of this young phenom.  Then, in the wee hours Saturday, the wordplay and those unavoidable implications slammed together in that headline, which has caused ESPN no small portion of embarrassment in interceding days, and has led not only to the dismissal of the headline’s author, but the exposure of identical statements by other employees or associates of the network.  The headline:

“Chink In The Armor.”

I myself was at work Saturday morning when I caught texts from friends.  “Have you seen this??” or some such.  Of course, sans context, I was amazed and horrified at what I was told.  As a sports fan, compelled by the momentum of said “Linsanity” (who among us doesn’t love a Cinderella story?), I knew all too well the ins-and-outs of Lin’s sudden fame, as well as the incidents of insensitivity that already had unfolded in its wake.  This seemed too much, though.  The “Worldwide Leader?”  One of the greatest, grandest, largest media conglomerates in the world, let alone in athletic broadcasting?  It felt impossible.  Yet it was true, and the ensuing mess has inspired debate in all areas of online reporting, said social media, ESPN itself.  Somehow, this happened.  The lovely story of an unlikely hero had been forever tattooed by virtue of the stroke of some keys.  “Chink In The Armor.”  “Chink In The Armor.”  “Chink In The Armor.”  Jeremy Lin’s rise to (even temporary) greatness would never be remembered the same.

The arguments now come easy, the discussions all identical.  ESPN’s disciplinary actions, levied Sunday, became an immediate source of contention.  The editor responsible for the headline, a 28-year-old company veteran, Anthony Federico, was fired.  An on-air anchor, his utterance of the same phrase distributed virally within hours after the headline was posted, was suspended thirty days.  A play-by-play announcer, not an employee of “the Mothership,” would not be disciplined.  The anchor, Max Bretos, is married to a woman of Asian descent.  The announcer, Spero Dedes, is a regarded play-by-play announcer employed by the Knicks themselves.  Early response leans towards exoneration of Bretos and Dedes, the nature of their jobs so prone to turns of phrase, necessary speech without thought.  That same response wavers regarding Federico, whose regret appears sincere, but whose intentions remain in doubt.  What was he thinking?  Was he tired?  Was he not thinking?  Is it possible that he was trying to be funny, thought he could get away with it?

The last possibility, even in typing it, feels unlikely.  Would an up-and-coming editor, in this job market, two years distant from thirty, risk a crater on his career in the cause of a fratworthy prank?  It’s hard to imagine so.  If Bretos and Dedes are allowed the benefit of the doubt in the wake of their transgressions (the former was suspended thirty days by ESPN, a punishment which by many has been criticized; the latter has received no disciplinary action), why not Federico?  Should the youngest, most unseasoned of the aggressors be he who receives the harshest punishment?

That said, I’m a wordsmith.  As noted in a previous piece, regarding Joakim Noah’s and Kobe Bryant’s use of a homophobic slur, I do believe it possible to screen one’s thoughts from words actually spoken, conveyed, written.  We all have ugly thoughts; even the best of us have seen enough darkness to have the tentacles of prejudice curling around within our minds.  I don’t consider it all that hard to withhold such rhetorical impulse, even in the heat of the moment, any moment.  The phrase in question is a familiar cliche, by no means very original, and its usage within sports media is historical (not to mention cited as defense/explanation by ESPN itself).  Historical too, though, is a legacy of racism within the sports that seemingly bring us together beyond ethnic bounds, as, despite whatever hatred the worst of us harbor, we simply want to see our teams win.

It is difficult, given the circumstances, to draw any kind of conclusion at all.  Tebow, a Christian athlete in a nation of Christian majority, nonetheless brings upon himself derision for making his faith no secret, and for praying to his deity after each touchdown.  Lin, an American whose ancestry makes him look different from others, betrays expected notions of those who succeed in his trade, draws upon himself derision by virtue of how he appears, from where he comes.  Can we ever decide beyond doubt whether the editor, the anchor, the announcer, had any idea in mind of what they expressed when they expressed it?  Will we ever know their intentions?  Is it that hard to believe that people can bear in mind the implications of the things they say, or write, when unleashed?

One would hope so.  I certainly do.  At the moment, though, it’s hard to tell.  In this day and age, as far as we’ve come when it comes to acceptance, tolerance, the abandonment of baseless bias, I do know that it makes me feel that we still, even now, have quite some way to go.

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3 thoughts on “Linfusion: ESPN, And What Happens When Words Go Wrong

  1. Pingback: Organized Sports: Order from Chaos, or: The NBA at Midseason « Fully Reconditioned

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