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Volume 22 No. 28
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One bad headline cost him his job at ESPN. The priesthood brought healing.

Anthony Federico was fired from ESPN in 2012 for writing a headline.

You probably remember the story. A young ESPN employee, he wrote a headline for the company’s mobile app that many viewed as a racial slur directed at NBA player Jeremy Lin.

Federico’s life has taken an abrupt turn in the ensuing seven years. In June, he was ordained as a Catholic priest and assigned to a parish in Cheshire, Conn., just 15 miles from Bristol.

Seven years removed from the incident, Federico said memories from that night still hurt on occasion.

“But I’m free now,” he said. “I feel great healing and closure. I don’t have any ill will toward anyone in that time of my life.”

I reached out to Federico last week to find out how he moved from the worst night of his life to the priesthood.

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Federico was 28 years old on Feb. 17, 2012, working the night shift as the content editor for the mobile web. That meant that he wrote headlines and chose the editorial direction for the site.

That night, the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks lost to the New Orleans Hornets, ending a seven-game winning streak, and Lin did not play well. Around 2:30 a.m. ET, Federico decided to lead the site with a column that focused on how Lin played poorly for the first time as a starter.

“I tried to think of a headline that would go with that story — something that would reflect his first display of weakness since his incredible winning streak,” he said via a phone interview last week. “I wrote the headline ‘Chink in the Armor’ to describe Jeremy Lin’s first display of weakness as a starter.”

Federico: “I started to realize that I was hungry for something more in life … something that would have a more lasting impact on the world.”
Photo: courtesy of anthony federico

Within a half hour, the headline started going viral on social media — and not in a good way. Most commenters considered the headline to be offensive given that it was directed at Lin, who is of Chinese descent.

When he saw how his headline was being interpreted, Federico was filled with such dread that he went to the bathroom and threw up, he said.

Even though it was 3:30 a.m., he drove to his parents’ nearby house and woke them up to explain what had happened. They were hopeful it would blow over.

It didn’t. 

“The next couple of days were the darkest, worst days of my life,” he said. “My name and address got leaked to the media. The vans started showing up. Reporters and photographers were following me and my parents around.”

A few days later, ESPN fired him. At just 28 years old, Federico’s budding sports media career was in tatters, replaced by paparazzi and public humiliation.

“Very dark. Very depressed. The worst month of my life,” he said.

About a month after leaving ESPN, though, he picked up a job at a Stamford, Conn., sports media company called LiveClips. Around the same time, he met Lin for lunch in New York City.

“I think this was his way of trying to show me that he didn’t think there was any malicious intent behind the headline,” he said.

Federico’s new job was more focused on business than editorial. That meant he kept more regular hours than the overnight shift.

During his lunch hour, he strolled around downtown Stamford, a walk that would take him by St. John the Evangelist Basilica, which had a daily noon Mass. Federico described his upbringing as more of a cultural Catholic than a practicing one — so much so that he didn’t realize that Catholic Mass is celebrated every day.

“On the first day, I walked past it and thought it looked cool,” Federico said. “On the second day, I walked past it again. Then — how biblical — on the third day, I decided to go in and see for myself what’s going on.”

Federico was ordained a Catholic priest in June.
Photo: archdiocese of hartford

Federico felt so moved by the experience that attending the noon Mass became part of his daily routine. He started bringing curious co-workers with him — most of whom were not Catholic — and they went out afterward to talk about the Mass and Catholicism. He would go home to learn about Catholic teachings so that he could explain some of the Mass’ rituals to his co-workers.

After a year and a half, he felt an intense calling to become a priest. 

“I started to realize that I was hungry for something more in life — something different than sports media, something that would have a more lasting impact on the world,” he said.

He Googled “How do you become a Catholic priest” and ended up talking to the vocations director in the Hartford archdiocese who helped him through the process.

Still torn and terrified over the prospect of not dating anymore or not raising a family of his own, he leaned on advice from his mother. “You feel afraid to go into the seminary? Do it afraid,” she said. “Go face your fears because you’ll always wonder what might have been if you didn’t at least give this a chance.”

He ended up at a seminary in Washington, D.C., on Catholic University’s campus.

“I thought that I would go to seminary for one semester and I would probably hate it, and I would leave,” he said. “But I ended up being in seminary for six years.”

He’s thought a lot about how the Jeremy Lin incident affected his decision to become a priest.

“Something tells me that this was always the path that I’d been called to,” he said. “This was the way God used to get my attention — his plan for my life.”

First Look podcast, with more discussion on this column, at the 15:50 mark:

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.