On June 23, 1938, The Washington Post referred to heavyweight champion Joe Louis as a "lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy."
Newspapers have learned a lot about ethnic and racial stereotyping since the 1930s. (The Washington Post was hardly alone in stereotyping Louis.) No reputable newspaper publisher or editor would allow a reporter to call a black athlete a "chicken-eating colored boy" today. Few readers would buy any paper unwise enough to do so. But, as if to show that we still have a ways to go in eliminating racial and ethnic stereotyping, there is a magazine that has given us a 21st-century equivalent of the "chicken-eating colored boy" phrase.
A caption in Sports Illustrated's most recent issue describes National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as the consigliere for Pete Rozelle when Rozelle was at the helm of the NFL during the USFL antitrust case, labor disputes and the Raiders lawsuit.
At issue here is consigliere. Anybody who has seen the movie The Godfather or read the novel knows what the term means: a counselor or adviser to the head of an organized crime family. In the movie and novel, all those families were Italian-American.
Tagliabue hails from an Italian-American family in New Jersey. The second-eldest of four brothers, he won a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University. From there, he went on to law school at New York University and worked for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and had other jobs before landing the gig as Rozelle's adviser in the NFL.
Adviser is clearly what the caption writer at Sports Illustrated meant. Adviser, not some term linked to the Mafia, is precisely what this character should have used. And SI editors should have called him or her on it.
"They want to show they're so sophisticated because they know Mafia-speak," said Dona De Sanctis, the deputy executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Order Sons of Italy in America. "Once again, an Italian-American who has nothing to do with criminal activity is associated with the Mafia simply because of his last name."
The stereotyping of Italian-Americans didn't start with The Godfather, but it sure as heck has been exacerbated since then. And De Sanctis dismisses those who claim such stereotyping is harmless because The Godfather is "only a movie." De Sanctis said the stereotyping from the film "spills over and taints other Italian-Americans." And now it seems everybody wants in on the act. De Sanctis gave two examples.
Bernard McGuirk, the producer for the nationally syndicated radio and television talk show Imus in the Morning, referred to Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito as "some meatball-sucking wop." Portraying a character named "Cardinal Egan" in what failed to be satire, McGuirk as "Cardinal Egan" added, "First Scalia, now Alito. What is [President Bush] doing? Interpreting the Constitution or mixing concrete?"
De Sanctis said she got those tidbits from an official transcript of the show, which ran Nov. 2. More recently, the Commission for Social Justice, which is OSIA's anti-defamation arm, took issue with a remark Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid made about his colleague, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
"Having Senator Santorum talk about reform is like having John Gotti talk about doing something about organized crime," Reid said Jan. 18 on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Imagine if Reid had been commenting about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and worked a gratuitous reference to fried chicken and watermelon into the conversation. Recall the reaction to Doug Tracht, the "Greaseman," who on a D.C. radio station several years ago made a joking reference to the lynching of James Byrd, who was killed by three white supremacists in Texas.
Greaseman got canned. McGuirk's still working. Detect a double standard here?
Suppose some magazine wrote that Colin Powell, former secretary of state and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, "went gangsta" when American troops invaded Panama in the late 1980s. That would have at least have raised some eyebrows, if not outrage.
Not so with SI calling Tagliabue a consigliere. But it should. And I don't even like Tagliabue.
The guy clearly needs an attitude adjustment about Baltimore. I suspect he got that attitude when he was a Georgetown undergrad. Baltimoreans remember his contempt for our city when we tried to get an NFL expansion team.
But he doesn't deserve the consigliere label.
Rick McCabe, a spokesman for Sports Illustrated, said "the term [consigliere] was used in its broader meaning of counselor or, more specifically, lawyer. We wouldn't use it in that [Mafia] context solely."
Does consigliere have a "broader meaning"? It depends on which dictionary you use.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines consigliere as "an adviser or counselor, especially to a capo or leader of an organized crime syndicate." The Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines it as "a member of a criminal organization or syndicate who serves as an adviser to the leader."
"Member of a criminal organization." Maybe SI's editors were telling us more about the NFL than they intended.