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Do Asian Players Get a Fair Shake in the NBA?

A Blazer's Edge reader asks whether Asian players in the NBA bear a special burden, are looked down upon, or made fun of. We tackle the subject.

Scott Halleran

We have a particularly tricky and important Mailbag question today.


I don't want to be too specific but I've heard offensive comments about Asian players during game broadcast which had nothing to do with basketball. (The broadcaster talked about how small a player's eyes are) Am I the only one who feels like Asian players are looked down on or made fun of?

- Andrew

So let's start this off by being fair to Andrew. His initial question was more extensive and cited specific examples. Between us we edited it down, not to avoid implicating folks who had said something dumb but because these conversations always seem to end up as, "One guy said something offensive so let's pile on that guy...problem solved!" People should get checked when they say offensive things. That doesn't solve the problem, though. This is bigger than any one utterance or any complaint against an individual. That's why we're looking at the larger picture today. I wanted to back up Andrew's question, however, assuring our readers that he does have a point. We're not just pulling this out of thin air.

We could take this a million different ways. I'm probably qualified to talk about exactly zero of those million. But let's look at the broadcasting angle first because it's one of the clearest. Then we'll take a dip inside the locker room and on the court.

Broadcasters utter millions of words in front of microphones every season. Not every quip, joke, or illustration will pan out. I can tell you from experience that you can't always plan what you're saying live. Sometimes things just roll out. Some of those things end up being dumb. It's necessary to give public speakers leeway. If we demand perfection we'll end up with and prescribed phrases devoid of life.

That said, every public speaker with any sense knows the difference between acceptable conversation, gray areas, and boundaries that can't be crossed. Talking about a basketball play is acceptable conversation. Comparing it to the hot date you had last night could be heading into a gray area. Describing sexually explicit acts from that date in detail over the airwaves is out of bounds. This concept isn't hard.

Certain forms of racism--using the "N-word", for instance--fall into the out-of-bounds category by overwhelming public consensus. Other forms of racism--implications, jokes, and slighting ethnic groups who aren't normally associated with "Big 'R' Racism"--still linger in the gray area for many folks, including some broadcasters.

That has to stop.

Every trip into the gray area involves a risk-reward decision. The person with the microphone thinks, "This might be funny/thoughtful/apropos even though it's edgy (or perhaps because it's edgy). Is it worth the risk?" Every broadcaster in the universe needs to sit down right now and decide, preemptively and for all time, that when it comes to race-based comments the answer is, "No, it's not worth it."

Racial humor exists. At certain points it may even be worth employing, depending on your environment and audience. Among close friends it can become a link or springboard to meaningful discussion. If you buy a ticket to a comedy club there's at least some level of implied consent involved among all parties. As an audience member you know the edge will be walked, maybe even unsuccessfully a time or two, and you understand you'll be witnessing that experiment without giving up your right to object or critique.

Neither of these things holds true for broadcasting. A broadcaster's audience isn't intimate. It involves tens of thousands of people at minimum, very few of whom he knows personally, none of whom are able to answer back with the same immediacy and authority. The audience tunes in expecting to hear basketball commentary. They're neither prepared for or consenting to racially-based edge play.

In this situation, the risk-reward ratio never equals out. Racial jokes and observations aren't that funny. Most of them are obvious and pedestrian. Even if you made the best, most humorous, most innovative racial joke in the history of forever, they're not going to trot you onstage and give you an Emmy, an ESPY, or a Pulitzer for it. You're not doing any lasting good with that utterance. You do plenty of harm, though. People who tuned in because they were interested and hopeful now feel slighted and downgraded. Other people feel uncomfortable, if not because of the offense of the joke itself, because of the astonishing lack of common sense on the part of the broadcaster.

Let's say 4% of your audience gets hurt personally by the comment, another 15% feel empathy towards the 4%, and another 15% feel uncomfortable with the topic even being brought up. That's one-third of your listeners--thousands upon thousands of people--either deeply hurt or put off by what you said. And for what? You...hurt...people. You took away one of their escapes from the daily grind, one of the things they depend on to feel good about life, one of the cores around which a community gathers, for nothing.

No matter the race, orientation, gender, or whatever else is involved, broadcasters MUST stay away. Every single one of these comments should be viewed as over the line. Swallow it, tell it to your best friend later, just don't put it out over the air. Any broadcaster who hasn't committed to this--any broadcaster who is willing to risk hurting multiple thousands of people so he or she can seem clever--should be brought up short.

