Sunday, February 19, 2012

 

Crossing The Racial Lin(e)

Well, guess it was only a matter of time for the all-around feel-good story of the year to take a turn for the worse! What the media giveth, the media taketh away.  After a two-week ride from obscurity to international obsession, Jeremy Lin's tale took an, ahem, dark turn last week.

That turn was, yes, on race -- perhaps not surprisingly, given that the National Basketball Association is primarily African-American, with a number of Caucasian Europeans, a handful of American-born whites and Lin as the only Asian-American starting player.

First, boxer -- and soon to be jailbird -- Floyd Mayweather Jr. complained that the whole "Linsanity" media madness was being driven because of ethnicity:  “Jeremy Lin is a good player,” Mayweather tweeted, “but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” (On the other hand, some have argued precisely the opposite: Despite an impressive career at Harvard, Lin was overlooked coming out of college because he was Asian. (Personally, I lean toward my colleague Peter Vecsey's theory: The NBA-coach bias is more against Ivy League players than anything else.).  

Two things wrong with Mayweather's statement: 1) Some black players so what Lin does -- but in the seven games that he's played, he's managed to (depending on the game) outduel Kobe Bryant, hoist a Jordanesque game-winning three-pointer -- and put together a Jason Kidd stat-line of 10 points and 13 assists.  That sort of versatility is rare for any player -- regardless of race.  2) No black players on the Knicks were doing "what [Lin] does every night."  Indeed, had not head coach Mike D'Antoni brought Lin into the game off the bench against the New Jersey Nets on the night of Feb. 4, he likely was soon to be would have been heading out the door given the team's 8-15 start.  Another six wins got them to playing .500 ball (until Friday's loss to the atrocious Charlotte Hornets, of which, more in a moment).

However, in the urge to denounce Mayweather's comments (an urge which seemed universal -- including from uber-Knicks fan and one-time racial bombthrower, Spike Lee), it shouldn't be overlooked that, in one crucial way, Mayweather is quite right: Lin's ethnicity is certainly part of the media attraction -- and not just from the Asian press. American always roots for the underdog, so regardless of race, Lin's story has appeal in a Rudy (the movie -- not the mayor) manner.  But, the fact Lin's Chinese-American is a value-added.  He is a racial outlier in a predominantly black professional sports league. That takes the Rudy comparison to another level.  Even if he were white, the story wouldn't be this huge.  If he were white, the rise of the devoutly Christian Lin would just be Tim Tebow, NBA-style -- but it wouldn't be "new."  But, as Tiger Woods (back in the day), Eminem, and the Williams sisters have demonstrated, America loves racial outliers -- especially those that excel in fields where a different race has dominated for years.  

This just happens to be a rare case where the black athletes make up the establishment and it's an Asian is the one moving into the neighborhood. He's playing great -- and he's having fun in a way that has become infectious for the team, it's fans and the entire city. Indeed, Lin has fun playing point guard -- with a smile to match -- that is almost reminiscent of one Earvin "Magic" Johnson. No wonder the zeitgeist has adopted him and produced an overdose of Lin-related puns.

Which, of course, brings us to the other racial flare-up -- ESPN.com's use of a "Chink In The Armor" headline Friday night after the Knicks' "Linning streak" came to an end -- partly because of Lin's turnovers (though if his teammates had made a couple more of the three-pointers he was setting them up for, the team would have won).  

ESPN wisely apologized for the headline and vowed to do a full review on how such a thing could have been posted.  As I tweeted Saturday afternoon, "I KNOW puns -- good and bad. No way its an accident."  I know this for a very simple reason -- well, two actually: 1) I've been a punster since around the time puberty kicked in (yeah, they may be connected); 2) I'll confess to thinking the exact same pun/headline a days before ago. I whispered sotto voce to a friend about Knicks excelling because they now have a, well, fill it out for yourself. We giggled and shook our heads at the inappropriateness of even thinking that.  

But that's the way puns can work: They've been called the "lowest form of wit" -- primarily because they are seen as "too easy" (making a joke about how certain words having different meanings or sounding similar? Meh!). [A counter to this charge is that puns are the lowest form of with because they are the foundation of all wit, which is an argument for another day.] But there is another way puns can and should be considered "low": They come from a "base" -- i.e., "naughty" -- part of the consciousness. That's why some of the best/worst puns inevitably spring from the unholy troika of taboo -- race, gender and sex. (Puns, of course, also capture the fluidity of language, which is why a 1950s Batman story about The Joker's, uh, mistake, is far more unintentionally funny now than when it was first published.) Just like four-letter words, jokes that touch on these subjects are not often uttered in what is casually called "polite company." In truth, among friends and family, bad/offensive jokes and words are shared -- because friends understand the spirit in which the words are used.  

In a shared cultural context, an otherwise-offensive word can lose much of its power; "nigger" is the notoriously controversial perfect example that both proves and is the exception to the rule. "Bitch" works similarly among women (but, notably, not so much the C-word).  In any event, as much as social mores condition us not to tell  or tolerate racist, sexist or otherwise offensive jokes (even though there's still a constituency for them -- CAUTION: Don't click, if easily offended) outside of, say, a comedy club, human nature is what it is.  Among friends, a wry (or, yes, juvenile) observation will be made -- and the most likely way such a thing will be expressed is in a pun. The context/setup has already been made -- all that's needed is a quick-and-dirty (in all senses of the phrase) pun-chline.  And then will come the eyeroll, the groan and the disapproving shaking of the heads (often accompanied by a wary look over the shoulder to make sure no one outside of the trusted circle overheard and took offense). 

This is human nature and happens all the time. 

But it shouldn't -- indeed, can't -- happen for a major international media organization. (Arguably, a good way that corporations aren't people.) The aforementioned shared cultural context is absent when a media entity is reaching an audience of millions, if not billions (given the global interest in all things Lin). A headline writer undoubtedly might think of such a headline as got onto ESPN (they're trained to think that way) -- but would immediately reject it (even if he/she personally found it amusing). If not, an editor would reject it and say, "Are you out of your mind?"  A word that is Asian near-equivalent of the N-word can't go live or be put into print. 

Many asked, "What were they thinking?" Which is a great question. Obviously, for some reason, no one was thinking, in which case, I'm not sure what is worse: Either a headline writer and editor both thought the line was just funny and put it up (pretty bad.). Or a writer had no editorial supervision for such a headline (in the big picture far worse). And, yes, "chink in the armor" is a legitimate phrase to use about someone/something that seemed invulnerable, but is now weakened. Point taken: It's an editor's job to say, yes, but it's an inappropriate use in this context. A boss of mine once told me that the best copy editors are people with dirty minds. Why? Because they're the ones who will point out the many possible awkward ways certain phrases or words can be taken.   

Regardless, in an oddly poetic bookend, Jeremy Lin -- who saved Mike D'Antoni's job -- could be, uh, "Lincidentally" (come on, you didn't think you'd get through a whole post without at least one, right?), responsible for an ESPN staffer getting shown the door.

Finally, this weekend, Saturday Night Live did a pretty good job at skewering the racial-BS and double-standards in sports commentary.

UPDATE: Quick action indeed. ESPN announces firing of employee responsible for headline -- and suspension of anchor who used similar phrase. Frankly, it's harder to gauge intent for using the phrase verbally; again, "chink in the armor" is a phrase with legitimate usage, it can validly be used to describe a team in the course of natural conversation or analysis. But, so it goes. 

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