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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.


Did Cornbread make an ill advised comment?


Does he deserve to be fired from his job?

I hope not. In my book, apologizing on television to thousands of viewers seems to be easily commensurate to Maxwell's crime of making a bad joke.

I don't condone Cedric Maxwell's comments, but comparing him to Steve Lyons, whose Latino comments were not the first racially insenstive remarks that he had made on air, is absurd.

What if Maxwell had said, "Violet, get a day job ... go work in an office and get off the court." Would you and the rest of the Politically Correct Police jump up and down at that?

According to the Department of Labor, less than 60% of women over the age of 16 work. Many women work out of their homes or have crafted careers in which they only work a few days a week, so they can spend more time at home. The same is not true for equal numbers of men. Who knows, perhaps Ms. Palmer works a nontraditional job as a NBA referee because she too wants to be able to spend time in the home during off days.

The point is that making a stay at home reference is not akin to criticizing Latinos, Blacks or another racial minority. In fact, it's pretty insulting to do so.

One more thing: to write that Bill Simmons is the primary critic of Violet Palmer is just plain wrong. Sure, Palmer's Wikepedia entry says that Simmons is a big critic, but a simple Google search will reveal hudnreds if not thousands of negative references to Violet Palmer from news sources and blogs.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/28/2007 5:16 PM  

I don't see how you can equate "get back in a kitchen," a remark obviously meant to disparage a woman's qualifications anywhere outside the household (would you ever insult a man by telling him to "get back in the kitchen?"), as per the age-old stereotype and "get a day job."

They aren't even remotely similar statements and we shouldn't attempt to steer the argument away from his initial comments.

The comparison to Lyons can absolutely be made - both men made discriminatory comments on air. If anything, I think Maxwell's are more coherent, and much more obviously discriminatory than Lyons' remarks.

If this is Maxwell's first time, perhaps he doesn't need to be fired - I can understand how you might think such punishment was too punitive. But networks frequently impose harsher sanctions than just an on-air apology - perhaps a few games suspension and a public statement regarding his actions would be more appropriate.

I believe Simmons is one of Palmer's most vocal critics - she certainly has other ones, but he has called her on-court abilities in question several times in his mailbags and columns, and as one of the more widely read bloggers/columnists on the internet, he's one of the most prominent of her critics as well.

Blogger Satchmo -- 2/28/2007 7:43 PM  

Two thoughts. One, this gets back to the problem (that I discussed in the Tim Hardaway debate) of separating what is said (the substance) from the way it is said. Criticizing Palmer's ability as a referee (which apparently is quite poor) obviously is fair game. But criticizing it through her femaleness (or her race, etc.) is not.

Or, at least, it is not fair game if the comment plays to a stereotype -- women belong in the kitchen. But suppose Maxwell had stated his opinion in a more articulate (if no less sexist) manner: something like "women should not be officiating men's games because they obviously cannot keep up."

Second, it is not surprising that WEEI is not taking action against Maxwell similar to what Fox took against Steve Lyons. At least in the sports context, sexism and sexist comments remain acceptable in a way that racist comments are not. Maxwell's comments are no different than Keith Herandez's comments last season about a woman trainer in the Padres dugout -- something to the effect of "women don't necessarily belong in the kitchen, but they don't belong in the dugout." Hernandez was not disciplined, but was made to apologize on-air.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/01/2007 2:11 AM  

Ever since Jimmy the Greek decided to give his famous genetics lesson, the standard sanction for a sportscaster that makes on-air remarks that could be considered offensive along racial, religious, gender, and other such (read: constitutionally protected classes) lines seems to be summary firing. To the broadcasting company, it makes sense: to allow such comments is to spoon-feed the entire universe of plaintiffs attnys public evidence of an atmosphere of discrimination at that particular company. It gives weight to claims of discrimination by employees (or passed-over candidates), who can say "look what XYZ allows it's broadcasters to spew out over the airwaves - it's evidence that they condone this sort of attitude, even encourage it!". Whether that's right or wrong, it seems to be the case, even for wildly popular sportscasters.

