UPDATE: According to Fox News ESPN “says it fired an employee responsible for an offensive headline referring to Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin” and the “anchor who used the phrase has been suspended for 30 days.”
Linsanity just jumped the shark with the ESPN mobile website using the headline a “Chink in the Armor” to refer to the Knick’s loss to the Hornets. This came on the heels of an ESPN commentator* making the same comment on-air Friday night.
I’m not a sports writer, so I tried to avoid the whole Linsanity phenomenon; my sense of it was that five stand-out performances in a long season did not make a trend, so now that the absurdity of Linsanity has taken a turn for the racist, I think we should pause for a second and get our bearings.
Was the on-air commentary a poor choice of words? Of course, but if you watch the video clip (it’s just 8 seconds long), I don’t think the commentator was trying to make a pun. Judge for yourself:
Now, the headline is a different matter. As anyone who has worked in digital media knows, the headline is what draws attention and hits. Editors and writers try to maximize visitors and shock value with their headlines (check out mine, it got you here didn’t it?). Unlike an on-air comment, most writers and editors obsess over the headline even after they click the publish button. So my sense of things is that whoever posted the headline thought about it, giggled, and clicked publish. In fairness to the writer/editor, the term “chink in the armor” has been used over 3,000 times on ESPN.com, but just because it is a frequently used term doesn’t absolve the writers and editors of responsibility to use common sense. But, the problem may be an institutional one, not an individual one, at least judging by ESPN’s track record and their inept statement in response to the outrage— Here is what they wrote after pulling the headline:
Last night, ESPN.com’s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.
The initial comments may have been a poor choice of words, rather than racist or in poor taste, but you wouldn’t know that from ESPN’s statement. Note the avoidance in the language used by ESPN— ESPN.com’s “mobile web site” apparently did the posting, not a writer or editor. There is also no admission of wrong-doing or acknowledgement that this may have been an intentionally offensive posting, just some regret and an apology for “this mistake.” How about a statement that this was insensitive or could be perceived as insensitive? How about some acknowledgement that this is not consistent with the values of the company? As a matter of crisis communications and public relations this statement is a failure.
SB Nation Sports Editor Brian Floyd nicely summed up the controversy when he wrote: “The headline was unintentional — it had to be unintentional. Someone is going to get buried for this, making it a hard lesson to learn. But dang, don’t plaster the word ‘chink’ underneath Lin’s name on a huge national website without understanding exactly what the backlash will be. It’s not edgy or funny; it’s a ridiculously terrible mistake.”
I agree with the fact that someone is going to get buried, but I’m not certain that the headline was unintentional. Let’s not forget ESPN has a bit of a record with inappropriate comments: Remember the “Trail of Tears” reference? How about the “ He’s out having a Taco” comment? Or the “ white boy wasted” comment?
Those three examples plus the two “ Chink in the armor” comments get us to five, and while five isn’t a trend, it’s certainly enough for Linsanity.