Athlete gives American lesson in colorblindness

Posted: Jan 23, 2003 12:00 AM
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 of seriousness. 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.