Nicole Johnson interviews Anthony Federico and talks about an editorial mistake that led a media storm and to his firing.
I genuinely want to believe in the goodness of others. I want to believe in the sincerity of their intentions. I want to believe in the benevolence of their soul.
I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t tempted by pessimism and negativity. The desire to give into negative emotions can be as alluring as the expected euphoria of a drug. I’ve never been seduced by narcotics, but I continue to fight the powerful seduction of cynicism.
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On February 18, 2012, national and international media outlets were buzzing about this ESPN mobile headline created by Anthony Federico after Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks winning streak came to an end: Chink in the Armor. The news coverage about Anthony and his headline broke on a Saturday. By Monday, everyone jumped on the anti-Anthony bandwagon.
Initially, I was an Anthony Federico detractor. When I read early reports pertaining to the hysteria, the first thought that popped in my head was: “What an idiot; how could he not have realized that was offensive?!” Cynicism was seeping into my veins by the second. As a reader and a writer, I am accustomed to wordplay, puns and double entendres in headlines; however, Anthony’s words enraged me on a visceral level.
Luckily, as he often does, my husband helped me see this situation from a different perspective. Once my husband’s logic neutralized my intense emotions, I was able to recognize that Anthony’s word choice could have been an honest oversight. For days, my husband encouraged me to reach out to Anthony so I could hear his side of the story.
I was skeptical, but after additional research I came to realize that the rhetoric being used against Anthony Federico was completely unfounded.
Anthony and I began corresponding through email and then via telephone. I was elated when he agreed to go on-the-record with me for The Good Men Project. I never realized how much goodness Anthony had done in his life until I started interviewing him. He is the antithesis of the negative things you may have read, or thought.
For six years, Anthony was an exemplary ESPN employee who wrote over 5,000 headlines as a content editor. His dedication to ESPN was admired and appreciated by all levels of management. Despite his termination, Anthony still considers his former ESPN co-workers part of his family. Throughout our interview Anthony never said a negative word about ESPN or ESPN executives.
I was blown away when I discovered how dedicated Anthony is to helping others. At 28 years old, he has spent his young life volunteering at various organizations and altruistically assisting others. Anthony’s most recent volunteer efforts took him to post-earthquake Haiti. Through the Haitian Health Foundation, Anthony spent 10 days in the Haitian jungle as member of a dental team, assisting Dentists and Dental Hygienists with emergency dental surgeries.
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Because of a careless editorial decision, Anthony lost his job and was slaughtered by the press (and public opinion) for weeks. He was immediately branded a racist. He spoke to me about what happened that day, the subsequent fallout, and his life afterwards.
Nicole Johnson: When you wrote the headline, “Chink in the Armor”, that appeared on ESPN’s mobile website for 35 minutes in the early morning hours of February 18th, what exactly were you referring to?
Anthony Federico: It was in reference to Jeremy’s first bad game as a starter and the end of the Knicks’ magical winning streak. It is a common sports cliché, one that I and many media outlets have used countless times before. The headline was in no way a reference to Jeremy’s race. When I was writing the headline I wasn’t looking at Jeremy as an Asian-American basketball player. I was looking at him as a basketball player.
Nicole: Were you shocked ESPN fired you over your “Chink in the Armor” headline?
Anthony: Yes, very surprised. I made a mistake. I never had any negative incidents of any kind while working (or in my whole life for that matter). I was destroyed by the decision to fire me.
Nicole: After ESPN fired you, you said your play-on-words headline was an “honest mistake.” As an experienced headline writer (plus the global hype over Jeremy Lin), of all the clichés you could have used, why did you choose this cliché?
Anthony: I didn’t perceive the racial implications the headline would have. I wasn’t looking at Jeremy Lin as an Asian-American basketball player; I was looking at him as a basketball player.
Nicole: ESPN television anchor, Max Bretos, was given a 30 day suspension for saying “chink in the armor” on-air. He asked New York Knicks analyst, Walt Frazier, this question: “If there is a chink in the armor, where can Lin improve his game?” How did you feel when you learned Max Bretos was given a suspension, yet your employment was immediately terminated?
Anthony: I don’t know why there was a difference in punishment. I don’t know Max personally but I would say he was using the term like I did: a common sports cliché.
Nicole: ESPN’s senior vice president for editorial, print and digital media, Rob King, called your headline “indefensible” and Tweeted: “There’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.” How difficult was it to learn that ESPN refused to defend you, considering they did not take this position with an ESPN writer who used your exact headline when referencing the performance of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team during the 2008 Beijing games?
