Veteran New York Times media reporter David Carr’s Monday column self-righteously attacked an unfortunate headline on an ESPN mobile website, “Chink in the armor,” that was widely interpreted as a purposeful slur on the ethnicity of benchwarmer-turned-NBA-sensation Jeremy Lin: “Media Hype For Lin Stumbles On Race .”
Giving no benefit of the doubt to the ESPN editor, who has since been fired, Carr declared the headline one of myriad “underlying racist tropes that still lurk in the id of American sports journalism.” This lecture comes from a reporter who last year characterized Midwesterners as folks with “low-sloping foreheads,” akin to cavemen.
Since cracking the starting lineup because of an injury and other unusual circumstances, Lin, a 23-year-old, undrafted, unheralded, twice-cut player, has torn up the league, setting records for a first-time starter.
Unfortunately for Lin and the rest of us, the over-the-top coverage that followed ended over the line, exposing underlying racist tropes that still lurk in the id of American sports journalism, and by extension, the rest of us.
From the start, his run threatened the tabloid supply of puns and superlatives. “Lincredible!” shouted The New York Post on Feb. 11. And because tabloids have a back page and front page to shout from, we’ve sometimes been treated to a double dose of wordplay: “Lin and a Prayer” was the cover headline on The Daily News one day last week, while the back page blared “Just Lin Time.”
But all the froth and fun started to curdle, first on Twitter -- the Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted a crude reference about Lin’s anatomy and the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. suggested that Lin was getting attention because of his ethnicity, not his accomplishments -- and then in the tabloid press -- on Wednesday, perhaps at a loss after several breathless days of punning, The Post went with the unfortunate “Amasian!”
The combination of Lin’s ethnicity and accomplishments created some excess, but no one could have predicted how low it might go. On Saturday, an article on ESPN’s mobile site recycled an ancient and blatantly offensive ethnic slur, and in the process suggested that some corners of sports journalism remained a backwater in the culture, a place untouched by a history of civil rights struggle and decades of progress. ESPN quickly changed the headline and has fired the person who wrote it, but not before all but ruining a sweet sporting story.
What’s not to like is that part where some doofus writes a blatantly racist headline and a wonderful yarn turns ugly.
(The Times has had its own problem  with the phrase.)
And while Carr points and lectures, he isn’t exactly a model of cultural sensitivity: On the June 24, 2011  edition of HBO's “Real Time with Bill Maher” he addressed Maher’s description of New Jersey as sophisticated with this charming response likening Midwest denizens to cavemen: “If it’s Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that’s the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right? …Did I just say that aloud?” Carr later apologized on his Twitter feed, though he’s employed the phrase before  in less specific contexts.