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Reaction to NBA phenom Lin demonstrates need for progress against media prejudices

Looks like athletes aren’t the only folks who can get in trouble for sports-connected messages on Twitter.

Witness the drubbing Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock is taking for a joke made online about New York Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin, centered on a stereotype about, um, the endowments of Asian American men.

Tweeted on Friday, the thoughtless barb drew a complaint from the Asian American Journalists Association and an apology from Whitlock by Sunday, who noted “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Whitlock’s mistake came less than a week after CNN pundit Roland Martin caused a similar uproar after posting two joking tweets during the Super Bowl. The messages played off physically disciplining men who enjoyed the sexy underwear ad starring soccer player David Beckham and a fan shown on television wearing a pink suit.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation complained that the posts promoted violence against gay people. CNN suspended Martin, who eventually apologized and met with the group Tuesday.

As someone who has written a lot about prejudice in media, I was surprised and intrigued by what happened here. Two African American commentators who have often written about prejudice and race issues themselves, fell into the kind of public mistakes you might expect from people who hadn’t spent any time thinking about these issues at all.

It struck me that we’re all on the cusp of an important issue: Transferring all the progress we’ve made in talking about African American issues in sports media and society to other marginalized groups whose struggles for equality are also in progress.

A measure of how far we have to go hit me after a visit to the Facebook page maintained by the AAJA’s MediaWatch group, where followers were criticizing a CNN panel discussing Lin and race issues in which no Asian commentators were featured.

I thought back to how I felt seeing African American issues dissected on some TV shows – I remember a debate on a Sunday politics show about controversy over public use of the word “niggardly” which included no African Americans – and I felt like I was hearing a broken record replay yet again.

These incidents are humbling reminders that those of us who have spent lots of time thinking about how prejudice affects some marginalized groups, still need to spend effort on how similar problems affect other types of people differently.

And it’s not just about policing ill-advised jokes on Twitter. Thanks to a lot of effort, we have lots of African American and female voices in sports media ready to provide a different perspective on issues of race, culture, society and athleticism

But there are far fewer voices of Asian descent. So it is increasingly easy for commentators to compare Lin’s cultural impact to retired NBA player Yao Ming, despite the fact that Lin is a Taiwanese American and Yao is a Chinese national who came to America after playing for years in the Chinese Basketball Association.

So here’s a few recommendations:

Expand the voices making commentary – Just as sports media outlets worked hard to find more black reporters and commentators to better cover issues and avoid stereotypes, its time for the pool to expand in other ways, too.

Where are the Asian voices in sports media, who can help explore what it means to see a breakout player like Lin subvert so many stereotypes about Asian Americans? Hey media executives – if you can’t find them, it’s time to start developing them. Just like you did with African Americans, once upon a time.

Avoid the wordplay, it just invites trouble – The phrase “Linsanity” is wonderful. But other catchphrases touching on racial stereotypes – “Knicks Lin!” or “We Love You Lin Time” – are not.

You would think experienced communicators would know this lesson by now. Phrases that lampoon another group’s struggle to learn English as a second language are pretty much the definition of cultural insensitivity, it seems.

But I also thought we were past making public jokes about the stereotype of Asian men lacking sexual prowess. So what do I know?

Separate insulting stereotypes from cultural observations –This is tricky territory for any writer, made more treacherous when you’re whipping out a column with minimal research, knowledge or expertise in discussing the culture you’re trying to explore.

Someone on the AAJA’s MediaWatch Facebook page pointed out a wonderful story in Forbes magazine about the lessons any worker could take from Lin’s example — which was unfortunately tarnished by a clumsy Tiger Mom reference at the end.

Yes, the point guard is humble, hardworking and religious. But you could say the same for Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, so connecting those qualities to Lin’s ethnic heritage might be an insulting stretch, absent more reporting.

Whitlock provided a good comeback Tuesday with a column noting one of Lin’s more remarkable attributes; he’s succeeding in a sport dominated by an African American culture some Asian Americans worry is hostile to them.

It’s too bad that he had to transmit a tweet embodying that hostility before realizing his mistake.

The sports media establishment has decades of experience trying to untangle prejudice against black people, women and Hispanics in sports reporting and commentary.

Perhaps its time to put those lessons to work for everybody, ensuring that all the progress we’ve made doesn’t just benefit a deserving few.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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