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Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Cedric Maxwell's Sexist Comments about NBA Referee Violet Palmer
Cedric Maxwell--the MVP of the 1981 NBA finals and whose number #31 the Boston Celtics recently retired--has been the color analyst for radio broadcasts of Celtics games since 1995. His thoughtfulness and humor have made him popular among Celtics fans, particularly in recent years as his performance has excelled.
But as reported by Dave Adams of Universal Hub, Maxwell has found himself in controversy due to recent on-air comments about NBA referee Violet Palmer (hat tip to Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog):
During the first quarter of tonight's radio broadcast of the Celtics game against the Houston Rockets,one of the Celtics players managed to fake out the referee to get a call to go his way. The referee who made this call was Violet Palmer, who happens to be a woman. Cedric Maxwell, the analyst / sidekick on the Celtics broadcast team, proclaimed "Get back in the kitchen!" when she made the call. Max's partner, Sean Grande, tried to throw him a lifeline by pointing out that they had both been previously impressed by Palmer's officiating, but Max continued "Get back in the kitchen and fix me some bacon and eggs!"Somewhat surprisingly, at least from my vantage point, neither the Celtics nor WEEI, which broadcasts Celtics games, will take any disciplinary action against Maxwell. Instead, he has agreed to apologize on-air. Just compare that "sanction" with the firing of former Fox baseball announcer Steve Lyons for, at worst, ambiguously negative comments about Latinos. I recognize that Lyons' had a bigger and national audience, that he had made other curious remarks in the past, and that Fox may have employed a stricter on-air policy than WEEI, but I still find the outcomes odd. Maxwell made an unquestionably sexist remark--should it really be tolerated without sanction? Is no suspension or even reprimand in order?
Along those lines, think about what Violet Palmer must feel whenever she makes a controversial call. As the only female referee in the NBA (and there are no female refs/umps in the NFL, NHL, or MLB), her gender--which obviously has no bearing on her talent--probably enters the minds of many of those who don't like the call, and some of those persons, apparently like Cedric Maxwell and his "fix me some bacon and eggs" line, occasionally might let that bias slip. God only knows what fans yell at her when they don't like her.
And no doubt, Violet Palmer's gender makes her job harder than it would otherwise be. A favorite target of Bill Simmons and other basketball writers, Palmer is routinely criticized for not being very good at her job. For instance, Simmons has written of Palmer:
Nobody has ever been worse at their job, in any vocation – not even the people who work at Home Depot selling Christmas trees. When Violet started officiating a few years ago, she was so incompetent, players and coaches actually avoided arguing with her – whenever she screwed up, they would always glance around helplessly, the same way you would if your puppy dropped a deuce on the living room carpet.I'm not sure if that criticism is true, but assuming for a moment that it is, might Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat be relevant? Stereotype threat reflects the behavioral effects that result from an individual's belief and fear that his or her actions will confirm a negative stereotype of a group to which he or she belongs. As I discuss in a work-in-progress on the Wonderlic Test, stereotype threat typically manifests in anxiety, which can impair performance and trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy: because of stress related to one's group membership, one underperforms, thereby unintentionally corroborating the underlying group stereotype. Thus, the situational presence of stereotype threat, rather than the person's aptitude, skill, or talent, may generate the behavior that confirms the underlying stereotype. As I write:
[M]inority undergraduates tend to perform less well academically when they believe there are achievement gaps relative to race. In a recent study of undergraduates, African-American students performed worse than their white classmates when told that they are taking an exam that measures “their intelligence.” However, they performed equal to white students on the same exam when told that they are taking an “experimental” exam.Whether or not stereotype threat exists with Violet Palmer, it's clear that she has an unusually tough job. Granted, I know that no one forced her to take this job; she undertook it knowing, at least on some level, what she would be getting into (although that doesn't justify those problems). Moreover, I genuinely applaud the NBA--and, yes, Commissioner David Stern, who I often criticize--for being the first and still only major pro sports league to employ a female referee. But I hope that the league and its teams do all they can to ensure that her gender not be used to marginalize her or to interfere with her work, otherwise it would seem that she is being set up to fail. With that in mind, should there really be no sanction for a radio announcer who, on-air, says of Violet Palmer that she should "get back in the kitchen"? Are we in the year 2007 or 1947?
Update: see Jeffrey Standen's vigorous and thoughtful defense of Maxwell.