Anthony: I can’t speak about Rob King’s tweet for obvious reasons but in general, it was extremely difficult and incredibly sad for me. I was shattered emotionally, physically, spiritually. I was consistently praised both personally and professionally during my six years there. I had a great track record, a great rapport with all of my bosses and co-workers. I gave everything I had to every shift—night shifts, overnight shifts, weekends, holidays. I was beloved by my family in the newsroom. And yes, we became family working those high-pressure shifts every night for over five years together. I still love my teammates even though we don’t work together any more. Everyone I worked with knows exactly what kind of person I am. I felt like I was bearing the world’s wrath alone.
Nicole: During Jeremy Lin’s sudden rise to NBA fame, there were insensitive statements made about his race. Days before your ESPN mobile headline, The New York Post ran a headline on the front page of their sports section with the word “AMASIAN!” in bold capital letters splashed across the bottom. Do you think ESPN caved into pressure to fire you because of the recent controversial headlines (and comments) about Jeremy Lin’s race?
Anthony: I know that it was the height of Jeremy’s popularity–an incredible winning streak. A mesmerizing underdog story… The world was all about Jeremy Lin. Add to that the crucible of the New York media and it was a perfect storm of circumstances. My former employer did what they had to do. I certainly don’t agree with that decision. I am thankful for this opportunity to share who I am as a person.
Nicole: A member of Jeremy Lin’s family reached out to you via email after ESPN fired you. Through your correspondence, you were able to set up a meeting with Jeremy Lin. Describe what happened at your meeting?
Anthony: We met at restaurant in Manhattan. We had lunch and talked for an hour. We barely talked about the headline because he knew and believed me that there was no intent behind it. He was on my side. It was so great to have his support. He felt badly about what happened and the way I was being destroyed in the media. He reached out to me and I will never forget how gracious he was. We discussed our personal faith stories and how our identity as Christians defines us and not our occupations or circumstances. I told him about my personal walk with Jesus and he told me about his. We talked about God’s unfathomable mercy. We talked about the Knicks and their playoff hopes. We laughed a lot.
Nicole: Because of your headline, you were vilified in the press for days. During this time, no one, especially ESPN, spoke of your accolades (you consistently have led your life as a humanitarian, a volunteer, and as a fundraiser) or gave you the benefit of the doubt. Do you think our society has become too judgmental and too “politically correct”?
Anthony: I never wanted to “list” some of the things I accomplished. But when the media was destroying me and re-destroying me and labeling me all sorts of evil things I pointed to my life’s work. I am proud of the person I am. I have nothing to hide. Someone had to stand up for me. I want people to know who I am.
I could not fathom the ferocity of anger and rage people directed at me on Twitter, email, TV and the internet. Everyone had to get their shots in. I was totally inconsolable for those weeks. I have my lived my life in service to others. I love all people. I have no racism in me.
On the worst day of my life (the Wednesday I posted that statement on Twitter) I was surrounded by my family. I was in good health, thank God. That was the worst day of my life. I remembered the people I met in the earthquake-destroyed slums of Haiti. I remembered they had to choose between drinking water infested with cholera or dying of thirst. What would you and I do? Take our chances with cholera? It doesn’t matter because we are blessed to live in a society where we don’t have to make that decision. How many of them would switch lives with me–my worst day for their best day? Would I switch lives with them? What I mean is that on the ABSOLUTE worst day of my life I had a lot to be grateful for. That was the most comforting. I tried not to delve into bitterness or return fire at those who were annihilating me in the media. I thought of Jesus and how He suffered so horribly for me and you. I read and re-read His command to turn the other cheek, to return love for hatred. His words are easy to apply when life is good but how difficult when life sucks! I truly grew as a person and as a Christian.
As a society we too often rush to judgment. I am thankful for those who waited to get all the facts about me as a person before making a decision about me.
I believe that the immediate firing of Anthony Federico by ESPN was excessive punishment for an unintentional gaffe (and, given that they had used the headline before, undeniably hypocritical). To avoid a public relations nightmare, ESPN lost an outstanding employee. I feel for Anthony. I’m sad to know his personal and professional reputation was marred by the media. It saddens me to admit that I was one of the thousands who made a snap judgment on his character.
However, I am heartened by Anthony’s faith in his religion and humankind. I’m inspired by his goodness, generosity, fortitude and nobility. His humility is breathtaking. The respect Anthony has shown ESPN throughout this entire ordeal is astounding. His reticence and refusal to mudsling should teach all of us an invaluable lesson.
The initial pandemonium surrounding Anthony Federico taught me that negative thoughts have the potential to metastasize like cancerous cells on healthy tissue. The only chemotherapy we have for negativity is truth, love, faith, kindness, openness, spirituality and hope.
I hope you will see Anthony Federico as I do: an extraordinary humanitarian who is trying to make our world a better place.