On the June 6th episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel featured a skit that involved actor Will Smith playing a blind basketball referee. Before reading on, I suggest that you watch the video— of course, it isn't audio described but hopefully you’ll get the gist regardless.
Most of us (who are sports fans) have at some point questioned the eyesight of the officials who oversee games. Personally, I have no problem with people expressing their opinions about the officiating by asking the ref, "Are you blind?" This is so common, I doubt anyone thinks twice about it. That said, this skit took things a little too far.
Here are the things in the skit I found offensive.
- Tossing up the jump ball to start the game, the ref stands between the two players. When he throws the ball up, he throws it right into the face of a player. This is ridiculous and insulting to a basketball fan who is blind. A person who is blind and dreamed of being a basketball referee certainly would know that the ball is thrown up in the air to start the game.
- Right after the jump ball, the ref begins running around, oblivious to what is happening. They even have him clap his hands, tilt his head back and rock his head back and forth. I know that there are some blind musicians who tilt their head and rock, but I was disappointed they picked this stereotype to assign to the ref.
- The ref then calls a goaltending violation. When a player asks, "On whom?" the referee swings his white cane and hits a jug of Gatorade. They’re implying a blind person would not know the difference between hitting his cane on a plastic jug or tapping it on (or towards) a person? They also have him facing and pointing opposite of where the action is occurring.
- A player comments to the coach that it isn’t fair. The coach replies, “You know what’s not fair, is being born without sight.” Okay, so I guess we should pity people who are blind.
- Next, the ref is seen moving on the court using a white cane and a dog. Granted, some people do like to use their cane at times while also using a dog guide, but in general, this is rare. Smith holds both the cane and harness incorrectly. We have enough misinformation out there to combat. This just reinforces additional negative stereotypes.
- The ref is continuously shown running around the court disoriented. I do know some people who are blind who are challenged by orientation, at times, but this is no reason to highlight and make fun of it.
- The scene cuts back to the locker room, and the ref is talking to the coach. The coach walks away without telling Smith, so he keeps talking and reaches out to hug the coach. Instead of just having him reach out into empty space, they take it too far and have him bump into the lockers.
- Another scene has him feeling a man’s face. This is insulting. I do not know any people who are blind that go around feeling people’s faces to identify them. Another demeaning stereotype.
- Next, Smith runs into a rack of basketballs. Any experienced cane traveler would never have run into it. I guess they think that all blind people just go around running into objects all day long.
I know many people who are blind who have a great sense of humor and, when appropriate, are the first ones to laugh at themselves and the crazy things that can happen. The fact that this skit bothers me is not because I am a straight-laced, boring guy. I love humor and light-heartedness. A couple years ago, one of my buddies who is blind came to my Halloween party as a blind referee. It was a great costume, and he played it up to the max—but not once did he do any of the dumb, insulting things depicted in the Kimmel skit.
I guess all we can say is that the need to raise general awareness about blindness and vision loss continues to be a challenge, especially in the pop culture realm. There are several new television shows coming out this fall that will have characters with disabilities, including one with a father who is blind. Unfortunately, they have chosen to not hire actors with disabilities to play these roles, but one can only hope the writers will be sensitive and accurate in their depictions of people who are blind or have other disabilities. I’ll be watching, and will likely have plenty to say on the matter, so stay tuned.
Link to the YouTube video in this post (Note: the video does not include description): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeHIam5Wq-M