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Racial Slurs are a Matter of Ethical Context

ESPN’s use of the headline “Chink in the Armor” (describing the New York Knicks’ first loss with Asian-American, NBA point guard Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup) illustrates that ethics, while not relative, is certainly contextual. The cliché technically means weakness or flaw, but the term “Chink” is also a racial slur for Chinese-Americans (cf. using a “niggardly” reference for a selfish African-American basketball player). In the wake of “Linsanity,” puns were proliferating without regulation until a moral mishap forced corporate backpedaling and new industry standards. Former network sports editor Anthony Federico appeared to lack malicious intent with this Medieval phrase. However, the context of his oversight and implicit association of his “incite” shows that bad etymological choices can result in unemployment. The bottom line is that Federico was not fired for racism, but for making a poor editorial decision that potentially cost huge amounts of goodwill with key audiences in the United States and Asia for ESPN and parent company Walt Disney .

Consider Saturday Night Live’s sublime parody on our nation’s double standard on race and political correctness and the Daily Show’s satire on a “Lingrown toenail . . . during Black History Month.” While both sketches contained jokes and insults against Asian-Americans throughout their segments, purer purposes and comedic context provided the needed justified protection for administering racial smears.

Granted many find it unjust when minorities freely use these pejorative terms among members of their own race. Is there a double standard when a Caucasian cannot mention the word Nigga(er) and/or Chink when so many African-Americans do in greetings and in popular music, or when a younger Jeremy Lin identifies himself as ChiNkBaLLa88 on his Xanga account? It isn’t that ethics is relative (right for one group but wrong for another), but rather contextual. Minorities use these monikers with a mutual understanding that the words are not historically loaded or racially charged but accepted with affection and respect as opposed to their original meanings. For some, the co-opting of these derogatory words and phrases represent a way to master what was formerly enslaved. For others, it represents a way to deal with past pain. Whatever the solution, ethical context matters.

LINtellectual Property Rights

While Jeremy Lin continues to weave a fast break around the world and generally inspire anyone who champions an underdog (particularly arousing Asian-Americans, Asian nationals, Ivy-Leaguers, and those of Christian faith), the NBA sensation has recently attempted to register a trademark for one of his monikers, “Linsanity.”

A trademark is typically a distinctive symbol or, in this case, phrase used by a legal entity to identify and distinguish itself. As a prospective owner of “Linsanity”, Jeremy may initiate legal proceedings to prevent its unauthorized use. However, it appears two California individuals have already also paid the $1,625 filing fee to use this phrase on apparel: An importer/exporter who “wanted to be a part of the excitement;” and a former volunteer basketball coach of Lin (see www.linsanity.com) who is currently selling “LINsanity” t-shirts featuring number 17 in the Knicks’ blue and orange colors.

Per complicated federal trademark laws, the first person to use a given mark like “Linsanity” has exclusive common-law rights in a given state, while a registered trademark offers legal protection nationwide. When deciding on a trademark application, the Trademark Office considers who first used the mark, whether the mark is unique or merely descriptive, and whether the mark creates confusion. Those three factors don’t appear to favor the apparently opportunistic “fan” who was “very proud of Jeremy.” Lin’s ex-coach also could run into a problem with California’s “right to publicity” law which protects celebrities’ names from commercial use without their permission not to mention Madison Square Garden and New York’s basketball brand.

Don’t try to explain it, dissect it. We’re just in the middle of it and enjoy it. Especially if you are a Knick fan… It’s a great American story. A great American story.

– Spike Lee, when asked about Linsanity on MSNBC

Yes! I have a raging case of Linsanity. I have been declared legally Linsane. My symptoms.. linsomnia, restless linsyndrome and lintestinal blockage!

– Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

Lin’s legal representative says that “We’re prepared to protect his intellectual property rights.” The U.S. Trademark and Patent Office reports it has not granted “Linsanity” to anyone yet pending a review of all who have applied. The application process starts with the examining attorney’s review and approval. The lawyer publishes the mark for 30 days and any parties who believe they may be harmed can file opposition. Gary Krugman, a partner at the Washington-based firm Sughrue Mion, said that he would tell Lin to file his own application and contest whichever of the others gets published, “I have a feeling both of these guys are small operators,” he said. “If Jeremy comes in with a big law firm they won’t be able to hang with him.”

While many people may look to capitalize financially on the phenomenon, there are additional legal, aesthetic and ethical implications in protecting Lin’s name. Copyright law looks disapprovingly on what amounts to identity theft. Surely, controlling the merchandise would reign in images fostering racial stereotypes and also restrict (cf. Linsanity Weed) Jeremy’s associations to products and services that he endorses.

Postscripts:

On Sunday, Lin led the Knicks to another improbable win over last year’s NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks (Vince “Vinsanity” Carter—who plays for the Mavericks—should check whether his own trademark rights have expired).

Speaking of common-law rights, the term “cognitive renaissance” shall be coined here in describing member(s) of marginalized groups establishing renewed concepts of self from unexpected sources (as opposed to reducing any tension arising from cognitive dissonance).