Paulie Malignaggi and Showtime, Part Two: The Dialogue on Race
Other factors were involved, but Paulie Malignaggi’s termination as a commentator by Showtime was intertwined with the issue of race.
The balance in America tilts toward white privilege. This doesn’t mean that every white person has an easy life and every Black person is disadvantaged. But there are segments of American society that prove each day by their conduct that white lives matter more to them than Black lives matter. For centuries, people with this belief have controlled the levers of power in American society. The situation is more equitable now than in the 1950s when the civil rights movement began to gather momentum. But we have a long way to go before reaching the goal of equal opportunity. The problem didn’t disappear when Barack Obama was elected president.
People of good will struggle with the issue of race on an individual and corporate level. The lines keep shifting. And they shifted a lot with the death of George Floyd.
It took a gruesome video of Floyd’s death after 8 minutes 46 seconds beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee for the National Football League to abandon its sanctioning of punishment for players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem. A person could get whiplash from the pivot that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made on that issue. The Aunt Jemima brand – a staple for the Quaker Oats Company for more than a century – has now been “retired.” Diversity-Equity-Inclusion is the new corporate mantra. The reexamination of attitudes toward race is permeating every level of American society.
Paulie Malignaggi didn’t grow up with much privilege in his life. He has been in survival mode for many of his 39 years.
Malignaggi was born in Brooklyn in 1980. His parents were Italian immigrants. When he was several months old, the family moved back to Italy. Six years later, having had a second child, they returned to the United States. This time, Paulie’s father stayed for a few weeks and went back to Italy alone. Twelve years passed before Paulie saw his father again.
“I didn’t have a nice growing up,” Malignaggi told me years ago. “For a while, my mother, my brother Umberto and I lived with my mother’s parents in Brooklyn. Then my mother found an old Italian couple who let us live with them in a dilapidated old house. We were on welfare. I remember going into stores and getting dirty looks because we paid with food stamps. And I didn’t know any English when we moved back to Brooklyn. That was hard.”
When Paulie was 9, his mother remarried and moved with her sons to New Jersey. There was physical abuse. “From the start,” Malignaggi remembers, “our stepfather beat us (Paulie and his brother).”
Eventually, Paulie and Umberto were thrown out of the house. For the next two years, they slept on their grandparents’ couch in Brooklyn. Paulie enrolled in high school but wasn’t much of a student. Before dropping out, he cut classes, got into fights and was involved with petty crime.
“I had problems; no doubt about it,” Malignaggi acknowledged. “I acted out. I was turning into the wrong kind of person. I had this anger in me. I was bitter. I was losing my conscience. Some of the kids I hung out with then are in jail. Some straightened out. One is dead.”
It’s important to distinguish between insensitivity on issues of race and being a racist. A racist is someone who discriminates or feels prejudice against people of another race, or who believes that one race is superior to another. Malignaggi doesn’t think that way. He has good one-on-one relationships with people of color; more than most white people do.
He also knows about police brutality. Paulie once got into a street fight with a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop, was arrested, and, while handcuffed, was beaten by three cops.
“I know it happens,” he says. “I went through it myself.”
He watched videos of George Floyd’s death before coming to the conclusion, “What that cop did was wrong. There was no excuse for it.”
Malignaggi could have salvaged his career at Showtime by offering to say something along the lines of “events in recent months have opened my eyes” or “events in recent months have changed my thinking.” That was the road traveled by the lords of the NFL, NBA and MLB, whether motivated by a sincere change of heart or as an economic imperative. But fighters are often reluctant to back down. And maybe Paulie’s eyes haven’t been opened.
“White privilege” manifests itself in many forms. Yes, Malignaggi had a hard life growing up. But it might have been harder had he been Black. Would Paulie have made the same purses as a fighter if he’d been Black? By way of comparison, anyone who thinks that Arturo Gatti would have made as much money as he did if he’d been Black is living in a dream world.
Let me make two biases of my own clear at this point: (1) I deplore Donald Trump and everything that he represents; (2) I’ve known Paulie for 19 years and I like him.
In my view, a lot of what Malignaggi says and thinks (particularly about Trump) is misguided. That means, by definition, he feels the same way about a lot of things that I say and think.
I’m troubled by the fact that, too often today, intelligent dialogue between people on opposing sides of the political spectrum has given way to shouting by internet mobs who hurl invective from their safe haven behind computers. I also think that the practice of people calling other people “racist” with impunity and without substantiation is dangerous.
That said, Showtime has the right to present itself to the public in a certain way. It can’t discriminate in employment on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. It can choose its spokespeople and set guidelines for how these people conduct themselves in public.
A television commentator represents the network that he or she works for at all times. The public at large identifies the commentator with the network.
This isn’t a First Amendment issue. Showtime isn’t the government. Paulie has the right to speak his mind on political and social issues. Showtime has the right to say, “Your public comments are inconsistent with our values. We no longer want you to represent us.”
Sports commentators speak out on issues related to their sport all the time. But comments regarding politics and race have long been treacherous terrain.
The public at large identifies the commentator with the network.
