Mention Trent Lott, John Rocker, or Fuzzy Zoeller in conversation and the word "racist" is likely to come up. But could Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal-- the self-dubbed "Big Aristotle"--join this dubious list?
Last week, AsianWeek.com columnist Irwin Tang criticized O'Neal for offensive comments directed at Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 rookie sensation and the third Chinese basketball player ever to play in the National Basketball Association. O'Neal first made the comments on Fox Television's Best Damn Sports Show Period late last June. After being asked to give Yao a message, he mimicked kung-fu moves and responded in a mock-Chinese accent, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.'"
O'Neal's comments were all but forgotten until they were rebroadcast on Tony Bruno's nationally syndicated Morning Extravaganza radio show late last month. This prompted a disgusted Tang to write his column, entitled "APA (Asian Pacific American) Community Should Tell Shaquille O'Neal to 'Come down to Chinatown.'"
Tang also attacked news organizations, such as Sports Illustrated, The Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press (AP), for failing to initially report O'Neal's comments. "Let's not beat around the bush. If a white player had, for instance, made monkey sounds to taunt a black player, it would have been a national controversy," he wrote. "But Yao is Chinese and Asians are fair game. For evidence, watch TV for a couple of hours." A number of news organizations subsequently picked up the story.
Ironically, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund honored O'Neal on December 12 with the Hank Aaron Humanitarian Award in Sports.
O'Neal apologized before a game in Cleveland last Friday, according to the AP. "I said it jokingly, so this guy was just trying to stir something up that's not there. He's just somebody who doesn't have a sense of humor, like I do," he said. "I don't have to have a response to [the charge of racism] because the people who know me know I'm not [racist]."
"I mean, if I was the first one to do it, and the only one to do it, I could see what they're talking about. But if I offended anybody, I apologize," O'Neal added.
Campus reaction to O'Neal's comments has ranged from outrage to ambivalence. Anthony Tan, president of the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association and a fourth-year in the College, found O'Neal's comments offensive and immature. "His comments, a joke or not, show only his insecurities about this daunting new threat, Yao Ming," he said. "Asians can gain encouragement through Yao Ming's success and realize that they can do well in any aspect of life, including basketball."
Tyjuan Edwards, a privileges clerk at the Regenstein Library, thought O'Neal's comments were rude and insensitive. "When I first heard the comments, I said to myself: 'I hope he knows Chinese,'" he said. "I don't think what he did was right."
Some aren't taking O'Neal's comments too seriously, like Xiaobing Tang, an associate professor in modern Chinese literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. "I don't think there is much to it. I don't expect a basketball player to be a politician or even a model citizen, and I don't think Yao Ming would necessarily appreciate himself being embroiled in a fight much determined by an essentially American sensibility," Tang said.
Derek Reich, a star forward on the University's basketball team and a fourth-year in the College, thought O'Neal was joking, but didn't think it was a harmless joke. "Shaq must have said that for a reason. I think he's a little jealous of the fact that Yao is doing much better than many people expected in the NBA, and he's getting a lot of media attention," he said.
Is O'Neal a racist? I don't think so. Were his comments offensive? Absolutely. But this isn't the first time that "Big Loquacious" has offended with his off-the-cuff responses. In June 2001, O'Neal claimed on a Los Angeles radio show that he had slept with model Cindy Crawford, tennis phenom Venus Williams, and music artist Aaliyah.
O'Neal subsequently apologized, but his apology then sounded a lot like his recent apology for the Yao comments: "I am sorry, Venus. I am sorry, Cindy Crawford. I am sorry, Aaliyah," O'Neal said. "Those that know me, my good friends, know I'm a comedian, and if I hurt your feelings, I apologize. If I could do anything to make it better, I would. I apologize. I'm sorry."
Yao is often called the "Asian Jackie Robinson." True, but Yao is also seen as the "Asian Michael Jordan" or "Asian Tiger Woods" because of his marketing potential. Many American companies see him as a perfect vehicle for entering China's untapped consumer base when its markets open due to its accession to the World Trade Organization.
So it's no surprise that Yao is getting a lot of attention and even stealing some of O'Neal's limelight. Nor should it surprise anyone that O'Neal might be harboring a little envy deep down.
When asked about O'Neal's comments, Yao graciously showed tolerance. "There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other, especially two very large countries. The world is getting smaller and I think it's important to have a greater understanding of other cultures. I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke," the AP reported Yao as saying.
O'Neal is no Lott, Rocker, or Zoeller, so he doesn't deserve to be called "The Big Racist." But if he doesn't change his pattern of offending--even unintentionally--other minorities and women, he may deserve a new nickname: "The Big Ignorant."