Political correctness, common in government and media, has invaded the precincts of the professional sport where ethnicity has meant the least. Los Angeles Clippers announcers Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith were suspended for comments about Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian to play in the National Basketball Association.
Haddadi plays for the Memphis Grizzlies and during a November 18 game between the Grizzlies and Clippers, this exchange occurred:
Lawler: “There aren’t any Iranian players in the NBA?”
Smith: “He’s the only one.”
Lawler: “He’s from Iran?”
Smith: “I guess so.”
Lawler: “That Iran?”
Lawler: “The real Iran?”
Lawler: “Wow. Haddadi — that’s H-A-D-D-A-D-I.”
Smith: “You’re sure it’s not Borat’s older brother? If they ever make a movie about Haddadi, I’m going to get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part.”
Lawler: “Here’s Haddadi. Nice little back-door pass. I guess those Iranians can pass the ball.”
Smith: “Especially the post players.”
Lawler: “I don’t know about their guards.”
Cohen, it might be recalled, starred in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, but that wasn’t the only problem. The announcers pronounced Iran “Eye-Ran,” and Iranian “Eye-ranian,” which rankled season-ticket holder Arya Towfighi, the vice president and assistant general counsel for Univision Communications Inc., the nation’s leading Spanish language media company. Towfighi, of Iranian background, told the Los Angeles Times that his goal was to “highlight the issue that a lot of folks who wouldn’t consider saying such things about African Americans or Hispanics but because this was an Iranian player, it just flowed more easily.”
Towfighi’s complaint was the only one received by Prime Ticket, which televised the game. Lawler and Smith were apologetic but drew a one-game suspension anyway. It was the first broadcast Lawler had missed in 25 years. Hamed Haddadi, who stands seven feet two inches, had no comment but Jonathan Arianeei, born in Iran, decided to weigh in with the Los Angeles Times.
“I am an Iranian-born American and I’ve been lucky enough to meet Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith a few times. Not only have they both been courteous and professional each time I’ve encountered them, before a game a couple of seasons ago Ralph surprised my then 5-year-old son with a program and media guide as I took their picture together.
I listened to Lawler’s and Smith’s broadcast that apparently offended Arya Towfighi so much. I thought it was funny and heard nothing offensive. In fact, it reminded me of Chick Hearn’s sense of humor during his Lakers days. But speaking of offensive dialogue, Mr. Towfighi might want to listen to some of the stuff I’ve heard on his Univision outlets.”
John McMullen, NBA editor of The Sports Network, provided a sensible observation on the Iranian affair. “I’m not a big fan of political correctness, the all-encompassing term that virtually regulates peoples thoughts and behaviors on gender, racial, cultural and sexual orientation matters. It’s always been my thesis that political correctness has no place in a free society aiming to reach a higher cultural plane where people actually accept each others’ differences. . . . As usual, when the political correctness crowd is involved, nothing gets accomplished.”
That wasn’t exactly the case. On November 29 the Clippers hosted Memphis and promoted Haddadi’s appearance with “Iranian Heritage Day.”
Political correctness, meanwhile, is particularly out of place in a league where every player is there because of ability, not ethnicity. The Sacramento Kings roster includes Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA. Kings announcers have made no on-air gaffes about Casspi, and the team has not promoted “Israel Heritage Day.” Kings broadcaster Jerry Reynolds does call American player John Brockman the “Brock Ness Monster,” but that has occasioned no fan complaints or suspensions.