When TSN paired Gurdeep Ahluwalia and Nabil Karim on its SportsCentre anchor desk last month, the decision brought forth racist responses on social media. TSN immediately stepped up to support its hosts and denounce the anonymous trolls on Twitter.
Both Ahluwalia and Karim (who fist-bumped after their first show together) expressed disappointment about the racist comments, but were gratified at how many people came to their defence.
"With the wonders of Twitter, you can retweet and things just go viral," Karim was quoted at the time. "But I should mention this and this is really important … there were a lot of positive messages and I've had an overflow – and I'm sure Gurdeep does too – of positive messages on Twitter, and I've been getting them all day."
For Canadian Adnan Virk, formerly an anchor for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and now an anchor at ESPN, the incident was revealing. "I consider Gurdeep a good buddy," Virk said from his home in Connecticut. "I was disappointed to hear what happened. Canada has this pluralistic impression of itself and thinks of itself as multicultural. Maybe we're not as forward thinking as we think we are."
For Virk, born in Canada of Pakistani parents, the contrast with his situation at ESPN was startling. "I'm so fortunate. I never get racist insults for my work here in the States. I get insults like everyone else, but it's never based on my race. Canadians might be surprised by that, but it's true."
ESPN has been accommodating to Virk since he was hired in 2010, giving him excellent exposure on its TV content and now on radio, too. "The one time I met my boss, John Skipper [president of ESPN], he asked me, 'How's your assimilation? Are you comfortable here? Is everything okay?' He told me that we need to make ESPN look like America, and that means every race and both genders. The goal is to be authentic."
That doesn't mean Virk is given preferential treatment as one of 50 anchors scrambling for air time. "It's eat or be eaten. So I never say no to an opportunity, whether it's hosting Baseball Tonight or hosting ESPN Radio shows."
If he has any handle at ESPN, it's as the Canadian guy from Kingston. "With so many people here from so many places, that's the only way to keep people straight. So I'm the Canadian guy. The hockey guy. I get teased about it, but that's okay. They know who I am."
One of ESPN's concerns when Virk auditioned was how he'd deal with quintessential American events such as NCAA March Madness, which starts Tuesday (on TSN in Canada).
Luckily, Virk had covered the basketball tournament at The Score Network and follows the sport, which has a growing Canadian footprint.
Gonzaga, the No. 1-ranked team, has a Canadian touch with star centre Kelly Olynyk and guard Kevin Pangos. Plus, there are excellent Canadian players such as Brady Heslip at Baylor, Myck Kabongo at Texas and Junior Cadougan of Marquette.
"March Madness is like the Memorial Cup on steroids," Virk said. "That's the closest parallel I can give you. Most of the year, [NCAA] hoops are popular. But with the pools and gambling, it goes right over the top with March Madness."
When the MLB season opens in April, the 34-year-old father of two will be an anchor on the highly rated Baseball Tonight show. "The timing's great for a Canadian guy with the Blue Jays spending the way they did this winter. It could be a special season."