Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith suspended for comments
Ralph Lawler hadn’t missed a Clippers broadcast in 25 years. Not for a cold or flu or even a kidney stone attack. He’s been at the microphone for every dreary Clippers loss and the occasional uplifting victory.
Until Friday night.
Fox yanked Lawler and analyst Michael Smith from Friday’s Prime Ticket broadcast of the game against the Denver Nuggets after Clippers season-ticket holder Arya Towfighi objected to an on-air exchange between the announcers toward the end of Wednesday’s 106-91 Clippers loss at Memphis.
A source with knowledge of Fox’s decision but who was not authorized to speak publicly said Lawler and Smith had “been suspended.” They are expected to be back on the air for Monday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Lawler and Smith, who have been an on-air team for eight years, had a 40-second exchange about Grizzlies 7-foot-2 center Hamed Haddadi, who is the first Iranian citizen to play in the NBA.
The dialogue included several instances in which Smith and Lawler pronounced Iran as “Eye-ran,” and included the comparison of Haddadi to the fictional character Borat, the creation of comic Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is a clueless, sexist, racist man -- and from Kazakhstan, not Iran.
Reached after a meeting with Fox officials Friday, Lawler said, “I’m really sorry with the decision. I deeply regret that anything we said offended even one good Clipper fan or anyone else. I am not a bigot.”
Smith, in an e-mail Friday night, would only say, “Ralph is an incredible broadcaster, an amazing colleague and a wonderful friend.”
The Clippers did not respond to voice mail or e-mail messages asking about Fox’s decision.
The Wednesday exchange began when Haddadi entered the game and Smith said, “Look who’s in.” Lawler responded, “Hamed Haddadi. Where’s he from?”
Smith answered, “He’s the first Iranian to play in the NBA.”
Towfighi, in an e-mail to The Times, the Clippers and Fox Sports executives, took umbrage with the fact that Smith mispronounced Iran and Iranian.
Here is the rest of the on-air exchange:
Lawler: “There aren’t any Iranian players in the NBA?” repeating Smith’s pronunciation of the word “Iranian.”
Smith: “He’s the only one.”
Lawler: “He’s from Iran?”
Smith: “I guess so.”
Lawler: “That Iran?”
Lawler: “The real Iran?”
Lawler: “Wow. Haddadi -- that’s H-A-D-D-A-D-I.”
Smith: “You’re sure it’s not Borat’s older brother?”
Lawler laughed and Smith continued, “If they ever make a movie about Haddadi, I’m going to get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part.”
Lawler: “Here’s Haddadi. Nice little back-door pass. I guess those Iranians can pass the ball.”
Smith: “Especially the post players.”
Lawler: “I don’t know about their guards.”
Towfighi, who says he is a Clippers season-ticket holder and who was born in Boston to Iranian parents, e-mailed his complaint Thursday night.
On Friday, Towfighi, vice president and assistant general counsel for Univision Communications Inc., in L.A., said his goal was not to demand any punishment for Lawler and Smith but to, he said, “Highlight the issue that a lot of folks wouldn’t consider saying such things about African Americans or Hispanics but because this was an Iranian player it just flowed more easily.”
Towfighi said he shooed his 8-year-old son out of the room before replaying the exchange.
“I didn’t want my son to hear that,” Towfighi said.
Later Friday, Towfighi said he had received a call from Fox apologizing for the comments and said he was satisfied with the response.
In a scheduling quirk, on Nov. 29 the Clippers are hosting Memphis and promoting Haddadi’s appearance with “Iranian Heritage Day,” offering fans a chance to meet him before the 12:30 p.m. game, get his autograph and an 8-by-10 photo of the rookie center.
Cyrus Hadavi, a member of the Alliance of Iranian Americans in L.A., said he was left “kind of speechless. In this day and age, why would someone say something like this? Were they trying to offend a whole nation?”
Fox issued a statement of apology but made no mention that Lawler and Smith had been taken off the air.
Michael Eaves and Don MacLean called the game but did not mention Lawler and Smith. In addition, digital cable listings had Prime Ticket re-showing the Clippers-Grizzlies game in the 5-7 p.m. slot but instead there was a replay of a UC Irvine-Loyola Marymount game.
This isn’t the first time Fox has disciplined an announcer for on-air comments.
After Game 3 of the 2006 American League Championship Series, analyst Steve Lyons was fired after referencing Lou Piniella’s Hispanic heritage.
Lyons said that Piniella was “habla-ing Espanol,” and Piniella then said the unexpected hitting by shortstop Marco Scutaro was like unexpectedly “finding a wallet on Friday.”
As play-by-play Thom Brennanman repeated Piniella’s quote, Lyons said, “I still can’t find my wallet.”
Lyons lost his national Fox job but still is an analyst for the Dodgers.
Dustin Krugel, director of media relations for the Grizzlies, said there would be no comment from Haddadi.
“Hamed . . . was unaware of the comments. We have read the text, but we have not heard the audio yet. So we feel it would be inappropriate to comment.”