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As sportscaster Mark Giangreco and others have learned, words matter

Some people can say certain things others can’t. That’s reality. That’s our world.

Sportscaster Mark Giangreco has worked in Chicago TV for 39 years, 27 of them at ABC7.
Sportscaster Mark Giangreco has worked in Chicago TV for 39 years, 27 of them at ABC7.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

There are things you can say and things you can’t.

Knowing the line that separates the two is critical for anybody in the media, even if that line shifts like a wind-blown sand dune. Actually, knowing the line is critical for anybody with a job, media or elsewhere.

‘‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech or of the press,’’ the First Amendment says.

But guess what? That’s our government, not regular, private-sector businesses and employers. All you chatty, opinionated working folks, take note.

When popular Chicago sportscaster Mark Giangreco was suspended — with his ouster soon to follow — by ABC7 after making a joking on-air suggestion that news anchor Cheryl Burton could ‘‘play the ditzy, combative interior decorator’’ on the fantasy DIY television show he was envisioning, you wondered about a lot.

Is ‘‘ditzy’’ one of those words?

Is intent more important than language?

Was this how the irreverent sports anchor who had worked in Chicago TV for 39 years — 27 of them at ABC7 — was going to ride into the sunset?

I thought of former Chicago sports-radio host Dan McNeil and former Cubs and Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman, both of whom were let go last year for making what were deemed to be offensive comments, even though McNeil’s was a tweet and Brennaman’s was a comment picked up by a mic he assumed was off.

I also thought of the trouble ESPN college basketball analyst and Indianapolis-based radio host Dan Dakich recently got into for what was seen as a misogynistic tweet. After being talked to by management, Dakich was able to skate past the mistake and stay employed. He did dump his Twitter account, however.

Highly respected and non-controversial WGN-TV sportscaster Dan Roan even came to mind. After Illinois’ loss to Michigan State on Feb. 23, Roan tweeted that a Spartans player was a ‘‘thug’’ for elbowing Illini star Ayo Dosunmu in the face, giving him a concussion and breaking his nose.

This provoked a firestorm of criticism from Michigan State fans, and Roan quickly apologized, even though the player he had criticized was given a flagrant foul and ejected from the game.

What Roan found out is that ‘‘thug’’ is no longer a term you can apply to a Black person without it being perceived as racist. This illustrates the evolving nature of words, the frequent duality made obvious, for example, when President Joe Biden called the white horde that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 ‘‘a mob of thugs.’’ Biden meant it and offered no apology.

Old-timers even might recall that late rapper Tupac Shakur had ‘‘THUG LIFE’’ tattooed across his belly, with a bullet for the ‘‘I.’’ No matter. Some people can say certain things others can’t. That’s reality. That’s our world.

The thing about the above-mentioned sports guys is that I know them all, consider each a friend — or someone I would greet and talk to with familiarity — and wonder whether they ever thought their careers would be marked in this way.

In the case of Giangreco, there are those who wonder why Burton simply didn’t confront him and work out her issues with him in private.

Former news anchor Joan Esposito, who worked with Giangreco for years, asked that exact question in a post on media critic Rob Feder’s website. Then she wrote: ‘‘Do you know how many times on air he alluded to me having a plentiful rear end? I thought he was funny, like a snot-nosed younger brother. I was never offended, but I know if I had been, he would have felt awful. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. It would be tragic if his career ended over this.’’

Yet it looks as though it will. Of course, Giangreco always could pick up a lesser gig somewhere, perhaps in radio. He started in radio back in Dayton, Ohio, and is a gifted and entertaining talker.

The thing that strikes all of us in the media business when we see such turbulence — we white males probably most of all — is this: Will I someday make a written or verbal mistake that ends my career?

Trying to be funny, sarcastic, edgy or cool could be your undoing these days. I sure wouldn’t want to be a comedian, for instance. I’ve thought about that. All I could safely tell would be white-man jokes. Boring? OMG.

Common sense, caution, sensitivity, awareness of the immediacy and ubiquity of electronic communication — all can help when choosing words. Knowing how the world changes might be the biggest thing of all.

That’s a job in itself.