Last weekend, after a comedown in Knicks guard Jeremy Lin’s performance after a spectacular series of breakout games, Anthony Federico, an editor for ESPN’s mobile site, working a late shift, published a headline about the game that included the phrase “chink in the armor.” Shortly thereafter, ESPN pulled the headline, and Federico was dismissed. He’s since issued a pained apology. A week earlier, in reference to Lin’s strong performance, Fox Sports commentator Jason Whitlock (who is African-American), tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” a crude joke that played on stereotypes about Asians and penis size. He’s since apologized, saying:
I’ve cried watching Tiger Woods win a major golf championship. Jeremy Lin, for now, is the Tiger Woods of the NBA. I suspect Lin makes Asian Americans feel the way I feel when I watch Tiger play golf. I should’ve realized that Friday night when I watched Lin torch the Lakers. For Asian Americans and a lot of sports fans, his nationally televised 38-point outburst was the equivalent of Tiger’s first victory in The Masters. I got caught up in the excitement. I tweeted about what a great story Lin is and how he could rival Tim Tebow. I then gave in to another part of my personality — my immature, sophomoric, comedic nature.
But Fox hasn’t suspended or censured him.
To an extent, the difference between Federico’s punishment and Whitlock’s lack thereof makes sense. Federico was an editor writing headlines that spoke for the entire ESPN team, while Whitlock is an analyst who was speaking only for himself. Federico’s error called into question both ESPN procedures and his own ability to follow them, and it was in contravention of a memo ESPN had sent out earlier asking staff to be considerate of how Lin was portrayed. Fox may have internal Twitter policies, but staff feeds are outside of the Fox editorial process.
But I tend to think Whitlock’s sin is worse. Federico was using a common phrase that would have been appropriate, if cliche, in other circumstances, but happens, when applied to Lin, to be racist. It’s bewildering to me that in this day and age that anyone wouldn’t know that “chink” is a racist epithet for Asian people, but if the term is really so uncommon that it’s new to folks, that’s a good thing. Whitlock, on the other hand, reached for one of the stupider, more immature things he could possibly say in the course of providing analysis, the thing he is theoretically paid to do. If we’re going to condemn people for being cliche as well as racist, Whitlock’s sins on both counts seem graver. But brand name commentators will always be harder to remove than editors working the late shift.