There is an old saying about live broadcasting--it is similar to walking a tightrope without a net. Sometimes even the better announcers lose their balance. Such is the case in the last couple of weeks, as Bob Griese and Gus Johnson made on-air comments that caught many off-guard, resulting in some uncomfortable moments.
During the October 24 Minnesota-Ohio State game, the ESPN crew was promoting an upcoming NASCAR race and updating the viewers on the points standings. When asked about driver Juan Pablo Montoya, Griese said he was "out having a taco." Griese then apologized, but ESPN decided to keep the Hall of Fame quarterback off the air for a week. For his part, Montoya, who is Colombian, brushed off the remark. He says he has never heard of Bob Griese.
On November 1, during a CBS broadcast of the Tennessee game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Titans running back Chris Johnson was in the midst of a long touchdown run when play-by-play man Gus Johnson said the player has "gettin' away from the cops speed." Gus Johnson apologized to anyone who might have been offended by the remark.
It might be a fear of every sports announcer--the one comment that,
while intending no harm, can come across as racist or offensive in any
way. Stay in the business long enough, and you can count on saying
something stupid. I would list my top 10, but it would take me too long
to narrow the list to only 10 (and that is just from last week!).
I have had nightmares about calling a game, and while trying to say something cute I make some crack that is completely out of bounds. In this line of work, that can make you wake up in a cold sweat.
I am a fan of both Griese and Johnson. Many other sports fans are as
well. Maybe that allows me to give them a mulligan. In regards to
Griese's "taco" comment, I say that as someone who is part Hispanic
(from my father's side of the family). Occasionally friends of mine
will dish out a little ethnic humor, and we can all laugh together.
For me, the key is where the humor originates. If is from someone I know and like, or some on-air person whose work I admire, I tend to find such remarks rather harmless. However, others don't necessarily share my opinion, as Griese no doubt is now aware.
Anyone who has heard Gus Johnson call a game knows he does so with great enthusiasm. He is known for some classic calls in the NCAA basketball tournament. From my corner of the world, his "gettin' away from the cops speed" comment is an example of where such enthusiasm can get you in trouble. I sincerely doubt that Gus Johnson, who like Chris Johnson is African-American, would intentionally re-enforce a sad stereotype that has existed far too long.
There are those who say our society is much too sensitive. Maybe that is true. Yet given our sometimes sorry history of belittling a fellow human being because of skin color, religious beliefs and all the rest, it usually is better as a sportscaster to error on the side of caution.
If nothing else, these two examples can serve as a lesson for all of us to be little more careful. When you walk a tightrope without a net, those landings can be kind of tough.