Maiello: Defeat the Press
Miami Fans Mistakenly Chant "Let's Go Eat" During Playoff Game
I love basketball, so I love Jeremy Lin. He's awesome. I also love to write about basketball, so I was waiting until I had seen more of Lin's play to write a blog about his fascinating rise to celebrity status and into the upper echelon of NBA guards. I was not waiting to blog about Lin until idiots thought it was cool to use the ugly and out-of-bounds racial slur "chink" in prepared text to refer to him. Nonetheless, we have been exposed this week to ESPN making wordplay with this racist slur, and to boxer Floyd Mayweather and even columnist Jason Whitlock joining the racist foot-in-mouth comment club. So before we get back to enjoying the Linsanity where it belongs, on the hardwood (where Lin scored 28 and dished out 14 assists in a nationally televised Knick win over the Mavericks today), let's recognize the teaching moment our culture suddenly finds itself in about the not widely paused upon subject of antiAsian racism.
By way of background, in case you have been unconscious or perhaps visiting the new Gingrich moon colony for the last three weeks, you have certainly heard by now of the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin, a second year NBA player, into being the first Asian-American basketball star in American history. Lin was an end-of-the-bencher for a listless and 8-15 New York Knicks team, when coach Mike D'Antoni, himself on the brink of being fired, took this inexperienced guard and gave him extended minutes. Linsanity followed, as the Knicks won seven straight games with Lin leading them in scoring and assists over the stretch, hitting a game winner at the end of one road game, and scoring more in his first six NBA starts than any player in the league's 66 year history. New York responded with a lot of love, as did NBA nation. Lin was an underdog and a surprise several times over -- undrafted, he played his college ball for Harvard, having never received a single college basketball scholarship offer, and he had been sent to the NBA's minor league repeatedly. And it is surely part of the Lin story that there had never been an Asian-American player in the modern NBA, which, rolled together will all of those underdog facts I just listed, and Lin's joyful, positive disposition, made his rise a unique and upbeat sports story. People like rooting for the underdog, for the nice guy made good, for the novelty of someone being the first to do something, and Jeremy Lin is all of that. (Although he's too good to be the underdog forever, but hey, let's enjoy the liftoff here.)
Unfortunately, one of the distinctive things about Lin being race (the only other Asian-American player in NBA history was Wat Misaka, who played three games, also for the Knicks, in 1947), there was an opening for stupidity to creep into the discussion. Sure enough, there was a scuffle about race and speech about Lin earlier in the week, when hater Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a convicted serial batterer of women and a boxing champion, tweeted that Jeremy Lin is a good player but that he only receives hype because he's Asian, and that black players do every night what he does. Mayweather had previously been caught on video saying of rival champion boxer, Filipino Manny Pacquiao, "We're going to cook that little yellow chump…. Once I stomp the midget, I'll make that motherfucker make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice." By this standard of racist speech, Mayweather's latest comments sound almost scholarly in tone. It's true that Lin being Asian is a positive part of why people pay attention to him (he's as novel as Tiger at Augusta, and arguably more so than the Williams sisters, all of whom inspired a lot of love), and to that degree only, Mayweather almost had a point. But in having to make it about black versus Asian (a leitmotif on display in Mayweather's diseased rant against Pacquiao), he went off the deep end. It was nice to hear the First Knick Fan, Spike Lee himself, tweet back that Mayweather sounded like Rush Limbaugh making those comments. Spike was right. What Lin did in his first set of starts had never been done by a white, black, or Asian player. Which is part of why it is cool, and raciaizing sour grapes over Lin's attention is bad news.
I was surprised while researching this to see that a figure in sports I actually like -- columnist Jason Whitlock -- had gotten into the act. Mayweather is the kind of violent idiot jock who our culture elevates improperly onto a soapbox through Twitter and media coverage. But Whitlock is a good and often thoughtful sports columnist. And he tweeted the other night that after another good performance in New York by Lin, "Some lucky lady in NYC is going to feel a couple inches of pain tonight." Get it? The joke or stereotype about Asian men and their genitalia. Nice. Jason apologized, and was not suspended. Yecch. Whitlock considers the joke "inappropriate" and "immature." He didn't call it "racist," which means he hasn't accepted responsibility, a failure even more evident in his whinily criticizing the sincerity of those criticizing him. He'd rather walk around in little circles pretending to be some racial truth-teller when he should just say he screwed up and give supposed racial insight a rest for the week. That his employer Fox has not suspended or punished him remains more pathetic and unacceptable than what he said in the first place, as it amounts to tacit endorsement.
Speaking of Spike Lee, as we did two paragraphs above, ESPN provides a generally praiseworthy contrast to Fox in how you do the right thing. As the virus of racist cracks spread through the intertubes, ESPN employees twice this week made racist "chink" wordplay in text about Lin. Friday night, ESPN ran the racist headline "Chink in the Armor" to explain the Knicks' first loss with Lin starting. Someone had the presence of mind to pull it down within 35 minutes, but thankfully not before the screen-shot of ugliness went viral, and called the question as to whether this was ok. Saturday morning, as HuffPo and others focused attention on the headline, we learned that ESPN had done the same thing two days earlier when anchor Max Bretos asked in this video whether there was a "chink in the armor -- where can Lin improve his game?" Remarkably, ESPN had already come under criticism for using "Chink in the Armor" as a headline to refer to a USA Basketball loss in China. Anyone knows that this continuing conjunction of China with the slur "chink" was not accidental. Sadly, fans taunted Lin with "chink" even while he played college ball in the Ivy League.