What then, motivated Maxwell's employers to accept this seemingly unnecessary risk of liability keep thier money-maker without increasing thier risk of being viewed in a bad light as an organization? Can you imagine if Dick Vitale said the same thing - "Get back to the kitchen, ba-by!" "Bacon, eggs, etc., baa-by!!" Fired. What's different here? I think one of Pres. Bush's speechwriters coined the perfect phrase: "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Maxwell is black. Palmer is black. I posit the theory that those who employ Maxwell are predominantly white. In thier minds, the dangerous question isn't "Can we fire/retain him after he tells a female ref to 'get back to the kitchen.' The real dangerous question is : Can a bunch of white men fire a black man for telling a black woman to 'get back to the kitchen'. Isn't that the way 'they' talk to each other? If there isn't any outrage, then why should we rock the boat by firing him? What if he claims that we're unjustly firing him BECAUSE he's black (even though we, as a society, accept summary firings of sportscasters for disproportionately small, even first-time, PC offenses)?

It's a conondrum; they've taken the gamble that their listening audience, (and the folks who hear about it later) won't hear a sportscaster talking about a ref - they'll hear a black man demeaning a black woman - and that's a black thing, so we'll just leave it alone.

This is one of those strange instances where the best possibility for racial progress comes from one offended group standing up and demanding one of thier own be held accountable to the same ridiculously disproportionate punitive standard that the 'privileged' class is held to - because the 'privileged' class doesn't have the guts to do it.

Sadly, this all boils down to which possible offended group could or would cause more legal headaches for the employer if they suddenly stood up and took offense. If you were the broadcasting CEO what would you do? Offend along gender lines or offend along racial lines? Neither, if possible, but gender if you gotta pick one - have him apologize and for god's sake don't rock the boat anymore.

Finally: WHY IN THE HELL ISN'T THERE OUTRAGE IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY THAT THIS MAN GOES BY THE MONIKER 'CORNBREAD'?!? I know damn well that as a young white man, there's not a black person in my entire state of Mississippi that would allow me to call him/herself, or any other black person 'cornbread'. Reaction would be quick, and possibly violent. And I imagine any joe-blo regular black man that allowed anyone but his closest friends to call him 'cornbread' would be labelled an Uncle Tom. Here's a Racist Open-Secret: His moniker IS obviously Uncle-Tomish (whatever reason he came by it, or how long he's used it before getting famous don't matter - he knows damn well that the vast majority of african-americans would find it demeaning to be publicly called that, but he chooses to use it publicly anyway), and that's exactly why white college kids (and others) love him so much. In a sport clearly dominated by blacks, it's nice to have one that will shuck-and-jive for you.

Anonymous wha? -- 3/01/2007 11:52 AM  

The previous comment is a wondrous confection of ignorance and self-righteous arrogance. "Cornbread" Maxwell got his name from a popular Afro-American movie of the 1970s, "Cornbread, Earl and Me." So spare me the talk of racism and Uncle Tom. You haven't even the rudiments of historial awareness necessary to use such references.

As for Violet Palmer, she has indeed been considered one of the least proficient NBA referees for years. But this is the NBA, where every ref is suspect in the eyes of fans. What might we unearth if we studied broadcast sound bites about any number of male referees? Plenty, I'm sure.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/01/2007 12:34 PM  


I'm not sure you can call "Cornbread, Earl, and Me" an afro-american movie. It was about a black kid that witnessed the police killing of a friend who was misidentified due to racial profiling. It's true that the majority of the main characters were black, but it was directed not by Spike Lee, but by a white man (Joseph Manduke - who helped produce the tv spider-man series, and also directed the spy-thriller "The Omega Man", and a slew of B-movies). It was the film adaptation of the novel "Hog Butcher" by famed black author, sculptor, and poet Ronald Fair. But so what? Just because a fictional character's in a movie is called 'cornbread' and that character is a loveable kid caught in a bad predicament brought about by the racist attitude of both white AND black cops, has nothing to do with the fact that if you say "What up, cornbread" to a black man on the street, you'll get a scowl at best, but maybe a punch in the face.

The point is not how or why a person wears the moniker or acts a certain way, it's the understanding that the behavior is demeaning to others as a group, and making the decision to go ahead and do it anyway that is offensive. And if you're black and go around acting in a way that other blacks find demeaning or offensive for the sake of boosting yourself, then you get called an Uncle Tom (Which, like cornbread, was also a fictional character from a literary work featuring african-americans and will also earn you a punch in the face if you run around appling it to african-american strangers on the street).

