When I first learned of ESPN’s use of the term “chink in the armor,” I was overcome with a sense of disbelief. How could one of my favorite sources for sports news be so tone-deaf to a large section of its audience: Asian fans like myself?
ESPN used the slur to describe Jeremy Lin, the Knicks phenom who is the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. The network's initial response was that the expression “chink in the armor” was inadvertent and not intended to be derogatory.
Try telling that to those of us who grew up in an environment where racial slurs included the word “chink”, which dates back to the early 1900s, according to the Random House dictionary, and was likely a combination of a variation from the word Chinese and a reference to a slanted Asian eye like a narrow opening “chink."
In my experience as one of very few Asian students at school, the word was among the most hurtful, often to be followed by additional verbal, and sometimes, physical intimidation. Those taunts reinforced a feeling of isolation and helplessness, when to respond would only encourage more of the same.
The repeated use of “chink”, in any context, by ESPN validates the use of the term to its worldwide audience and should be taken seriously. And the station’s response to its missteps has been faltering, amounting to an initial, barely heard, under the breath acknowledgement and then disciplinary action against the guilty employees only after growing negative publicity.
What has been more disquieting is the NBA’s lack of response — a league so concerned about its image that it instituted a mandatory dress code for its players. The relationship between the NBA and ESPN is mutually beneficial. However, as in any relationship, each party must also hold the other party accountable to responsible standards of behavior. In this instance, the NBA may be caught between the sensitivities of its audience and the interests of ESPN, its economic partner.
If the NBA is unsure how to respond, a recent incident involving Fox Sports and the University of Southern California provides an example. In September 2011, Fox Sports interviewed foreign-born Asian students on the USC campus and portrayed them in a demeaning manner for comedic effect. Although Fox apologized for the segment, the university’s leadership also understood that it had a responsibility to hold Fox accountable for its actions. To its credit, the university was publicly critical of the network’s ethical lapse, chastising Fox Sports for producing the racist program.
For ESPN and the NBA, the path is similarly clear. Both must clearly and forcefully reject the racist commentary and the 24 second clock is ticking. To make sure they understand, email, text, or call ESPN and the NBA to make your voice heard. Let them know someone is watching and listening. Tell them they cannot take their Asian fans for granted. And if they want to keep them, they can’t slander them.
The NBA can be reached at The National Basketball Association, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022, Attn: Fan Relations. Or send an e-mail. Facebook: www.facebook.com/nba
ESPN can be reached at ESPN, ESPN Viewer Response, ESPN Plaza, Bristol, CT 06010. Phone number: 1-888-549-ESPN. Or send an e-mail.