HOUSTON — Six months later, sports radio station WEEI continues to make amends after co-host Christian Fauria mocked Don Yee, Tom Brady’s sport agent, using an insensitive stereotypical Asian accent.
Fauria accepted an invitation from Yee to speak about the racist incident at the annual Asian American Journalists Convention on Friday. He sat next to me on a panel that also included NBC10 Boston reporter Jonathan Choe.
“I want to take this opportunity to once again apologize to anyone and to everyone who I offended,” Fauria told the audience in a packed hotel conference room. “It was stupid. It was completely immature . . . I should have known better.”
Michele Steele, an ESPN reporter who moderated the panel, asked Fauria when he knew he had crossed a line.
“I knew I was flirting with it, if not going over the line,” said Fauria. “But I didn’t stop.”
Yee, who is of Chinese descent, was born in California and speaks perfect English, yet Fauria insisted on doing a fake impersonation. Fauria -- a former Patriots player on a show with Glenn Ordway and former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni -- knows what Yee sounds like but kept using the accent, explaining to listeners in February, “It’s more fun this way.”
WEEI – owned by radio giant Entercom – immediately suspended Fauria for five days. The host apologized to Yee on the phone, on Twitter, and on air.
I got involved because I wasn’t convinced that management got it. Just a few weeks before the Fauria incident, the station had to suspend another host, Alex Reimer, for making disparaging remarks about Brady’s 5-year-old daughter. Prior to that, WEEI suspended other hosts for making racist and sexist remarks.
In a series of columns in February, I called on advertisers to send a message by taking their money elsewhere until the culture of WEEI changes. Why? Offensive speech should not be part of the station’s business model. Putting on an Asian accent is about the most offensive thing you can do to an Asian-American because it reinforces a perpetual foreigner stereotype.
Yee had not made any public remarks about the incident until Friday when he pre-recorded a three-minute video to play at the panel.
“I have been experiencing this from the time I entered into the sports industry in the mid-’70s,” Yee said of being mocked because of his ethnicity. “So after 40 years of this, you get kind of numb to it.”
But Yee didn’t stay numb for long. He was bombarded by texts and calls about the incident. Then it sunk in.
“On that particular day, I did feel very sad that in 2018 we hadn’t made much progress since the ’70s,” he said.
Yee had never met Fauria. When the two connected by phone right after the incident, he said, Fauria was apologetic.
“He asked for my forgiveness. He didn’t offer any excuses … He was very, very sincere. And I said, ‘Look, I forgive you.’ ”
On the panel, Fauria said he and his colleagues learned a lot from sensitivity training and that the station plans to hold another session. Fauria also said Yee inspired him to do more to drive change.
“I told him that I was going to take more of an ownership, leadership role, not only on my show but company wide,” Fauria said. “There needs to be a captain in there somewhere.”
In his video remarks, Yee believed Fauria was up to the task and that he hoped the incident would open a dialogue about race. Fauria identifies as multiracial -- a mix of white, black, Native American, Italian, and Irish.
“I actually thought that he could serve as a good ambassador, frankly, to enlighten people on these issues,” said Yee. “I thought that if there was some dialogue with Christian and with AAJA, I thought some good could come out of it.”
Yee has supported AAJA through the years by providing funding for aspiring sports journalists to attend the conventions. Yee has also attended previous conventions.
“What I would like to get across to people is to really examine your own conditioning and biases that you might subconsciously hold,” said Yee. “We are all avid consumers of some kind of media product. . . . We just have to be very, very aware of what we are consuming and really how it affects us because that is how stereotypes spread.”
Do I think WEEI finally gets it?
Sensitivity training and showing up at AAJA are good first steps. But lasting change comes when the station hires more people of color and women on air and behind the scenes. Fauria is currently the only staff person of color on air.
In a statement, an Entercom spokeswoman said WEEI has several women and people of color on its staff. She also said the station regularly features commentary from guests with diverse backgrounds.
“Entercom as a whole is committed to taking steps to contribute to the betterment of all the local communities in which we operate,” the statement said. “As one of the country’s two largest radio operators, diversity is important to Entercom and our staff and hosts across the country represent people from all different backgrounds, including women and people of color.”
For some of you who think I should leave WEEI alone because it’s just sports radio, think again. Consider that the first question from the convention audience came from Joon Lee. a former WEEI intern. He wasn’t convinced the station fully understood the role and responsibility it has in the community.
“A lot of people come up to me and say Boston is racist, and they point to WEEI as the first piece of evidence,” said Lee who grew up in Brookline and now works as a staff writer for sports website Bleacher Report in New York City. “Do you think the people at the station understand that? I really don’t.”
Fauria responded that he does, but acknowledged change takes time.
“We’re not going to get there overnight,” he said, “but everybody is committed to doing the right thing.”