When the Supreme Court was confronted with the Jacobellis v. Ohio case in the mid-1950’s they were asked to determine if a French film titled The Lovers was obscene. Potter Stewart’s standard wasn’t exactly clear; in a concurring opinion the associate justice referred to his own sense when he wrote that pornography was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” The decades since have brought plenty of change with them. Public concern over obscenity is not what it was in 1964, or the late 1980’s when Tipper Gore and Jesse Helms were pressing the recording industry to put warning labels on rap records. There are other demons to chase now.
The sporting world found out how easily Twitter can be roused to action when ESPN was besieged by an unknown number of tweets aimed at tennis commentator Doug Adler in response to his call of a January match between Venus Williams and Stefanie Voegele. In one exchange Williams charged the net, which Adler described as putting “the guerrilla effect on.” His comments went viral after an unnamed New York Times correspondent featured them in a tweet, and the Twitterverse went wild; users insisted that the USC graduate be fired, “barred from the tennis world,” and slapped with a “heavy fine.” They saw racism with only the slightest provocation.
This quest goes beyond any phonetic similarity between “gorilla” and “guerrilla” or some out-of-control virtue signaling. In the tennis world, the term “guerilla tennis” has been used for years: it dates back to a 1995 Nike television ad campaign that featured an impromptu match in a busy San Francisco intersection between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras that was celebrated in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. It is likely that a large number of Twitter users and tennis fans — even Adler’s former employers — never saw the commercial and knew nothing about the phrase, but ESPN leadership is in a unique position. They were confronted with a bogus charge and gave up because there was, as the former All-American explained, “too much pressure coming from the other side.”
Presumably the Connecticut-based broadcaster folded because they were blindsided by an unprecedented flurry of tweets and were desperate to ward off the mob but had no experience with a similar storm; yet, ESPN has been here before. At the height of “Linsanity” Max Bretos used another well-worn cliché while discussing the former Knicks point guard’s 9 turnovers in a late loss. He turned to Walt Frazier at one point and asked “if there is a chink in the armor” of Lin’s game. A similarly-worded headline was posted on the sports network’s website hours later that was attributed to page editor Anthony Federico. Both men eventually apologized to Lin, who accepted and said he didn’t think there was any racist intent behind their words — Bretos was suspended for 30 days, Federico was fired.
If anyone is still reading, you may be wondering why this was worth writing about, so I’ll try to explain. After all, Max Bretos and Anthony Federico accepted the sanctions, Federico later said his former bosses “did what they had to do.” Doug Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination; his claim will eventually be settled or go to court. End of story, but not of my interest, because this tale would not end there…the pleas for a conversation on race will not be calmed so easily. The prospect does not bother me, but the possibility it would be taken over by the loudest voices and turned into a similarly terse monologue does. If the ultimate purpose is a reconciliation that is not collective and not conclusive, that would mean swearing off headhunting and reflexive condemnation and keeping the lines open, which could prove surprisingly effective.
photo courtesy of “Sports Illustrated” website