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Florida’s Gubernatorial Primary and Memories of Howard Cosell

During a 1972 broadcast of an NFL game, Howard Cosell said of Mike Adamle, an undersized white football player, “Look at that little monkey run!”  History records no controversy following his remark.

Eleven years later, during the broadcast of a Monday Night Football game, Cosell said of Alvin Garrett, an undersized African American football player, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”  Controversy followed this time, with various people saying quite bad things about Cosell.  To which he responded, with emphasis, that he was ecumenical in calling speedy short people “monkeys” all the time, including his grandchildren, and that there was nothing racist about what he said whatsoever.

Whatever opinions legitimately linger about the occasionally irritating Cosell, “racist” isn’t one of them, as his career and high-profile friendships were clear evidence to the contrary.  Yet, it also was clear that he hadn’t fully grasped how offensively pejorative the word “monkey” is when used regarding blacks.  Given his cosmopolitan personal and professional background, Cosell should have known.  But saying what he said about Garrett on national television was evidence, not of malice, but of a non-malicious blind spot which, somehow, had persisted.

A similar event occurred during the (tape-delayed) broadcast of an NBA playoff game in 1981.  The Boston Celtics were beating the Houston Rockets by a ton, prodding producers to come up with something to keep viewers tuned in.  That something was showing old photos of the two announcers, basketball greats Bill Russell and Rick Barry.  One of the shots had Russell (who is black) with a big smile, of which Barry (who is white) called a “watermelon grin.”  This did not go over well with Russell, who gave Barry (and the audience) the kind of silent treatment that doesn’t work the least bit well on television.

Barry subsequently said he was unaware of the possible racial overtones of “watermelons” when it comes to African Americans, and according to a report, later apologized to Russell, who “eventually forgave him.”  Again, I’m confident what was revealed by the incident was not racial animus, but rather a racial blind spot.

Or, I just remembered how a political colleague once referred to the “final solution” in describing some mundane issue, not knowing that that the term was used by Hitler to exterminate millions of Jews and others.  Should my colleague have known this?  I would like to think so.  But the fact she didn’t betrayed ignorance, not anti-Semitism.

Which brings us to the aftermath of the Florida gubernatorial primary on Tuesday.  Should someone of Rep. Ron DeSantis’ sophistication have known that saying “monkey” anywhere in the same hemisphere of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum that night invited big problems?  Yes.  But did his using the word mean he was dog whistling in Dixie?  I’m confident the answer is no, if for no other obvious reason than everyone is fully aware that Democrat Gillum is black.  But, also because, I would like to think Republican DeSantis is smart enough to know that being perceived as a bigot is more likely to cause him to lose votes rather than win them, especially among independents.

Most fundamentally, and in contrast to many on the left in Florida and elsewhere, I hate even intimating that someone is racist unless there’s more evidence than an awkwardly placed metaphor.

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