This seems clear in the abstract, but falling into the trap is all too easy. We're taught to categorize others as a survival and self-promotion mechanism. We're taught to think of the world in terms of insiders and outsiders. We pick on the outsiders in order to make ourselves seem more powerful as insiders. I've done it plenty of times, albeit in a subtle fashion. You have too. We need to have empathy for the human beings who speak in front of us--understanding that they, too, are part of the culture--while at the same time refusing to affirm the process.

Now we get to the more complicated issue: whether the presence of race-based comments equates to active discrimination against the targets of those comments within the league itself.

If derogatory comments spring from the soil of in vs. out, power and control, and self-promotion, they find fertile soil in professional sports. You can't take two steps (literally or figuratively) without tripping over a dividing line, an attempt to delineate inside and out with people scrambling to end up on the correct side.

The most sacred line surrounds the locker room, dividing players and coaches from everyone else.  As happens at the limits of the physical universe, the rules are different...applicable only to the few. Only insiders can truly comprehend the world within. Generalities and guesses won't help us here. It can't be described; it must be lived.

Everyone in that room is competing for a spot on the team, for his livelihood. Everyone has to prove he can endure and help. Everyone runs the gauntlet in one way or another. That testing may include racial (or other) utterances, highly offensive in other contexts. Or it may not. Nobody knows events or effects save people in a particular locker room at a particular time.

If we're sane, this is how matters should remain. For the most part I view events within that circle the way I view my son's eventual masturbatory habits. As a teenager he may or may not (probably may) engage in certain activities. As long as I don't see, know, or find out I'm cool with it. Absent abnormal indications of harm, I'm not going to go poking around. If he's not capable of reasonable compartmentalization and concealment, then I have to act. I'm going to react negatively in most ways, but the point is less condemnation than keeping things in their proper place so he won't walk out into the world ignorant and suffer for it (or make others suffer).

If things go on in the locker room and we don't hear about it, we should probably chalk that up to the culture of the business and let it lie. If someone takes those utterances public, tries to make them more generally applicable, or if they go too far and someone raises a complaint of an unsafe working environment, we'd react negatively. Absent that, we probably shouldn't pry.

Another strong dividing line runs between teams. We expect our athletes to compete for the duration of the game, to try and dominate, to keep the other side down. With racial tropes playing a large part in our cultural battles, it's not inconceivable that they'd be hurled against opponents by combatants in a sports arena. We've heard multiple public examples of athletes employing sexual orientation and gender-based slurs. Expecting racial comments to take a divergent course seems naive. If a player carries a different set of markers than the culturally-dominant group, he's probably heard about it from opponents.

Parsing out the team vs. team aspect is trickier than the locker room, since its only expression happens in public, on the court. I apply the same rule here as the locker room, though. If you say it softly enough and particularly enough that only a limited audience hears it--and if nobody in that limited audience complains--there's no real way to police it. As soon as a bystander or courtside microphone picks it up or somebody on the other side objects, it's a public matter and must be condemned.

We're free to make these "limited versus public" distinctions because in theory both court and locker room are meritocracies. No matter what gets said about a player in heat or hazing, if he's more talented than others he's going to find a spot somewhere. If a franchise is driving off talent through inappropriate and overwhelming racism, they're going to suffer when other teams pick up that talent and start beating them with it. I have a hard time believing that this is common practice in today's NBA. Once you've proven yourself, the comments are supposed to stop. Even if they don't, the system provides some remedy.

Let's circle back to the question of Asian players. They're a minority in this league. It wouldn't surprise me if part of the general hazing and/or competitive process involved pointing out their "out group" characteristics. I don't think that's right. I wish it weren't true. But it wouldn't be shocking. However those racially-motivated comments--if present--may not stem from a deep-held belief that Asians are less capable and shouldn't play in the NBA. Rather they're the low-hanging fruit in the battle to determine who's in and who's out...likely no different in concept than saying a guy has a funny nose or awful hair. Nor do the people offering such comments have the power to keep Asian players off the team or the court. Likely they don't desire to.

Then again, we can't justify such comments when they do occur. Because of them Asian players may have a harder time proving themselves than players of other races, even when talent is relatively equal.

