It was Friday around noon and on my computer screen were five men, ranging from mid twenty to forty-something, sitting around one of the ugliest couches I’ve ever seen, talking about point spreads, knockout pools and other NCAA staples. They were part of a March Madness inspired, live-streaming experiment brought to the Internet by Grantland, the sports/pop culture offshoot of ESPN. Among the five personalities participating were ex-Raptor, present-day basketball analyst Jalen Rose, ESPN personality and the editor of Grantland, Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal, a writer on the Jimmy Kimmel Show who also contributes to Grantland and is known for his love of gambling.
As ugly as the couch was, my eye was drawn to something even more offensive, namely the t-shirt on Cousin Sal featuring an Indian in full headdress with the words “I love gambling” written across. Who approved his wardrobe? Seriously, who? There were several people in the room, including Grantland’s founder, who could’ve intervened. Considering Simmons was changing his own outfit throughout the day, mimicking the wardrobe changes of award-show hosts, it wouldn’t have been that hard to scrounge up an alternative. Instead a culturally insensitive, borderline racist shirt was broadcasted live to the world as if it was no big deal.
For the un-initiated (Victoria Secret, Paul Frank, and Gwen Stefani included) misappropriating Aboriginal imagery in fashion is its own, convoluted issue. Cousin Sal’s shirt featuring a headdress is a concern in and of itself. Adding the words “I love gambling” takes it to another level. Headdresses are reserved for the most respected men in a band and gambling is a well-mined aboriginal stereotype. A cultural equivalent would be wearing an image of the Pope with the words “Hey kids, do you like candy?”
I don’t know Cousin Sal, but I suspect he’d have no problem wearing that shirt either. There’s a market for novelty clothing that appeals to the anti-PC crowd and it’s evident he’s a customer. Still, I have a hard time believing a t-shirt making fun of the pope would have been allowed on air.
One of the running gags that Simmons and friends kept returning to during the stream was #dontgetfired. It’s a bit that stems from Roses’ podcast where producer David Jacoby warns the former NBAer not to be too real with his stories lest the stuffy suits at Disney owned ESPN get rankled. The supposed humour behind #dontgetfired is that everyone involved with Grantland is well aware of their corporate underwriting. Luckily Disney has no history of questionable aboriginal images.
I’m not trying to suggest Cousin Sal, or anyone else associated with Grantland Live is a racist. I’m positive Sal’s motivation to wear the shirt stemmed from his well-documented love of gambling. But the headdress was gratuitous and at this point it should be common sense to avoid unnecessary stereotypes (are they ever necessary?) Instead, a questionable shirt was given a pass. How could a room full of smart, media-savvy adults, all of whom are reminding each other to not get fired, be cool with a lame stereotype getting so much screen time? The only answers are they didn’t notice, or, they noticed but didn’t think it was a big deal. Then again, in a world where a professional football team still uses a racially charged nickname, what’s one lousy t-shirt?
A lot of people will read this and say I’m being too sensitive. That it’s just a shirt. Nobody got hurt. There are other more pressing issues to deal with. Some may argue political correctness has gone too far.
The truth is I am sensitive to this particular issue. My wife grew up on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Before I met her it would be accurate to say I spent no time considering how aboriginals were portrayed in the media. If I were pressed on the topic I might’ve offered some vague platitude about how it’s important to respect all cultures, but then again, I might have said people were too sensitive and political correctness has gone too far. It’s easier to dismiss an issue if you’ve had zero exposure to it.
I’ve since been exposed. I remember seven years ago when native protesters were clashing with real-estate developers in Caledonia over disputed land, how the local newscast described the dispute as a clash between “The Natives” and “The People” as if natives were sub-person. It was the first time I was in-tune with the ugliness that arises when aboriginals make the news cycle. If you want to deep dive into this dark hole, read the online comments next time a story is written about native rights.
There’s a long list of atrocities committed against native people in North America, all of which make a cheap t-shirt seem like the smallest drop in the largest ocean. Start at residential schools and go from there. It shouldn’t have taken marriage to open my eyes to this darker corner of Canadian history, but marriage is what it took. We like to think our worldview is separated from our interests–that we can be objective about what’s right and what’s wrong–but had I not married whom I married, I wonder if I would’ve even noticed what Sal was wearing.
During Friday’s live-stream, conversation drifted towards the way some analysts describe basketball players and how that description changes depending on the player’s race. White players are often praised for their intelligence and willingness to stay after practice. Black players are praised for their athleticism and natural ability. Both Rose and Simmons pointed out the inaccuracies in these tropes. Both elaborated on the obvious, that there are many intelligent black players that stay after practice and there are many athletic white players who can indeed jump. The entire segment was peppered with #dontgetfireds as Rose and Simmons treaded carefully over a watered down discussion on race issues, while Cousin Sal sat in between them. His t-shirt still had a headdress and still said the words “I love gambling.” Simmons ended the impromptu talk asking for more awareness among basketball analysts. I agree.
Vakis Boutsalis is a freelance writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @VakisB.