GOING ON THE OFFENSIVE

March 12, 2012

Somewhere in a sports department, an editor interviews a young job applicant.

EDITOR: So you want to work here, kid? O.K., here's a test. You have two minutes to come up with a headline for a story about how Lakers forward Pau Gasol keeps getting asked about rumors that he's going to be traded. [Pause.] Whaddaya got?

APPLICANT: Well, Gasol is from Spain, so how about "Spanish Inquisition"?

EDITOR: Excellent ...

APPLICANT: Thanks!

EDITOR: ... way to get yourself fired. You can't just go throwing around references to someone's nationality like that. Are you saying it's all right to interrogate Gasol just because he's from Spain? Are you suggesting that Spaniards are afraid to answer questions, that they have something to hide? Can't you see how offensive that is?

APPLICANT: I didn't mean anything like that. Gasol's known for being a great player from Spain.

EDITOR: Sorry, kid, but you don't get to decide what's insulting. The public does, and the public's a sensitive bunch these days. There was a headline on ESPN's website last week about the Steelers' cutting 36-year-old receiver Hines Ward, who had spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. It said, "No Happy Endings." You might think there's nothing wrong with that, but Ward's mother is Korean, and some people pointed out that happy endings is also slang for an illicit activity in massage parlors, some of which have Asian workers.

APPLICANT: Wow, that's a long way to go to find something objectionable.

EDITOR: Yep. You have to take the crosstown bus and transfer a couple of times. But that's the climate. Any comment remotely related to race or ethnicity is studied under a microscope for trace amounts of bigotry. And between the Internet and Twitter it doesn't take much to build an instant groundswell of outrage.

APPLICANT: I'm pretty sure my Gasol headline wouldn't get Spanish-Americans protesting outside your office.

EDITOR: You're so naive, kid. It's not just the so-called aggrieved party you have to worry about. Take the teams at the University of North Dakota. Their nickname is the Fighting Sioux, and they use it with the blessing of many Native Americans. That's not good enough for the NCAA, which forbids teams with Native American nicknames from hosting its tournaments and the schools' athletes from wearing uniforms with the nickname or logo in postseason play.

APPLICANT: Gee, if that's the way things are, maybe I should just go into another line of work.

EDITOR: Make sure it's not the ice cream business. The owners of a Ben and Jerry's shop in Cambridge started selling a frozen yogurt flavor in honor of Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, who's a Harvard alum. They called it Taste the Lin-Sanity and included bits of fortune cookie in honor of his Asian heritage. Bad move. They got so much heat that they apologized. The flavor sold out, but they're not making any more.

APPLICANT: So much of this goes back to Lin. He seems to spark some new debate every day.

EDITOR: Tell me about it. He's got a streak going like DiMaggio's. That's why the Asian-American Journalists Association put out a set of guidelines for covering him, pointing out subjects that the media should avoid. I keep it with me, so listen up: "In referring to Lin's height or vision, be mindful of the context and avoid invoking stereotypes about Asians," it says. It also recommends avoiding references to martial arts or Chinese food or stereotypes about Asians' ability to drive.

APPLICANT: Gosh, I'm sure the organization means well, but is the media that incapable of discussing an Asian-American basketball player without saying or writing something stupid? Don't we all have enough common sense and sensitivity?

EDITOR: Some of us do, kid. But we've seen what amazingly offensive garbage some people can come up with when left on their own. You know about Anthony Federico, the ESPN editor who wrote the headline "Chink in the Armor" in reference to Lin. He's now an ex-ESPN editor. Remember the tasteless joke about Lin that Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock made a few weeks ago that referred to a negative physical stereotype about Asian men? And it isn't always about Lin. San Diego broadcaster Ross Shimabuku earned himself a week's suspension when he said recently that he would describe NASCAR driver Danica Patrick with a word that "starts with a B. And it's not beautiful." All three guys apologized, but maybe a little rule book would have saved them from themselves.

APPLICANT: I get that. But perhaps we also need to find a way to react to headlines and comments without seeing racial or ethnic slights where none are intended. I don't care what anyone says, there's nothing wrong with putting fortune cookies in Lin-Sanity ice cream.

EDITOR: I'm inclined to agree, but if we all took an extra second or two to think about how our words or actions might be perceived, would that be such a bad thing? In any case, I'm just glad Ben and Jerry's didn't get into real trouble. I would have missed their Chunky Monkey.

APPLICANT: Careful. Chunky Monkey might be offensive to the primate community.

EDITOR: Way to go, kid. You're hired.

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ANY COMMENT REMOTELY RELATED TO RACE OR ETHNICITY IS STUDIED UNDER A MICROSCOPE FOR TRACE AMOUNTS OF BIGOTRY, AND IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH TO BUILD AN INSTANT GROUNDSWELL OF RAGE.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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