The Most Heinous of PC Crimes Against Humanity…Ofcom takes over-exaggerated offence at the use of the word ‘spaz’ in an ESPN sports commentary

Posted: 22 February, 2015 in Ofcom TV Censor, Political Correctness
Tags: , ,
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major league baseball espn logo Major League Baseball
ESPN, 3 October 2014, 20:00

ESPN is a sports television channel broadcasting a combination of live sports events and sports related programming.

During live coverage of a baseball match in America, the commentators talked very briefly about the pitcher who kept looking at a batter at first base because the batter was attempting to steal base’. This involved the batter moving back-and-forth on first base in an ungainly manner to distract the pitcher. These movements prompted one of the commentators to say:

“He [the pitcher] might be just looking at him because he looks like such a spaz”.

A viewer alerted Ofcom to the reference to “spaz” in the commentary, saying that it was an offensive term to describe someone with physical disabilities.

Ofcom considered Rule 2.3:

“In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context, Such material may include, but is not limited to, discriminatory treatment or language (for example on the grounds of…disability…)”.

ESPN apologised for any offence caused. The Licensee however said that:

the use of this word in America is not seen as offensive as it is here. As a consequence, this presents UK broadcasters, especially in relation to the coverage of live sport, difficult challenges.

ESPN explained its live coverage of Major League Baseball is via an international feed from the US host broadcaster. The Licensee said that during a live programme, if offensive language is broadcast, the US commentator would immediately apologise . However, in this case, ESPN Limited said the:

US commentator didn’t (and wouldn’t) apologise because the word spaz in America is largely seen as inoffensive. The Licensee said this word is used [in the USA] to describe someone who is clumsy or un-coordinated and is generally linked with that person being excessively excited or hyperactive.

Ofcom Decision: Breach of rule 2.3

Ofcom acknowledged that ESPN is an established channel broadcasting American sporting events live. Ofcom understands that, in American slang, the term spaz is largely inoffensive. We noted the Licensee’s argument that the US commentator was referring solely to the player’s physical awkwardness rather than making a derogatory comment about disability. However, in our view, a UK audience, even one familiar with ESPN content, would not automatically have understood the different meaning of the word in the USA and it would therefore have been capable of causing considerable offence. Further, we considered that the fact that the word had been intended to refer to physical awkwardness increased the likelihood that viewers would have assumed that the reference was linked to disability.

ESPN operates under an Ofcom UK broadcasting licence. It must therefore adhere to generally accepted standards. The Licensee must take UK audience expectations into account when transmitting material broadcast live from America. As pointed out above, the word spaz can cause considerable offence to UK viewers and listeners, and we noted that no apology to viewers was broadcast in this case.

On balance, Ofcom’s view was that the use of spaz in these particular circumstances was not justified by the context and Rule 2.3 was breached.

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