Thursday, February 23, 2012

Political incorrectness and the sports industry – will anyone ever learn?

ESPN and The Poynter Institute have partnered for ESPN’s Poynter Review Project, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. The latest commentary (written by Poytner’s Jason Fry) focused on ESPN’s coverage of Jeremy Lin, specifically the use of the politically incorrect term (Chink in the armor) which appeared as an ESPN mobile headline, on ESPN News and on ESPN Radio and how ESPN reacted. What happened at ESPN won’t be the last time (nor was it the first time) ESPN has had to deal with journalist missteps. Looking at the bigger picture, there have been several “gems” that led to people losing their jobs and their careers in the sports industry as a direct result of something they said.

On April 6, 1987, ABC "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel interviewed Al Campanis, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a one-time teammate of Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke the major leagues' color barrier. Campanis appearance was in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Dodgers breaking MLB’s “color line” when Robinson joined the Dodgers at the start of the 1947 MLB season.

During the interview, Koppel asked Campanis why African-American managers and general managers were virtually nonexistent in the sport. Campanis offered a sound bite that is forever linked with his legacy: "It's just that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager."

Koppel was looking at diversity in MLB management.

When Koppel objected to what Campanis was saying, Campanis didn’t back away, saying, "I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them haven't managed. But they are outstanding athletes, very God-gifted and wonderful people … They are gifted with great musculature (sic) and various other things. They are fleet of foot and this is why there are a number of black ballplayers in the major leagues."

Two days after his Nightline appearance, Campanis was forced to resign; his career finished.

On January 16, 1988, Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder (Snyder was Jewish) was fired by the CBS network (where he had been a regular on NFL Today since 1976) after commenting to WRC-TV reporter Ed Hotaling in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, that African Americans were naturally superior athletes at least in part, because they had been bred to produce stronger offspring during slavery:

“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade'n the big… the owner… the slave owner would, would, would, would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have ah, ah big, ah big, ah big black kid see…”

According to his New York Times obituary, Snyder expressed regret for his comments, remarking: "What a foolish thing to say."

While his CBS co-workers supported the decision to fire him, Irv Cross said in the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary about Snyder, whom he worked alongside for a long time and never heard any racist comments, nor detected any racist attitudes from him.

The late Reggie White, a member of the Football Hall of Fame, visited the Wisconsin Legislature in September 1998. White believed the time was right to share his “beliefs” with Wisconsin politicians (and as it turned out the world). White was an ordained minister and a key member on two Green Bay Packers Super Bowl winning team.

The politicians who were in attendance believed White came to talk about his community work and a recent trip to Israel. White did, but his nearly hour-long speech also included remarks on homosexuality, race and slavery that turned the Assembly's applause to stunned silence.

White said the United States has gotten away from God, in part by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant."

HOMOSEXUALITY IS a sin and the plight of gays and lesbians should not be compared to that of blacks, White told lawmakers.

"Homosexuality is a decision, it's not a race," White said. "People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and back-stabbing."

White said he has thought about why God created different races. Each race has certain gifts, he said.

Blacks are gifted at worship and celebration, White said.

"If you go to a black church, you see people jumping up and down because they really get into it," he said.

Whites are good at organization, White said.

"You guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature, and you know how to tap into money," he said.

"Hispanics were gifted in family structure, and you can see a Hispanic person, and they can put 20, 30 people in one home."

THE JAPANESE AND other Asians are inventive, and "can turn a television into a watch," White said. Indians are gifted in spirituality, he said.

"When you put all of that together, guess what it makes: It forms a complete image of God," White said.

CBS SPORTS spokeswoman Leslie Ann Wade declined to comment on White's speech or whether his remarks would affect his chances for a studio analyst's job. White has auditioned for a commentating job at the network. Shortly after his appearance, CBS withdrew a five-year, $6 million contract for White to become a part of the pregame panel.

Steve Lyons, Fox Sports’ number two baseball analyst, was fired six years ago after comments he made about the Hispanic background of Lou Piniella, who was a guest analyst, during the 2006 American League Championship Series. “Lou’s ablating some Español there, and I’m still looking for my wallet,” Lyons said. “I don’t understand him and I don’t want to sit close to him now.”

That wasn’t the first time Lyons had stepped over that line in the sand. Eight days earlier, his ill-conceived comments about Piniella Lyons found humor in a handicapped New York Mets’ fans pointing out “a large magnifying device worn by a mostly blind Mets fan during an N.L.C.S. game.”

In 2004, Lyons (working with Fox Sports) was critical of former Los Angeles Dodger Shawn Green for choosing not to play on Yom Kippur.

“He’s not a practicing Jew,” Lyons said. “He didn’t marry a Jewish girl.” Then, he added, “And from what I understand, he never had a Bar Mitzvah, which is unfortunate because he didn’t get the money.”

The Poynter Institute’s review of ESPN’s Jeremy Lin coverage using the slur “Chink in the armor” did offer valuable insight. The Poytner Institute reported that “in the week, racial sensitivity regarding the Lin storyline was a topic in the company’s monthly editorial board meeting, and ESPN issued a memo to all its content groups urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed -- a directive that was revisited in a Friday staff meeting.”

Early last Saturday morning the “Chink in the armor” headline appeared on ESPN Mobile at 2:30 a.m. (it was removed by 3:05 a.m.). Anthony Federico, 28, who had six years of experience on ESPN’s mobile team, was fired Sunday. Federico, who has apologized to Lin personally, made a mistake and paid the ultimate price. Given that ESPN had sent out two memos dealing with racial insensitivity and their Lin coverage, Federico had to be fired.

Poynter points out “Chink in the armor,” which has no racial connotations in itself, but was an unfortunate choice of words -- to say the least -- when used in discussing Lin’s on-court performance.”

The world we live in, a world with Twitter, Facebook and social media ensures that at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, a headline that appeared on ESPN Mobile (and not can garner a great deal of unwanted attention in a very short period of time.

The question of free speech – a cornerstone of the American Constitution – is often a part of the conversation when ill-timed headlines appear, baseball analysts use barroom humor, Football Hall of Fame members make speeches, sports figures are interviewed in restaurants or appear on national news magazine shows, but with freedom of speech, comes social responsibility and hopefully, an understanding that you have to be careful about what you say, where you say it and who you say it to. There is no place in the sports industry for locker room humor.

Sources used in this Insider Report: ABC News, CBS Sports and ESPN. For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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