How do you say "class" in Chinese?
Yao Ming, the new 22-year-old National Basketball Association
sensation, imported from mainland China, recently gave athletes, reporters
and America a lesson in poise and grace -- except the display did not take
place on the basketball court.
Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers all-star center, six months
ago on a nationally televised sports show, said in response to a question
about the Houston Rockets' new center, "Tell Yao Ming,
'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.'" Nothing happened until recently, when an
Asian newspaper wrote about O'Neal's remarks and accused him of racism.
O'Neal brushed aside the charge, "I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke.
Seventy percent of people thought it was funny, 30 didn't. At times I try to
be a comedian. Sometimes I say good jokes, sometimes I say bad jokes. If I
hurt anybody's feelings, I apologize."
O'Neal, a self-proclaimed comedian, made the "joke" without
apparent malice. In interviews with reporters, O'Neal generally comes across
as sometimes funny, sarcastic, wry and occasionally moody. No one had ever
accused him of racism. So given O'Neal's past, as to his comment about Yao,
a sports slogan seems appropriate: no harm, no foul.
More to the point, Yao defended him, "I believe Shaquille O'Neal
was joking with what he said, but I think a lot of Asian people don't
understand this kind of joke," said Yao. "I think there are a lot of
difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other, especially
countries of very large populations, China and the United States. The world
is getting smaller and has a greater understanding of cultures." He added,
"Even when I was little I took a long time to learn Chinese." Yao thus
established the tone, with most following his lead.
Contrast Yao's reaction and demeanor to that of Tiger Woods in
response to fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's "infamous" remarks. Recall that
Zoeller, following Woods' record-setting victory at the 1997 Masters, said,
"Tell him (Woods) not to serve fried chicken next year . . . or collard
greens or whatever the hell they serve." Zoeller's colleagues, like those of
O'Neal, consider him a jokester. Yet this alleged "racial insensitivity"
cost the popular golfer nearly $2 million in endorsements, notwithstanding
his tearful public apology.
But how did Tiger Woods respond? Woods, then 21, and only a year
younger than Yao, left Zoeller dangling for nearly three weeks. Instead of
considering the source and Zoeller's prankster reputation, Woods said he
first wanted to "ask him what he meant exactly. I'd have a one-on-one,
heart-to-heart talk with him. Nothing tough. . . . I just want some true
emotion to see what's going on. After that, it's over." Thus Woods' remarks
allowed the matter to drag on, helping to elevate it to an unwarranted level
Yet Woods, himself, did not exactly come to the table with clean
hands. A 1997 Gentlemen's Quarterly article reported that Woods used foul
language and told crude jokes about gays and blacks. Belatedly catching
himself after a lesbian joke, Woods told the reporter, "Hey, you can't write
this." Little happened, with virtually none of the articles discussing
Woods' GQ jokes and comments bothering to repeat the actual quotes. The gay
and lesbian magazine The Advocate merely waived Woods' lesbian joke away,
calling it a function of Woods' "youth and naivete."
Why didn't Woods' gay jokes warrant the attack caused by
Zoeller's remarks? When asked about the contradiction, Woods said, "He
(Zoeller) said it to, I guess -- I saw the tape -- to people right there all
around. Media. I was just unknowingly talking to a limo driver who was
miked. There's a difference there, a big difference. . . . If you're going
to say something, you're going to have to live with the consequences. I
understand what I said, jokingly, having fun. If they want to confront that,
that's fine. I'll tell them what went on. They can accept it or not." So
Woods "jokes," Zoeller loses endorsements.
In light of Yao's dignity, perhaps we might wish to revisit
other "controversies." Take the grief suffered by former Atlanta Braves
pitcher John Rocker, who, in a magazine interview, made remarks perceived as
racially insensitive and anti-gay. Baseball fined Rocker, required him to
undergo psychological counseling, and opposing fans booed him. Al Campanis,
then Los Angeles Dodgers vice president, got fired for fumbling a question
about the lack of blacks in management in baseball. Jimmy "The Greek"
Snyder, the former CBS sports analyst, off-duty and in a bar, expounded, in
a manner many thought insensitive, on why blacks excel in sports. Snyder,
too, got canned.
To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"
It's early in Yao's career, and he may yet evolve into another
shallow, self-absorbed athlete. But during the week in which we honor the
giant King -- Martin Luther King -- Yao gave America a lesson in content of
character over color of skin.