That was the only point of mine that you addressed (and it wasn't even my main one), so I'll ask that you withdraw your 'ignorant' comment in regards to the rest of my post; to insult somebody's viewpoint but not give any reason for it is kind of dick, don't you think?

It is duly noted that you think Palmer sux as a ref. You're in good company there, but as Prof. McCann explained, that's not the relevant issue. I don't think Maxwell ought to be fired; but then again, I didn't think Jimmy the Greek ought to have been fired, either. Since the sports broadcasting community as a whole seems to think the proper punishment for saying something stupid is instantaneous shit-canning, then let's stand up and be equitable about it, or explain why we aren't.

Anonymous wha? -- 3/01/2007 1:20 PM  

I'm for the firing. It's outdated speech that should be rewarded in the way our modern market rewards such unwanted speech--by firing.

Let's run through the analogies. Would "get back in the fields!" been accepted? No. "Get back to Mexico!" Hells no. "I HATE GAYS"--well, maybe. But Hardaway has been exposed as being painfully out of touch with 2007.

The only reason this has been accepted--indeed, even fought over--is that Ms. Palmer is a particular class of persons who have little political power. I.e., Latinos have a growing political power base that often "patrols," for lack of a better word, negative speech, and African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and fundamentalist Christians have quite sophisticated "machines" that combat negative (or perceived negative) speech.

There no longer seems to be the same feminist presence in patrolling unwanted speech. Much of the commentary here has focused on Ms. Palmer's ability as a referee--that has NOTHING to do with whether the speech was appropriate. "VIOLET, YOU SUCK" is fine. "Violet, head back to the kitchen"--that's not appropriate.

In contrast to the commentary provided by the generally white, generally male sportscolumnists/blogosphere, see the recent ESPN the magazine column on Ms. Palmer, where she spoke about acceptance in her job (she seemed comfortable). Cornbread was reacting like so many other men in male-dominated industries do--with prejudice against the person unlike them (whether Latino, Black, female . . . ) and that conduct should be deterred.

Blogger gorjus -- 3/01/2007 3:19 PM  

Give me a break! You guys are taking this entirely too seriously, which perhaps is not surprising coming from a bunch of lawyers. The guy made some stupid, jokey comments about Palmer - so what? For this you fire a guy? This is PC thinking run amok.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/01/2007 4:02 PM  


I agree that descriptively you are right--You suck is OK, get back in the kitchen is not OK. But I still think we have to consider why that is so and whether that is the way it ought to be. Also, what if the statement was "You suck and that just shows that women cannot do this job because they cannot keep up." Now it is more than an insult about her being a woman, but a suggestion about what women should and should not be able to do--which at least is a point of debate.


This is not PC thinking run amok. The "stupid, jokey" comments also were offensive to her and perhaps to a lot of people listening to the game. But why shouldn't Maxwell be subject to criticism for what he said? Don't people have the same right to criticize him for making offensive comments as he has to make them? And why shouldn't that criticism (possibly) include the radio station's determination that it does not want him speaking on its behalf?

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/01/2007 4:24 PM  

Maxwell's comments were merely perpetuating a stereotype which merely shows the shallowness of his thoughts.

If he wanted to be witty, he should have been prepared to use a gender neutral criticism.

Do you want your mother/sister/grandmother/wife subjected to that type of comment?

This is not PC run amok. Its about raising the standard of common decency. We need to demand more from those in the media and society in general; the best way to do it is subject them to ridicule.

Blogger qtlaw24 -- 3/01/2007 8:05 PM  

On the issue of comparing Lyons and Maxwell's comments, could it just be that Feminism lost its edge and Racism is the new thing? Women have come a long way in securing their rights. And in doing so, they perhaps have lost their place as "typical victims" of certain very poor comments.

Of course this should all be irrelevant in a legal assessment. But the fact remains it is not.

Blogger Luis Cassiano Neves -- 3/02/2007 2:07 PM  

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Anonymous Halk Bilimi -- 1/31/2009 4:19 PM  

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