Jeremy Lin: ESPN Did What It Needed to, but We Shouldn't Rush to Judgment

Geoff RatliffContributor IIIFebruary 20, 2012

Jeremy Lin
Jeremy LinChris Trotman/Getty Images

Since the unfortunate “Chink in the Armor” headline hit ESPN’s mobile platform late Friday night in reference to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, the network has gone from reporting the news to becoming the news over the past 72-plus hours.

In addition to firing the editor responsible for the headline, ESPN has suspended on-air anchor Max Bretos for using the same phrase during a TV broadcast and investigated another incident occurring with an ESPN New York radio affiliate, though the offending party in that case was not an employee of the network.

In a story featured on the New York Daily Newswebsite this morning, the former editor, 28-year-old Anthony Federico, profusely apologized for the headline, insisting that he had no ill intent, funny or otherwise, and as a fellow Christian, considers himself a fan of Lin and his sudden rise to prominence.

Federico even went so far as to acknowledge that ESPN was justified in letting him go, apparently holding no ill will towards his former employer when he said, "ESPN did what they had to do."

I wrote a column (available here) within hours of the headline being posted, openly questioning ESPN’s need to apologize, but I’ll acknowledge that, as an aspiring journalist, the last few days have been a great learning experience, forcing me to soften my original stance.

As a few close friends with extensive journalism experience pointed out to me, there is a higher level of accountability associated with print media that dictates that the potential implications of running a headline like this be thought out well in advance of posting, and that several sets of eyes should have reviewed it before it went live. 

This is a point that was reiterated by ESPN television personalities Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon—both well-respected print journalists—on today’s episode of "Pardon the Interruption." Both men held the network accountable for not having the necessary systems in place that would have prevented this event from happening, a point I will come back to later.

I did not give that particular angle much thought when initially writing about the headline and was instead focused on my feelings about the use of the phrase itself, regardless of the medium. 

Because of the different mediums, a great distinction needs to be drawn between the posting of the headline and the on-air use of the same phrase by Bretos (who, by the way, is married to an Asian woman), which makes ESPN’s decision to simply suspend him for 30 days understandable.

ESPN has received a great deal of praise for taking quick disciplinary action against the offending parties, and while there is little question that its actions were appropriate, I’m not sure that they were completely altruistic.

As I also pointed out in my earlier column, ESPN is perhaps the largest force in the sports media world, with a global reach, and a parent company (Disney) with a long-standing reputation for family-friendly content. The handling of this series of events literally had millions of dollars at stake, and there is little doubt that the decisions made were in the best interest of the company’s bottom line.

I am certain that there are many within the ESPN family who know Mr. Federico well, and know that his apology was sincere and his words regarding his intent rang true. Unfortunately, they did not have the luxury of factoring that into the decision to terminate his employment, for one employee’s job is not bigger than the greater good of the corporation. 

ESPN handled the events in the only way that it reasonably could, but what about our responsibility as consumers of the content in question? We have no obligation to rush to judgment on events like this, which is why it amazes me to see the lack of compassion being expressed for Federico.

Given the information that has become available over the past couple of days, you’d think that Federico would have received some leniency from the general public, as the sorrow and remorse he’s exhibited appear completely genuine. Instead, the message boards in particular have been brutal, with many people going so far as to question his right to call himself a Christian.

While I don’t share the sentiment, I completely understand many people taking offense to the use of the phrase as it relates to Lin, but does vilifying the offender—a complete stranger to pretty much everyone with an opinion on the matter, including me—make them any better than him? 

Federico has taken complete responsibility for the “honest mistake,” even though most media experts agree that the failure should not be his alone to bear. But that has not prevented the critics from openly questioning his character.

When did we become such a cynical and distrustful society that a man who made a thoughtless error is treated with equal, if not greater, disdain than people who openly and unapologetically exhibit racist behavior? 

I found it interesting that at the time that I read the Daily News article this afternoon, stories about the headline and subsequent apology were trending above a story about former NBA star Rex Chapman tweeting a clearly offensive comment regarding Lin and showing zero remorse when taken to task about it by one of his followers.

Or what about Fox Sports writer Jason Whitlock keeping his job after tweeting an offensive joke about Lin’s anatomy (it is Fox, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised)?

I’ve received many angry emails and tweets over the past two days openly questioning how I could consider myself a “black man living in the real world” after defending the Lin headline, and my answer is quite simple. 

There are far too many incidents of real and intentional racism and bigotry for me to jump to conclusions by reading into the intentions of a man I’ve never met. While the rules of journalism may dictate that intent is often irrelevant, in the real world, it is extremely important. 

I don’t believe that the people who fought and died to give me the right to have this platform intended for me to abuse the privilege or take the responsibility lightly.

With that in mind, I think it’s only fair that we as individuals take advantage of the luxury that ESPN did not have and judge Anthony Federico as a man, not as a mistake.

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