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ESPN Ignores Past Alleged Racial Slur In Portland Timbers-Minnesota United Playoff Broadcast

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Minnesota United attacker Franco Fragapane’s two-footed lunge on Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara late in the Portland’s 3-1 playoff victory on Sunday was as bad a challenge as we’ve seen in Major League Soccer in 2021.

How ESPN’s broadcast handled the aftermath was even worse.

If you watch the league regularly, you’ll recall the same two players were involved in one of the uglier episodes of the MLS regular season back in late June, when Chara — who is Black and from Colombia — alleged that Fragapane, a white or white-passing Argentine, had called Chara a racial slur.

Fragapane denied this. Major League Soccer investigated and did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate Chara’s claim nor refute it, and cleared Fragapane to play. To Minnesota’s credit, manager Adrian Heath and several players spoke publicly about the incident and appeared to take the allegation seriously.

Fast forward to the final minutes of Sunday night’s contest: Fragapane leaps and appears to try to and with his spikes on Chara’s lower shin or ankle. And while ESPN broadcasters Adrian Healey and Alejandro Moreno both indicated they believed the challenge merited a red card — rather than the yellow it received — neither discussed these players’ highly publicized previous chapter.

Whether on purpose or an oversight, it was a baffling omission that gives the appearance of tying to hide information from viewers. That’s dangerous for a league like MLS striving to prove itself capable of life in the same spotlight as other North American “major” leagues. And it’s downright disturbing if the motivation is to paper over the perception of racism in MLS and elsewhere in soccer, especially when ESPN is often proactive in amplifying Black voices in pro basketball, football and baseball.

(An email to ESPN’s public relations team requesting comment was not immediately returned.)

None of this is asserting guilt on Fragapane. Without material evidence he deserves benefit of the doubt in terms of league discipline. But this is he-said, he-said; There’s also proof or reason to believe Chara fabricated the episode.

If broadcasters were trying to shield Fragapane from presumption of guilt, refusing to acknowledge the incident probably did the opposite. Those most likely to believe Chara’s account likely already know about what happened in June, and will read the silence from the ESPN broadcast as trying to cover guilt.

And if they were trying not to editorialize, they frankly didn’t have to. While the investigation turned up no conclusions, there are plenty of facts Healey and Moreno could’ve discussed about the initial allegation, the investigation and the conclusions. None of that would’ve equated to a position of support of either player.

As for Sunday, while Fragapane’s frightening tackle sure looked like retribution for something, he could just as easily be angry at Chara for making what he thinks is a false claim as a true one. It could’ve also been coincidental but unrelated, stemming from something that occurred in the first 80 minutes.

To be fair to Healey and Moreno, they’re a secondary MLS commentary team for ESPN behind Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman, who called an earlier MLS playoff game Sunday in New York.

Healey is Austin FC’s local play-by-play broadcaster, and Moreno works in a variety of soccer roles for ESPN, both as analyst and color commentator. Neither may have felt comfortable on their own treading that ground in real estate that is not entirely theirs.

If that was the case, someone in the production team should’ve pushed them, and that clearly didn’t happen. Instead, less-informed viewers were shielded from important information to help them understand what was occurring. And more-informed ones were given the impression ESPN was trying to hide something untoward.