Rarely does the hottest story in sports turn into the hottest story in human resource management. However, the recent fallout over a headline about National Basketball Association (NBA) star Jeremy Lin set the world of professional sports and HR professionals on a collision course.
Lin became an overnight sports sensation when he led the New York Knicks to seven straight wins during the first two weeks of February 2012. Sportswriters and announcers quickly coined the term “Linsanity” to describe the furor and fan reaction to his sensational play.
Lin’s Asian heritage added fuel to his meteoric rise. He is the first player in NBA history whose parents emigrated from Taiwan.
Yet when an editor posted an article about Lin’s poor performance against the New Orleans Hornets on ESPN’s website on Feb. 18, 2012, headlined, if only briefly, by the phrase “a chink in the armor,” the editor found himself terminated.
After several readers linked to the article on Facebook and Twitter, ESPN substituted a new headline. According to ESPN officials, the offending headline appeared for about 35 minutes before it was changed.
However, the damage was done. Dozens of people captured the original headline and re-posted it on social media sites. ESPN issued an apology and fired Anthony Frederico, a 28-year-old editor. In addition, the cable network suspended one of its sports anchors—Max Bretos—for 30 days because he used the phrase during a sports analysis show two days before the article was posted.
The ESPN journalists aren’t the first to get into trouble over comments about Lin. Jason Whitlock, an announcer for Fox News Sports, posted a highly derogatory and sexual stereotype about Lin on Twitter. Whitlock apologized, but no additional disciplinary action was announced by the network.
Frederico apologized and, in an interview with New York Daily News, said his use of the phrase was not intended as an ethnic slur.
“This had nothing to do with being cute or punny,” Frederico said in the interview. “I’m so sorry that I offended people. I’m so sorry that I offended Jeremy.”
Frederico claimed that he had used the same phrase “at least 100 times” in writing headlines for ESPN and that it didn’t cross his mind that people of Asian descent might find the term derogatory. In fact, ESPN had used the phrase before in a 2008 headline about a basketball game between the U.S. and Chinese Olympic teams. There was very little fallout over the headline at that time.
Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) in Los Angeles, said the fact that the term was used and never thought of as derogatory reveals that many people are ignorant or lack awareness about a term that many people find offensive.
“Because people think that there’s no harm in it or that they can get away with it, then they use terms and slurs like this,” she said. “Hopefully, this story will raise awareness and change that attitude.”
Many people refer to the term as the “c-word” and say that it should be considered just as offensive and improper as other well-known racial slurs. While an editor lost his job and another sports journalist was suspended, the controversy over the Lin headline does have an upside, Akutagawa noted.
“I think there definitely is a positive side to this, because it changes the conversation on how we should perceive someone like Jeremy Lin,” said Akutagawa. “Before, the conversation was about how it was possible that he could play and perform so well. Now the conversation is changing to the dangers of stereotypes and pigeonholing someone.”
Akutagawa said that Lin’s story has major implications for corporate America and HR professionals. She said that overlooking someone’s abilities because of stereotypes is a common mistake and one that businesses can change by focusing on diversity and inclusion.
“Jeremy Lin could be a ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of story,” Akutagawa said. “He was overlooked by all the major colleges and really wasn’t recruited heavily coming out of high school. And it’s obvious he had the talent to play, so you have to ask yourself, why didn’t college recruiters and pro scouts recognize his talent before now?”
Lin challenges two stereotypes: first, because he’s an Asian-American basketball player, and second, because he’s a graduate of Harvard—the first Harvard alumnus to play in the NBA since 1954.
“It really goes to show that talent just doesn’t follow or adhere to stereotypes, and that’s something we all need to learn and understand if we truly want to be a diverse and inclusive society,” said Akutagawa.
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.
Oops! What to Do When an Employee Says the Wrong Thing, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, February 2010
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