From my earliest days on this job, I noticed that whenever race was introduced into the discussion of sports -- whether on TV or ESPN.com, whether through polls, town hall specials, opinion shows or columns -- I would receive mail accusing ESPN of fueling or even creating racial divides in an attempt to drive ratings or page views.
The first time I noticed this reaction was in the weeks surrounding the 2007 Super Bowl, when I read mail from viewers who thought ESPN had made too much of two black coaches leading teams to the NFL championship game. That so many viewers thought ESPN was making a big deal of nothing surprised me greatly, because from the vantage point of my advanced age, this historic first was unquestionably a big deal.
I didn't know whether to feel encouraged that younger fans thought race was a nonfactor, or discouraged that history I still think of as recent and relevant seemed so ancient to them. At the time, I wished ESPN had presented more context for understanding the significance of this first.
Substitute everything about the Super Bowl with Resident Evil 5, and you basically have what we've been dealing with recently. On one hand, I'm a bit relieved that these sentiments aren't confined to the gaming community. We're not uniquely oblivious. But on the other hand, it's probably worse that it's so widespread.
Let's not overlook the generational component to this. Far from wanting to have an open, national conversation about race, it seems the younger generation wants to ignore the very idea of race itself. This is probably a better attitude than some that have prevailed in the past, but it's still not, you know, a good thing.
In the past week, I've read numerous thoughtful and sensitive posts about RE5 and racism more broadly, but Leigh Alexander made one point that I think is especially worth repeating: "Racism attacks differences; tolerance embraces them. The idea that tolerance means we're all utterly the same is fallacious; progress means to value equally the unique experiences of different cultures or ethnic groups."
We can't sweep under the rug the uglier parts of our shared heritage. We shouldn't. We should learn from them. To go back to that ESPN.com column, the ombudsman started off by talking about the uniformly positive praise she'd received about a documentary ESPN had produced called Black Magic, which was about black college basketball in the civil rights era. For whatever reason, when it was presented in a purely historical context, viewers did not accuse the network of "playing the race card" or seeing issues of race where none existed. Yet they're so certain that anybody who speaks about racial issues today is doing the same thing. Why?
The ombudsman seems to get to it in her conclusion:
The harsh reality is that unless ESPN's handling of race-related issues is near perfect, as it was with "Black Magic," it is not likely to get credit for trying. ESPN will keep encountering a phenomenon that has been dubbed "white fatigue" -- an impatience that wishfully equates issue-exhaustion with issue-resolution.
It should not take an elaborately researched two-part, four-hour, commercial-free primetime documentary to remove the rancor from the discussion of the intertwined history of sports and race in America. Columnists should not have to face "fire her" campaigns for trying to connect the dots between past and present. ESPN should not have its motives impugned every time it falls short of perfection on racial matters. The bar is set too high. The only alternatives are to clear it or take the lumps trying. Walking away from it is not an alternative.
Very well put. I think we face this same choice. As I said before, this controversy isn't going away. How we choose to deal with it will say a lot about who we are as a community, and could mark a real chance to elevate the status of games in popular culture.
As fate would have it, I've been working on a long-form piece for the Phoenix about videogame controversies, and the re-ignition of the Resident Evil 5 firestorm has meant that I've been thinking and writing about this non-stop for about a week now. I look forward to sharing this story when it runs in another week or two, but until then, I hope this is the last I have to say about it.
I mean, we're supposed to be having fun here, too.