In 1988, CBS fired Jimmy Snyder (known as “Jimmy the Greek”) from NFL Today after an interview on another network in which he made statements regarding what he viewed as the genetic superiority of Black athletes.
Former all-star pitcher and ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling was fired by ESPN in 2016 because of social media posts with regard to transgender rights. He had been previously suspended for one month after a Twitter post that compared “extremist Muslims” to Nazis.
In 2017, Jemele Hill was suspended by ESPN from her role as a host on SportsCenter for two weeks after two tweets, the first of which referenced Donald Trump as a white supremacist and the second of which suggested that Dallas Cowboys fans boycott the team’s advertisers as a protest against owner Jerry Jones’s threat to punish players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem.
On June 2, 2020, Grant Napear (a play-by-play commentator for the Sacramento Kings for 30 years) was dismissed from his job when DeMarcus Cousins asked on Twitter for Napear’s thoughts regarding Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd and Napear tweeted back, “ALL LIVES MATTER … EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!”
If there’s an argument against the proposition that all lives matter, I’m unaware of it. But in these ugly times, it has become a code phrase in some circles for a repudiation of the idea that Black Lives Matter.
We’ve come a long way since Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals when play-by-play commentator Gary Bender and Rick Barry were discussing a photo of Bill Russell (the third member of the announcing team) that was taken during the 1956 Summer Olympics. Barry, in an act of monumental insensitivity and stupidity, referenced the “big watermelon grin” on Russell’s face. Russell, one of the most dignified athletes ever, was not amused. CBS did not renew Barry’s contract the following season.
Should a media organization have policies that are more restrictive, less restrictive, or the same as other companies? The line is drawn in different places by different companies and for different professions. But as a practical matter, it’s generally drawn in favor of the employer. The employer sets the guidelines, sometimes in response to principle and sometimes in response to economic pressure from the marketplace. It’s a subjective standard, not an objective one. “Tread carefully” and “be responsible” are nebulous guidelines.
MSNBC chooses one type of representation. Fox News chooses another. Either way, no one suggests that, if a TV commentator walked around in public wearing a swastika, the network couldn’t terminate his or her employment. Or wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I hate all white (or Black) people.”
ESPN has wrestled with these issues and publicly released social media guidelines for its employees. In part, these guidelines state, “ESPN is a journalistic organization (not a political or advocacy organization). We should do nothing to undermine that position. We are committed to inclusion, tolerance and that which makes us different. But we must remember that public comments on social platforms will reflect on ESPN and may affect your own credibility as a journalist. At ESPN, we have a shared responsibility to one another that accompanies the benefits we collectively and individually enjoy. Everything we post or comment on in social media is public. And everything we do in public is associated with ESPN. Think before you tweet, post or otherwise engage on social platforms. Understand that at all times you are representing ESPN, and social sites offer the equivalent of a live microphone. Simple rule: If you wouldn’t say it on the air or write it in a column, don’t post it on any social network.”
Referencing Paulie Malignaggi’s termination, Stephen Espinoza told The Athletic, “We have very high standards that we expect of announcers and of everyone who represents our brand.”
That’s a laudable sentiment. But lest anyone think that Showtime has made a great statement of principle with regard to Malignaggi, keep in mind that the network has made no public statement as to why Paulie has been dismissed and no effort to clarify what its principles are.
Also Showtime is the network that lent its prestige to the characterization of people as “cunts,” “pussies” and “faggots” and used misogynist homophobic statements by Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor as a marketing tool to engender pay-per-view buys for their 2017 fight. Indeed, Showtime went so far on that occasion as to post videos of McGregor simulating sexual intercourse with a microphone strategically placed between his legs as “a little present for my beautiful, Black female fans.”
Showtime has offered to pay Malignaggi for the rest of his contract (which runs until the end of this year), but only with a non-compete clause for the duration of the contract and with limits regarding what Paulie can say publicly about Showtime and a variety of issues.
Malignaggi has worked for Sky TV in the past but always on a fight-by-fight basis. He never had a multi-bout contract. It’s possible now that Sky and other networks will be reluctant to hire him.
Meanwhile, a lot of people will miss Paulie’s voice on Showtime’s boxing telecasts. “It is disappointing,” Espinoza told The Athletic. “We certainly have a lot of affection for Paulie, and he’s developed into a very good analyst. It’s always difficult when you have to part ways.”
As for Malignaggi, he’s declining to talk publicly about the matter but does say, “I’m unhappy about the way things have played out. But I’ll always be grateful to Stephen for giving me the opportunity to show what I could do as a commentator and helping me become a better commentator.”
Paulie had it made and threw away much of what he had on principle. Some people might see that as admirable. But one has to question the principle.
We all need correction and guidance during the course of our lives. Ideally, Paulie will think things through and come to a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes racial oppression in the 21st century. Personal growth and forgiveness are honorable concepts. Perhaps someday he’ll be behind a microphone again for Showtime. These times cry out for reconciliation.
In that regard, one might look to a thought that Paulie himself voiced earlier this year on The Ak and Barak Show: “When you calm down, you have to be able to understand the difference between constructive criticism and hating criticism. You know? And you have to be able to take the constructive criticism and build yourself and get better.”
This is Part Two of a two-part series. Part One can be read here.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.