Winnipeg Blue Bomber linebacker Adam Bighill earned the undying love of long-suffering football fans when he helped the team end a 29-year Grey Cup championship drought.
But the ferocious defender scored an even bigger victory this week when his social-media campaign tackled American TV show host Wendy Williams, persuading her to apologize for mocking people with a cleft lip or palate.
The trouble began on Jan. 7, when Williams, speaking about the facial features of actor Joaquin Phoenix, mimicked what it looks like to have a cleft lip or palate. She used her fingers to hoist her upper lip, saying: "He’s got this, he’s got this. No, I find it to be very attractive."
It brought back painful memories of the bullying Mr. Bighill endured as a child in Washington State. He was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate and was frequently targeted for abuse over his facial disfigurement and speech impediment.
"I was angry," Mr. Bighill said. "It was saddening. It was frustrating. It was promoting bullying. Kids are already bullied every day for not looking like other people. I couldn’t let her just get away with it, because it’s not OK."
It prompted Mr. Bighill to stand up for people who share the genetic condition, including his four-month-old son, Beau, who was also born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate and underwent his first surgery on Wednesday.
The Bomber star, who works with the Making Faces charity in support of children with facial disfigurements, launched a Twitter campaign urging Williams to apologize and donate to the cleft community.
It took six days, but on Wednesday, Williams did just that: "I want to apologize to the cleft community and in Beau’s honor, our show is donating to @operationsmile and @AmerCleftPalate and encourage our Wendy Watchers to learn more and help support the cleft community."
Mr. Bighill thanked the TV personality for her apology and donation in a tweet: "I forgive you."
It was a nice ending, but it’s shameful the controversy erupted in the first place. In today’s digital world, where the U.S. president issues vile tweets daily and civility is vanishing online, it has become open season on people who look or sound different.
The rot starts at the top, as evidenced in late 2015 when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski for a physical impairment. Trump insisted he was not ridiculing Kovaleski’s disability, arthrogryposis — "You’ve got to see this guy," he said, jerking his arms spastically — but few believed him.
Last year, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders apologized to former vice president Joe Biden, who has been open about overcoming a stutter, after mocking his speech during a debate.
Ms. Sanders tweeted, "I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about," prompting Mr. Biden to reply, "I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter. And it’s my great honor to mentor kids who have experienced the same. It’s called empathy. Look it up."
"I actually didn’t know that about you and that is commendable," Ms. Sanders responded. "I apologize and should have made my point respectfully."
Apologies are wonderful, but they are needed far too often. In 2020, it should go without saying that it’s not acceptable to mock people for physical disabilities or deformities — but clearly, the problem persists. Mr. Bighill is correct: it’s not OK.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.