The point: to the extent such things become public it may sound like Asian players are being looked down on or made fun of, but it does not necessarily follow that NBA players, coaches, and execs actually think Asian players are less proficient than their counterparts. The meaning behind, and effect of, the words may be different inside the dividing line than in a general public setting.

This brings us back to our broadcasters. They straddle the last, and biggest, dividing line: that between everybody in the league and everybody outside it, professionals vs. fans. Here's where the issue gets tricky.

Nowadays franchises employ their own in-house broadcasters. You could debate for years whether those broadcasters are the most outside of the professional, inside group or the most inside of the public, fan group. They operate on either side, depending on venue. If you look at the origin of most broadcasting pairs, one will have come from the outside (usually the play-by-play announcer from a radio/TV/communications background) and one from the inside (usually the color commentator who was a player or coach). They're split down the middle, trying to carry off both ends at once.

Dancing across the ultimate inside-outside line like this, broadcasters are prone to transgression. They spend much of their time with insiders. They talk exclusively about inside folks. Half of them grew up on the inside as players. Their authority comes from being farther in than the average Joe. They're likely to interpret a racial comment in inside terms. "This is hazing. This is getting under an opponent's skin. This is funny. This is showing I'm in and he's out. This doesn't have a lasting effect beyond this time and this circle of people." The problem is, they're sharing that comment with a massive group of outsiders who translate in outside terms and through whom this utterance will reverberate without boundary or check.

Broadcasters may claim--somewhat accurately--that they "didn't mean it that way", that this was just inside stuff. But they're not inside when they sit in front of a microphone. They're in our living rooms, cars, taverns, and eardrums. What matter if you translated a comment as an insider when it has an outside effect on all your listeners? Whether it's true or not, those comments spread the perception that the broadcasters, their franchise, and the league look down upon players of the ethnicity they insulted. No matter where that comes from or what was meant by it, it's real and it's harmful and it can't be dodged by claiming shelter on the other side of the line.

With all of that said I'm now ready to take a cautious stab at your questions.

Do I feel like Asian players are made fun of? I've only heard of a couple examples personally, but yes. Given the culture, the pressure, and the traditions, it'd be surprising if Asian players weren't pointed out as different. They'd be the first.

Do I feel like Asian players are looked down on? It depends on what you mean and by whom. Public, racist statements perpetuate a culture of denigration, a culture where it's all too easy to celebrate what we're comfortable with and suspect anything different. In broad, public terms there's no difference between the "made fun of" and "looked down on". In that sense, the answer is yes.

Among peers and decision-makers in professional basketball, I don't think the hazing and in-out definition lines cause people to abandon talented players. In this environment the difference between making fun of (for sports-competitive cultural reasons that utilize racial traits as convenient fodder) and looking down upon (for purely race-based reasons) can be given credence. But that credence is valid ONLY in that environment, ONLY if the words used do not reach beyond its borders, and ONLY in the absence of evidence that someone of a minority group is getting shafted because of their race.

In other words, I don't think you have to worry about Jeremy Lin not getting a fair shake even if somebody makes a comment about his eyes. That comment probably means something different for the person making it than it does when it hits your ear and it probably won't translate to anyone limiting Lin's minutes or role.

That said, we have every right to object when such comments reach our ears no matter what the justification or environmental explanation behind them. At that point the comment has leaped past the boundaries of insider justification and has become a larger issue. Even if Jeremy Lin isn't hurt directly and professionally by such a comment, a whole lot of us are. We're called to express anger, to demand an explanation, to ask questions, and to insist that such practices stop. Whether or not that cleans up the locker room or the court is beyond our control, but at least we can set the standard that such things are wrong and do not deserve public airing without repercussion.

Every discussion and/or explanation of these matters is flawed in one way or another. No doubt this one is too. As you point out those flaws and argue other points, folks, please do so respectfully. Also understand the limitations of the argument I'm making, particularly that it's not to justify racism in any form, rather to answer a specific question: Does hearing something that's obviously wrong means that specific effects of that wrong follow in every environment equally? My answer: we can say effects follow offense in the parts of the environment we know and see, not as clearly in unique, cloistered environments we only have third-hand access to. This does not justify the wrong but it limits the conclusions we can draw from it.

Thanks for the question, Andrew. Everybody keep them coming to the address below!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard