I like sports. I like competition, winners and losers, and displays of excellence. But I also like sports because they have been a rich context for talking about differences. There are iconic stories about racial integration, gender parity, cross-national growth, and making the most of disabilities.
Now enter Jeremy Lin.
For those not especially tuned into the professional basketball world, Lin is a player for the New York Knicks team who has performed exceptionally well the past couple of weeks, earning him mad media attention. He is also one of a very small number of Asian or Asian American players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Adding these two elements together—heavy media attention and Lin’s ethnic background—created a nightmare for the multimedia sports network, ESPN, last week. The company issued an apology for a series of racist actions (probably unintentional, but still racist) related to coverage of Jeremy Lin. They noted “three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during [their] coverage,” the most infamous of which was the headline under a picture of Lin making a mistake on court that read “Chink in the Armor.” You could argue this was simply an isolated mistake (or actually three) that just happened—essentially the explanation ESPN adopted. But if you did, you would be plain wrong.
The ESPN/Lin story underscores how challenging it can be to build what I call a “Leveraging Difference Capability.” In my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I describe this as what happens when an organization becomes so diversity-savvy that everyone in it develops processes for (and habits of) dealing with differences skillfully, even unfamiliar differences. Errors like those ESPN committed are evidence of an organization that lacks the Leveraging Difference Capability. If they had it, they would have created processes and procedures to prevent these mistakes. For example:
- All of the eyes that reviewed any headline would have sensitivity to language and idioms that could be even remotely racist;
- There would have been red flags, thanks to that awareness, followed by channels for information gather and discussion
- There would have been lines of communication with people who would understand the experiences of Asian American professionals
- There would be have been consultation with people who are “firsts” in their industries and organizations
No reputable news outlet would describe a Mexican baseball player’s bases-clearing double as a “Spic ‘n Span” hit. Nor, as one radio commentator I heard suggested, would you likely see an outstanding run by a white football player who barrels over opposing players as a “Cracker Barrel” guy. The reason these would be unlikely occurrences is that most people know better. And if a writer misses it, her editor will pick it up. It’s not about one person being vulnerable for making a mistake. Rather it’s about an organization not knowing how to institute the checks and balances to make sure that mistake just does not happen.
By the way, the corollary here is that the punishments of those involved (firing the headline writer and suspending an on-air broadcaster) were probably too harsh. If this really was about a systems breakdown and not some rogue headline writer, it’s wrong to punish only the writer. That doesn’t properly deal with the cause of the problem (meaning it will happen again). Moreover, it sends the message that “We’re OK; we just had to get rid of the bad apple.” No, you’re not OK.
An Asian-American as a budding star and as media phenomenon is unprecedented in NBA history. There is no good roadmap for what to say and do and what not to. But those are precisely the best reasons to develop a Leveraging Difference Capability, especially in a globally diverse world. People and organizations will constantly be faced with new differences and new challenges. Having a way of operating—a mindset—that skillfully deals with those differences will prevent the kinds of public relations crises that ESPN is dealing with right now.
And it will make for much better sports reporting.