Even non-sports fans have heard Hank Stram's most famous quote as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV:

"Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!"

The Chiefs did, and they crushed the Vikings 23-7.

Stram was the first coach that NFL Films wired for sound in a Super Bowl. When the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years this past season, many clips of Stram's quips made the rounds again.

NFL Films produced a new segment before Super Bowl LIV to show current coaches reacting to Stram's sideline banter from 1970. It was posted on YouTube in late January, but I just happened to stumble across it. Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, Doug Pederson and Sean McVay are among those responding to Stram's spirit, intensity and humor with their respect, admiration and laughter.

In one sound bite, Stram is delighted at how confused the Vikings defense was:

"They didn't know where the hell to go. Kassulke was running around there like it was a Chinese fire drill."

At this point, the video cuts to Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien.

O'Brien laughs.

I cringe.

Now to be fair to O'Brien, we don't know that he was reacting to the Chinese fire drill comment. Perhaps the video was edited in a way that he laughed at something else Stram said, but this transitioning was chosen because it had the best flow from a production aesthetic.

But the message is clear: Hey, wasn't Hank's crack about the Chinese fire drill just hysterical?


The use of Chinese in Chinese fire drill is negative, pejorative and insulting.

Like Chinese home run meaning a ball that barely clears the outfield wall at the shortest distance in the ballpark.

Like Chinese landing meaning an airplane making a bumpy arrival.

Chinese, in these usages, means inferior.

There should be no confusion about that. 

But context is important, and it must be noted that neither Stram's comment nor O'Brien's reaction is based on malice or menace.

Stram, in fact, built his Hall of Fame coaching career as a pioneer in connecting with Black players, as Jeffri Chadiha described in this 2013 ESPN column

Those players -- including future Pro Football Hall of Famers Thomas, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier -- believed in Stram not only because he saw their potential. It was because he also saw them as people. Stram didn't merely want his black players hanging with one another while the whites did the same. He wanted them all to know each other, to understand what made them different and also what made them similar.

He had the natty suits, the quick smile and the forethought to see the value in wearing a microphone while his team beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. The easier tidbit to miss coming out of that game was an examination of the respective team photos taken before that contest. The Chiefs had 23 black players on their roster when their picture was taken. The Vikings had 11.

Given Stram's body of work as a champion of racial equality and the absence of hate in his Chinese fire drill line, the "being a product of his time" explanation -- which is sometimes just a cop-out -- may be reasonable.

An NPR story on the origin of Chinese fire drill noted that the phrase "became popular once again with the military during the Vietnam War." For a perspective on the time frame, in December 1969, a month before Stram and the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV, the U.S. re-instituted the draft for the first time since World War II, because it needed more troops in Vietnam.

Perhaps I accept the "product of his time" argument too easily with Stram because I was a big Al McGuire fan. They were from the same era, with Stram being five years older. Like Stram, McGuire earned a reputation for his ability to connect with Black players, and he was among the first coaches who accelerated the integration of big-time college basketball. But at least on one occasion during his subsequent career as a beloved TV commentator, McGuire referred to a player taking "Chinaman steps."

It could all be overlooked, or at least brushed aside, at that time as "Al being Al," showing his old-school chops.

McGuire died in 2001. Three years later, Steve Kerr, then a commentator on TNT, referred to Yao Ming as a "Chinaman," and the backlash was strong and swift.

Kerr said he didn't realize the word was derogatory and offered a series of apologies, as documented by David Steele in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Kerr made a point of not only issuing apologies in writing and in interviews, but of making one directly to Yao, and admitting that with a Chinese American sister-in-law and a brother-in-law who teaches Chinese history at Cambridge, "of all people, I should know better."  

At this point, NFL Films should know better too. Even if there are no bad intentions, even if it's a clip from Hank Stram in 1970, laughing at the use of Chinese fire drill in 2020 is wrong.

But the upside is that this can be an instructive moment like Kerr's. Most reasonable people, if they learned about the insulting origin of the expression, would understand and stop using it. Or stop thinking it's funny.

I'm even OK with NFL Films including Stram's fire drill line to properly reflect the era in which it was uttered. It just didn't need to include a modern-day coach yukking it up in response to validate Stram's roguish charm.

Now, if it is understood that Stram, O'Brien and NFL Films had no hate in their hearts, then why is this an issue? It's the mindset of Chinese being a synonym for inferior that feeds into the larger dynamic of trashing Asians. 

If society can laugh along with a Chinese fire drill reference, that makes it so much easier to accept Kung Flu, and we've all seen where that leads.

The headlines keep coming every day. 

As Anti-Asian Hate Incidents Explode, Activists Push For Aid
Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety
Why Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Are Rising Amid Coronavirus
Man Making Racist Comments To Asian Family On Viral Video Identified As SF Tech CEO
Asian American family speaks out after being told 'you can't be in this country'
Asian Americans face dual challenges: Surging unemployment and racism
Dallas Stars Employee Fired For Comparing Chinese People To Squirrels Being 'Shot'

Unfortunately, this is hardly surprising. In fact, it is almost to be expected. The harsh truth is that hate is alive and well, even a source of pride, in 2020. So is ignorance.

But maybe that is for the best because it gives us a more accurate gauge of how far we are from matriculating the ball across the goal line.

Follow Victor Chi on Twitter @VictorChi. Like Victor Chi on Facebook.