Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Lincredible Return of the Great (Non-Black) Hope

A disease has swept the nation. Get out of your underground shelters, it's not smallpox. This disease is called Linsanity and no amount of hand washing or quarantine can save us from this pervasive bug.

Jeremy Lin continued his Linsational rise to the top of American sports stardom with a "lackluster" 10 point, 5 rebound, and a career high 13 assists as the New York Knicks beat the Sacramento Kings 100-85 to notch their 7th straight win. Thus far, Lin has scored 118 points in his first 7 NBA starts. That is the most points by any player in NBA history since the ABA and NBA merged in 1976-77.

Undoubtedly, the Lintensity with which fans and the media have embraced Jeremy's story has a lot to do with the American fascination with the underdog. Here is Lin, an exceptional basketball player from Southern California who was nevertheless not seriously recruited by ANY basketball programs in the nation. Pac-10 schools wanted him to walk on. Only Harvard and Brown would guarantee Lin a place on their basketball teams. Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships. Lin ended up at his fallback school, Harvard where, during his junior year, he became the only Division I men's basketball player who ranked in the Top 10 in his conference in 8 separate categories. Lin was a 1st Team All Ivy League performer during his senior year. He graduated from Harvard with a 3.1 GPA in Economics. 

Lin went undrafted before being signed to a 2-year deal with his hometown Golden State Warriors. He was cut in December of 2010 but was claimed off of waivers by the Houston Rockets. Lin played 7-minutes in two preseason games before being waived on Christmas eve to make room for center Samuel Dalembert. The Knicks didn't recognize it at the time but they got a late Christmas present when they claimed Lin off of waivers on December 27th. A couple of injuries and 7 extraordinary performances later, a Linderella story has engulfed the nation.

Okay, enough with the Linguistics, I promise.

Many prognosticators have displayed their total lack of creativity by reaching for the obvious comparison to Broncos "quarterback" Tim Tebow. Both men are smart, humble, and portray the "good guy" persona. Tebow likes to circumcise Asian boys during the off-season and Jeremy Lin has an Asian penis. However, that is where the similarities end. Tebow was one of the most highly recruited athletes in the nation coming out of high school. He went on to a prestigious All-American collegiate career at the University of Florida where he won a Heisman Trophy (he almost won two), a National Championship, and is widely considered to be the best collegiate football player in history. 

A better comparison might be to soon-to-be Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. Warner went undrafted out of Northern Iowa (same as Lin), played in the Arena Football League (Lin played in the NBA D-League), bagged groceries, and slept on couches (Lin slept on his brother's couch until his contract became guaranteed) before finally getting his chance when incumbent quarterback Trent Green went down to injury (same as Lin). Another good, local comparison would be Super Bowl Champion and Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Victor Cruz of the New York Giants, who went undrafted out of Massachusetts before springing from the head of Zeus to amass 82 receptions, 1536 yards, and 9 touchdowns in a season that no one, not even Cruz, predicted.

While the story of Jeremy Lin is a great one, his emergence on the grand stage raises questions about race and race relations in America, especially in American sports. Lin's rise to stardom has intentionally or unintentionally made us address our deep-seeded stereotypes about American athletes, especially the black male athlete.

On February 8th, 2012, Forbes Magazine, Yahoo, and Fox Sports released their list of the Top 10 Most Hated Athletes. 8 of the 10 athletes listed are African-American or Latino (Kurt Busch and Chris Humphries also made the list; I guess to add diversity). This begs the question, are there more African-Americans on this list due to the over exposure of mainstream society to the black athlete or is this a sign of hatred and fear surrounding the black and brown male body due to nearly 500 years of white supremacy ideology? The easy way out would be to say that there is a lot of gray area in my supposition. The hard thing to do would be to take a critical look at what we PERSONALLY think of and how we PERSONALLY feel about black and brown men in our lives.

Furthermore, on the February 15th edition of SportsNation on ESPN (one of my favorite shows because Michelle Beadle is smokin'!), co-host Colin Cowherd lauded both Lin and Tebow for being humble, hard-working good guys that say all the right things to the media. Maybe Colin had a lapse in memory but I believe you could also apply the same "good guy" label to athletes such as Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, Andre Iguodala, Brandon Phillips, Mark Sanchez, Tony Gonzalez and a host of other black and brown athletes. I'm not going to sit here and paint Colin Cowherd as a racist because I don't know him to be such. However, I think that he and many other Americans consciously or unconsciously view black and brown males as dangerous while non-black and non-brown men are viewed as safe. Stereotypes such as this might be part of the reason that the O.J. Simpson trials of the early 90's solicited the rancor of many whites (while putting blacks on the defensive) while the heinous crimes perpetuated by men such as Drew Peterson elicited a comparatively soft response.

(In all fairness, the ire that the O.J. Simpson trial elicited had a great deal to do with his wealth, stardom, and the tremendous trust that many people placed in O.J. due to the perception that they garnered of him on television shows and in commercials.)

There are more stereotypes at play other than the view of black and brown men as being dangerous and "not good guys". There is also the stereotype of the unathletic, nerdy Asian male. The fact than Lin attended Harvard and majored in Economics fits in well with our Western view of the overachieving Asian male. When you throw athletic prowess into the equation, the subject becomes a novelty and a freak show. This is not unlike the novelty that President Barack Obama elicited when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in route to the White House. For many Americans, a (half) black, clean-cut, Harvard educated man who is a great father and has good credit went against their previous view of the African-American male as being an uneducated, unemployed thug. 

How can you blame folks for holding these views? Every night on the news we are bombarded with images of licentious behavior by black and brown men. It is a very rare occasion indeed when the scholastic or civic contributions of these same groups are given more than a cursory mention. Now, think of the images that we see of non-black and non-brown men in the news and media. If your only connection with other cultures comes through the nightly news, you would think that every major discovery since the Council of Nicaea was made by white men with a few Asians sprinkled in. Black and brown men are portrayed as destroyers while non-black and non-brown men are portrayed as builders and saviors. 

The fact of the matter is that there have been many prominent Asian-American athletes prior to Lin. Some of these include soccer player Brian Ching, NFL players Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu, tennis player Brian Chang and...hold your breath...Tiger Woods. There are a couple of issues at play with these athletes. Firstly, 2 of the 5 athletes listed above have African-American fathers. The once official and now unofficial rule is that one drop of "Negro" blood makes one inextricably black, no matter what the other constituent parts are. Secondly, whether we care to admit it or not, Americans view academics and technology as the purview of Asian men while the court (the athletic ones as well as the legal ones) are viewed as the natural environment of black and brown men. Judging by the outpouring of support for Lin from the Asian community here in America and across the world, it might be safe to say that many people of Asian descent also hold these stereotypes about their group and other groups.

Look, I'm not trying to sit here and make a feel good story into a race issue but we can not continue to ignore the elephant in the room - that race still matters in our society no matter how many times the Liberals claim that we live in a post-racial society. It's not fair to Jeremy Lin that his hard work, dedication, and resolve never to give up on his dreams has been sensationalized due in large part to his ethnicity. 

As the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad press but this is not wholly true. Press can be bad when it covertly perpetuates generalizations and stereotypes that chip away at the foundation of our society rather than edifying it. Modern sports is one of the greatest examples of a true meritocracy in the world today. We should admire Jeremy Lin's story because it proves that, if you look for knowledge, skills, and abilities independent of what a person looks like, you might discover a diamond in the rough.

They understand this in sports (an imperfect understanding but understanding nonetheless). It's time that the rest of us catch up.

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