Do We Really Think That ESPN Headline Was Intentionally Racist?

What if we all lost our jobs for innocent mistakes we made after a long and stressful day at work?

Feb 22, 2012 at 2:23pm | Leave a comment

I grew up in a home where “cuss” words were not used in front of me. I honestly can’t even remember the first time I heard someone swear, but I feel confident that I was at least nine years old and that it came from the mouth of a stranger in public. My mother even went so far as to have a list of “Outlaw Words” -- words we were completely forbidden to speak in our house. “Shut up,” “sucks,” and “dork” topped the list. If we wanted to partake in "bathroom talk," we had to literally have those conversations, that's right: in the bathroom.

(Aside: I once typed out her list of Outlaw Words assigning them all numbers and then taping it on the refrigerator so that at dinnertime I could call my brother “a number three” without being punished. The whole boarding school thing makes a lot more sense when I remember moments like that.)

I’m sure you can imagine that if my world was near-free of words spoken to express anger and frustration, it was also free of racial slurs. And, for whatever reason, probably because of the character of the people I grew up with, while “fuck” and “shit” were eventually introduced into my lexicon, it wasn’t until I went to college at NYU that I began to learn there were derogatory terms used to insult entire races, religions and ethnicities. (Exception being the slur found repeatedly in “Huckleberry Finn,” but until I was 26, that was the only context in which I ever experienced it.)

I suppose this makes me sound naïve and even though that’s not a way anyone would describe me today, perhaps I was. I’d grown up quickly in many ways, experimenting with drugs at a young age, getting sent off to reform school at 15, but despite that, most of my friends I grew up with were raised by parents who taught tolerance, acceptance, and kindness. In fact, it wasn’t even “taught,” per se; it just was.

One of the side affects of moving from San Francisco to New York, however, was a quick lesson in intolerance. Before I moved to NYC, the only bigoted term I’d heard used by a person I knew was “F.O.B.” I asked what it meant and was told “Fresh off the boat,” but even then, I didn’t understand why that was something negative. I love boats, I thought. I know. Naïve!

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Even in New York though, I continued to be somewhat clueless about these horrible slurs, once repeating to a girl that my friend had called her a “wigger.” I wasn’t trying to be malicious; she asked what he’d whispered in my ear and I honestly didn’t know what that was. So I told her.

Fact of that matter is, as I’ve gotten older and somewhat wiser, I’ve made a conscious effort not to learn what these words  mean. I can't help but know they exist, but if I don’t ask what they mean or who they're about when I do have the unfortunate chance of hearing them,  I’m not inviting the ugly thoughts and stereotypes into my life. (Apparently racial slurs: Daisy’s brain :: vampires : doorways.) 

All of this is to say that when I saw the outrage over ESPN’s Jeremy Lin headline after a loss to the Hornets, I thought, “That’s incredibly unfortunate, but I bet it was an honest mistake.”

In case you missed it, the NBA’s newest sensation and the man behind the already over-saturated phrase “Lin-sanity,” Jeremy Lin, committed nine turnovers on Friday, effectively losing the game and ending a seven-game winning streak for the New York Knicks. 

ESPN writer, Anthony Frederico, then wrote his last headline of the night at 2:30 a.m. before heading home. It read:

“Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets."

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When I first saw the media firestorm about this on Saturday morning, I immediately thought, “God, I’m so dumb. I had no idea that phrase was racist!” I assumed no one would brazenly use the word "chink" alone in that terrible manner on a website like ESPN, so it only made to sense to me that "chink in the armor" as a whole had serious racist implications and that everyone knew this but me.

So I looked it up and learned that, according to TheFreeDictionary.com, a chink in one's armor means:

"A small but fatal weakness."

Or: an overused (by sports writers), but accurate way to describle what happened to Jeremy Lin's game on Friday. 

Once I realized that everyone was, in fact, livid about the usage of the word "chink," despite the fact that the phrase "chink in the armor" accurately described Lin's first real sign of weakness, I couldn't help but think that perhaps it was everyone else who was racist, not the writer.

I felt in my gut that Anthony Frederico, a writer who was churning out sports headlines when most of the country was fast asleep, in no way, shape, or form wrote that headline to purposefully include a racist pun. It seemed obvious to me that while he was guilty of lazy writing and cliché analogies, that was the only thing of which he was guilty.

He has since been fired.

In an interview with the Daily News that came out today, Frederico says the racial slur “never crossed his mind -- and he was devastated when he realized his mistake.” He apologized to Jeremy Lin who told reporters, “I don’t even think that was intentional.”

And yet, Frederico is now out of work… and may have a very hard time finding more.

But Frederico says he understands why he was fired. "ESPN did what they had to do."

I don't agree.  

I am not defending that headline. It was a very unfortunate choice of words. But to punish a writer who is under an intense deadline and who seemingly has the ability to publish directly to the mobile site without running anything by an editor (otherwise, why was the editor not fired?), for what truly seems to be an honest mistake? That feels harsh.

There are, of course, people who believe that Anthony Frederico’s headline was intentional and malicious. I don’t know Frederico, but based on the fact that he has used that exact phrase “at least 100 times” in headlines over the years, I believe this was terrible mistake. In fact, Frederico "called Lin one of his heroes - not just because he's a big Knicks fan, but because he feels a kinship with a fellow "outspoken Christian." Maybe I'm being naïve again, but I just don't believe a man who would say that would do something so malicious.

Which makes me wonder:

Is it fair to fire someone because other people brought their own racism to his headline?

Certainly this is an opportunity for us all to ruminate on racism and it's prevalent place in our culture. But, I think it's also a chance for us to wonder why we don't have a bigger issue with the fact that the norm is now to react instead of respond. That it's become the status quo to attack instead of understand. That, at the heart of this, there's a problem just as horrible as racism, something I hope we'll all take a moment to think about...

Why are we so quick to assume the worst of each other? Is that who we really want to be?

[Oh fuck (I grew up with a mom who used those words often). I have said before that I don't read everything that goes up on this site. I am reading this post now, 12 hours after it went up. I hired you and I stand behind you and value and appreciate you so much. At the same time, the sentiments in the post are not something that I can agree to disagree with. I have no idea whether that guy (I don't keep up with sports) wrote that headline intentionally or not. The way I feel about parts of this piece was summed up by commenter Holly Sh, paraphrasing Jane Hill: "You can say something that's racist and not necessarily know that it is or intend it to be offensive, but your failure to recognize it doesn't void the damage those kinds of statements make. We're all implicated in a system of racism - it's not just about being a racist individual. Being a part of that system means working to eradicate racist language, even accidental racist language." Do you feel like you've been enlightened by some of the feedback here, Daisy? If so, that's a good thing. Feel free to respond here or to continue to talk to me by email or phone or however you like, of course. I'm sorry I didn't work  with you on this or explain why I wouldn't have run it.  To the rest of you, I'm sorry. ] 

Thanks for weighing in Jane. I just want to be clear that I also fully understand how hurtful the headline was to people. By pointing out I believed it to be unintentional (something that the Vice President for Mobile Content at ESPN has since confirmed), I did not mean to take away from the fact that racism in any form is terrible and offensive. I wish I'd been clearer about that in the post, as well as the fact that I would have fully supported a suspension and sensitivity training for the editor who was fired. Sorry for creating a fiasco. Guess we've all learned how important a second and third set of eyes are! xx, daisy