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Is The World Cup Commentary Racist?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later we'll talk about tightening up our game on our wedding etiquette. But first, speaking of manners, we want to talk about some language that's gotten attention at World Cup. Some critics are saying the language used by some of the announcers is just rude and wrong. One of the people calling attention to this is a person we've met before. His name is Felix Sanchez. He's co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. And you might remember that he previously called attention to the scarcity of Latino artists who've received Kennedy Center honors. More recently writing on the social media site Facebook, Mr. Sanchez has said some of the announcers on the Spanish-language network Univision are using racist, and sexist and outdated language. Equally interesting, though, is that Univision seems to be paying attention. And Felix Sanchez stopped by our studious Washington, D.C. to tell us more about his concerns. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us once again.

FELIX SANCHEZ: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of the examples you highlighted in your post. Say, in the Costa Rica versus Uruguay match on Saturday, an announcer referred to a player as moreno, which translates to black or brown. Why was this offensive?

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, it shows that when the announcers were talking about the other players, they use their last names. And then when it came to an Afro-Costa Rican player, they used the color of his skin as a way to define him, and to also use another word that, you know, reflected their misunderstanding of his hairstyle, which was in dreads. And they used the word grena in referring to it. And it was gratuitous.

MARTIN: Which is messy hair. So it's like - it's like referring to the guy as, like, the black guy.

SANCHEZ: The black guy.

MARTIN: Oh, it's the black guy, or the guy with the hair, as opposed to his name...

SANCHEZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: Which they could certainly understand. What about some of the language referring to women? You didn't appreciate that either.

SANCHEZ: They also, in panning the - you know, the audience, would say, you know, mira las chulas. And, you know, it has a very kind of earthy, sexualized, you know, context to it. And I think that the concern - I mean, what happens, and the reason that we're having this conversation, is that when you have something like the World Cup occurring, the reason that Univision is winning ratings over ESPN is because many English-leaning Latinos go back to wanting to have a more authentic experience by watching the games on Univision. And then what happens is you see the - you see the lack of social progress that is exhibited by sportscasters. And again, it gives us an opportunity to make these changes. But I would...

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that's noteworthy, though, is- you also pointed this out in a subsequent post - is that you posted this. You are not the only person, but you might be the most - best well-known person, or a person who's sort of known as an activist. The president of Univision Sports actually called you during a high-profile match. Do you mind telling us about that conversation?

SANCHEZ: And there I give them total credit. And I also want to, you know, put in context that this doesn't rise to a level of a Donald Sterling kind of commentary. It's - but there's a sensitivity that they understand is missing. And I got a phone call from the president of Univision Sports, from Brazil, during the U.S. match. And it was really a very, very heartfelt, reaching out to basically say, look, we want to hear more about this. And we want to understand this. And we want to get our team to appreciate these differences.

MARTIN: Did he apologize? He didn't apologize. But he seemed to understand what you were saying? He wasn't defensive. He didn't say, what are you talking about?

SANCHEZ: No, no, no, no, no. What I appreciate is that they immediately saw an issue, and they wanted to address it. And they wanted to - they extended an invitation for me to come to Miami to visit with him and the team that was doing the presentations during the World Cup.

MARTIN: But this is after World Cup. What about during World Cup?

SANCHEZ: Well, I have a line - a direct line to them to express any other concerns that viewers might see or reflect...

MARTIN: What about the broadcasters themselves, or any of the announcers themselves? Had you heard from any of them? Did they seem to hear what you were saying?

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, the problem is that they are, you know, broadcasting almost, you know, 18 hours a day. And they are not really - the direct line to me was to speak to their boss. And if their boss is aware, I think they will hear about it as well.

MARTIN: What do you think this says? We have about a minute left. You know, it's interesting that, you know, the popular comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres - you know, people were not pleased that she tweeted during the U.S.-Ghana match, she says, well, this gives me time to look up where Ghana is. Some people weren't pleased about that. What do you think that this says - the fact that you got a response so quickly? Do you think it's because you're you and because you have a previous record of activism? Or what - do you think it says something bigger than that?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think that clearly we have a relationship. And clearly they want to understand what the English language-leaning Latinos experience. But in contrast to what we raised in issues to Saturday Night Live and their lack of hiring a Latina cast member in 39 seasons - every major Latino organization wrote Lorne Michaels. We have yet to get an answer from them - far more severe as a kind of an issue. And yet, you're seeing that we have room to grow on both sides of this equation.

MARTIN: So people are listening. People are learning more about actually who is in their audience, right? Felix Sanchez is the co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. He was nice enough to join us in Washington, D.C. studios. Keep us posted. Thanks so much for joining us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.