Terry Frei's Tweet About An Asian Winning The Indy 500 Shouldn't Surprise You

The business of sport is changing, yet there are those who will persist in their prejudice.
05/29/2017 05:39 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017

We fail if we do not talk to Terry Frei. He was fired as a newspaper columnist by the Denver Post after saying he was “very uncomfortable” that Takuma Sato, who came from Japan, won the Indianapolis 500 this year, the first time that has occurred. Before I bring on internet backlash, I should say with utmost clarity that I believe the journalist was wrong; he ought to be taken to task; and his termination from a role many would covet might well be the sort of signal that is effective. If he had not been fired, I would be calling for discipline.

My point is that for someone who believes as I do — and I reiterate, that I, an American of Asian descent, am against the hate this individual, an American of European extraction, expressed albeit in the soft form of discomfort, as if his seat in the stands did not offer enough room to stretch out — we must understand how people form and maintain these types of attitudes. Otherwise we will not be able to address them in a constructive manner. 

The risk is that, in the vernacular, “the script will be flipped.” Frei will look as if he is the victim, because he was open in his opinions. His defenders will allude, as he has, to his own background: his father fought in World War II. No doubt he has more than a few followers on social media who share in his sentiment of uneasiness, who then will resent that someone, with whom they identify, spoke out and then was punished for his sincerity. They cannot be ignored. Frei was not, after all, proposing blatant discrimination. People will want to excuse him.

His surprise should be no surprise. The “Indy 500” is especially all-American, taking place in the heartland on Memorial Day weekend. It is supposed to announce summer as an ongoing celebration of white working-class heroes, including those whose family names end in vowels. This is the home of American iron at least in the mythos never mind that Honda engines are dominant nowadays. There are family dynasties, respected for their apparent traditional values. The occasional intruder seems quaint, such as Jackie Stewart. He could have been a newly-arrived cousin, dubbed “the flying Scot.”

Formula One, the series in which Sato developed his skills, is cosmopolitan in its paddock and global in its venues. It has not been accepted on these shores.

Sato was not only foreign, but also Asian. He doesn’t look like the champion we expect though he is part of the Andretti Autosport stable. In anxious times, the public yearns for reassurances. All will remain as it has been.

As a kid from Detroit, I have always been a “car guy.” I remember Asian American drivers at “the Brickyard,” or, more accurately, I recall a single Asian American professional behind the wheel. I liked Danny Ongais, “the flyin’ Hawaiian,” best known for a spectacular crash in 1981 when he was in the lead. I didn’t even realize his heritage; he just seemed confident in taking risks on the track.

The Sato-Frei incident is not isolated. Ironically, the athletes who are attacked are attacked because they are too good. What is feared is their superiority, not their inferiority. The distinctions that are drawn do not depend on citizenship either.

Meb, the marathoner of such stature he is recognized by first name, faced similar reactions. When he (full name Mebrahtom Keflegzighi) won the New York City Marathon in 2009, more than two decades after coming to this country as an adolescent, CNBC commentator Darren Rovell declared that he, of African origins, was only technically an American. The passport doesn’t count. The whole group of Asian female golfers, specifically Korean in descent, likewise, were described by Jan Stephenson as “killing our [LPGA] tour.” The hyperbole and the possessive are not subtle. At stake is an ethnic version of national pride. 

Our affinities are framed positively by the more sophisticated observers. In the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament, Princeton upset UCLA in the first round of “March Madness,” 43-41. The Ivy League spoilers were old-school, playing a slow, methodical, man-to-man game. They happened to have an all-white starting roster. They were praised in terms of nostalgia, but more than one commentator wondered whether those positive feelings disguised something else, not even breaking the consciousness of those who smiled to see a team lacking a big man (that is, a big black man) at work (and literally “center”).

The examples are too abundant to list: the perennial “Great White Hope” in boxing; Hank Aaron receiving death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s homerun record in baseball; and so on.

Rituals of competition probably make us tribal. Anthropologists tell us these contests evolved as substitutes for warfare. That is why the Nazi regime invested so much national spirit in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. They were symbolic of much more than the medals handed out to those on the podium at the finish line. African American Jesse Owens set records. He made history.

What offers hope, however, is that fans will cheer for players on their hometown franchise of the league regardless of background. They routinely cross the color line. Jeremy Lin was a phenomenon for all to watch. Superstar Michael Jordan is still beloved in China. 

The business of sport is changing. People of all backgrounds participate as could not have been imagined by some (including half the population that was officially excluded on the basis of gender). Baseball would have scarce talent if it were not recruiting from Latin America and overseas. Soccer (football everywhere else) has finally become assimilated in the suburbs.

Yet there are those who will persist in their prejudice. We need to engage with them.

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