Happily, ESPN stepped up and recognized at least the rough equivalency of the slur in its headline with the N-word, which America learned you don't get to use as an epithet at someone decades ago. It fired the headline writer, and suspended Bretos for 30 days. (And it pointed out that someone broadcasting over ESPN Radio who is not an ESPN employee, thus beyond its disciplinary reach, who turns out to be Knicks radio voice Spero Dedes, had used the same "chink in the armor" language in his live broadcast of Friday's game -- audio here.) There is a good argument for firing Bretos, but I am betting that he showed great contrition (he tweeted that his wife is Asian and that he would never intentionally disparage the Asian community) and that he may have been ad libbing on air, though one would tend to assume otherwise. In Bretos' defense, it says something about American acceptance of casual antiAsian racism that nothing happened as a general cultural backlash after his comment for two days. Only when the headline two days later raised the issue to critical mass was ESPN was forced to confront what appeared to be its third racist use of "chink in the armor." The delay, the indifference from Bretos' point A Wednesday to the headline's point B Friday cannot be laid at the doorstep of ESPN, but instead at the doorstep of how America still sometimes fails when it talks about race.
In that continuing American conversation about race, one thing that shone through to me is that even though this antiAsian C-word stands in rough parallel to the antiblack N-word, as a totem of hate and disparagement and dehumanization, we haven't evolved rules as clear about antiAsian disparagement, partly because there was no Asian counterpart to the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s. We have had many more Al Campanis moments in our popular culture than Jason Whitlock or Floyd Mayweather moments. I know one great illustration from my own youth of the disparity between how clear our cultural prohibitions have been against using overtly antiblack language, compared to our softer prohibitions against overtly antiAsian slurs. As a teen, I had a girlfriend in Pekin, Illinois, so named because someone stupid thought that if you burrowed through to the opposite side of the earth, you'd be in Peking. I say someone stupid because Pekin and Peking are both in the northern hemisphere. (I guess if you want to imagine that you can connect any two points on a sphere through the center, all towns in the world could be named Pekin. But I digress.)
Having made some acquaintances in Pekin, I was shocked back in 1984 to learn that Pekin's high school nickname until 1980 -- far into the post-MLK world -- had been the Chinks. This was their logo. You cannot imagine a sports team with a comparably disparaging ethnic nickname (ok, the "Washington Redskins" comes close and persists) existing in 1980. By then, America had too evolved of a consensus against the N-word to permit its use in such a casual and authoritative way as in nicknaming a school. Yet when the school in all-white Pekin (a town with longstanding Klan ties) resolved to change its nickname from Chink to Dragon in 1980, there was a protest in which students stayed home en masse. Fortunately, the school stood its ground and there were mass suspensions and discipline, greatly to the displeasure of the disciplined. Remarkably, even after Pekin retired the disgraceful nickname, Pekin still had a roller rink called "Chink Rink," which had outside it a cartoon logo caricature of an Asian man in a long robe, with slant-line eyes, a coolie hat, an idiotic grin, and roller skates sticking out from under his robe. Thankfully, I cannot find an image of it to paste here. The rink name passed around 1985, as I recall.
The story of casual racism this week has an interesting parallel with the purging of Pekin's offensive mascot and nickname. By 1975, the nearby Peoria Journal-Star, which was the primary newspaper in the area, resolved that it would never use "Chink" in covering Pekin's teams even while the nickname persisted, to avoid offending readers. The Journal-Star's decision helped start the push to put the slur out of bounds. You can see the discussion of that in this interesting history of the Pekin nickname controversy, at pages 55-56. And when ESPN issued a full-throated apology, with heads rolling today, it helped draw the line more clearly, as we drew it long ago on the N-word, against this very ugly disparagement. Thank you to the worldwide leader (as it calls itself) for the moral clarity Fox, Jason Whitlock, and Floyd Mayweather lack. I have confidence we're going to move forward from this week as a teaching moment that helped, and that we all benefit from that, not just kids like my half-Asian son who asked me this morning during a Lin discussion how he would have been treated during Old South segregation.
So with that confidence in where we're headed, I'm going to put this angle aside, and get back to enjoying Jeremy Lin's game. If you missed today's Knicks victory over the Mavericks, you missed something special. The defending champion Mavs were up in the second half in a loud Garden. Bringing them back, Lin knifed through the lane twice for tough layups, absorbing hits and finishing one as an and-one. He got teammate Steve Novak raining threes from the outside by drawing the defense and making the smart pass. After Novak hit two threes in the fourth quarter to put the Knicks up six, with the shot clock running out, Lin coldly nailed a long three over a long defender to make it nine. And after the Mavs clawed back to 100-97 down in the last minute, Novak batted a long rebound of a Mavs miss to Lin, who casually tossed a perfect 50 foot pass upcourt to J.R. Smith, who had released early, for the layup that proved decisive. Playing the best field-goal defense in the NBA, the Mavs yielded over 100 to Lin's Knicks, who are 8-1 with him starting. Cheering on Lin's eyepopping 28 points, 14 assists, and 5 steals, the First Knick, a man whose films have improved our conversation about race, was wearing a long, baggy Harvard jersey, with Lin's name and college number 4 on the back. Think I'll be getting one of those myself. God help me, I'm starting to like the New York Knicks. Peace out.