Jeremy Lin: Anatomy of a Sports Star and Cultural Sensation

March 7, 2012

When I did a online search of Jeremy Lin this morning, many of the headlines that popped up were pronouncing an end to the so-called "Linsanity" - that would be the media and cultural frenzy set off by the NY Knicks point guard and his outstanding performance.

Lin is the basketball player who allegedly came out of nowhere to help ramp up the Knicks' season. But beyond the team's future, pundits and fans alike have seized on his accomplishments to ask questions about diversity in sports, how Asians and Asian-Americans are represented (or not) in popular culture and more.

Lin may not keep racking up points, but I doubt the media interest in him is going away - another recent headline promised to reveal "What Jeremy Lin can teach us about dating."

Yeesh. Whether you're into sports or not, you've likely caught wind of this story. The folks over at the Illinois Humanities Council certainly have. They've commissioned a number of people - from the arts, media and academia - to write out their thoughts on the cultural swirl around Lin. I'm going to feature some of their posts in this here blog over the next few days.

Of course you're invited to join the conversation as well. You can weigh in below with your reaction. And why not meet up with the IHC crew at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum next Monday evening for the conversation Linsanity: What's Beyond the Hype?

 

The "Feel-Good" Story in the Racial Frame: Jeremy Lin and the Same Politics of Race, by David Stovall.

Before any type of “deep” analysis on the recent rise of Jeremy Lin in the National Basketball Association (NBA), it’s important to state the facts:  In 2006 Jeremy Lin was Northern California’s Player of the Year in Basketball at Palo Alto High. His hometown university of Stanford wouldn’t offer him a four-year scholarship and instead offered him the opportunity to play basketball as a walk-on. Coach Dawkin’s former backcourt running mate at Duke (Tommy Amaker) decided to take a chance on Lin at Harvard.

In 2010 he graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. Fast-forward six years and you have all the makings for a made-for-TV movie. Lin goes undrafted in the first two rounds of the 2010 draft despite numerous inquiries on his ability to play the point-guard position by NBA scouts, his All-Ivy selection and him being in the top three in assists in the country. His hometown team (the Golden State Warriors) takes him as an undrafted free agent, and he makes the roster. He sees limited playing time as a rookie, gets cut, gets picked up by Houston, gets cut, goes to the NBA developmental league, gets picked up by the Knicks on a 10-day, sleeps on his brother's couch for a couple of days, surfs to another teammate's house for a spot on the couch, and leads the Knicks on a 8-0 winning streak in the process.  I know … who’d a thunk it? All of this is great for the ESPN documentary, but it’s also absent many of the racial realities of the day. Despite the fallacy of a post-racial society, we still try to obfuscate the realities of race. Without question, Lin is a great talent who deserves to be on the court.  Simultaneously our “oddity” addiction in the U.S. could easily make Lin a caricature of himself. With all of the new monikers that roll off the tongue (“Linsanity,” “Linpossible,” etc.), we have to grapple with the fact that Lin’s individual journey takes place in a social, political and economic context.

Part of that context is the fact that the American mainstream media has an extremely limited number of themes in its repetoire: tragedy/disaster, triumph, scandal or oddity. Commentary with any type of critical analysis is relegated to the fringes as we become engulfed by Lin’s feel-good story of triumph.  Never to discount his struggles, but Lin would have been all right without the NBA.  An econ degree from Harvard goes a long way.

In this moment of economic crisis, a 24-hour news cycle and an onslaught of “reality” television, Lin’s story has the perfect arc. However, what we rarely acknowledge is that his triumph narrative continues to maintain hegemony: We’re willing to feel good about Lin to the extent that he doesn’t make waves. As soon as he says something about the Chinese occupation of Taiwan or the continual exploitation of the Chinese government and its tenuous relationship with the U.S. in a race to see who can exploit the most, the Lin experiment will end abruptly. Lin will be instantly transformed into the radical who needs to keep his mouth shut and concentrate on the Knicks winning games. That’s good ol’ sports in the U.S.: As soon as any consciousness comes into play, we question the character of the athlete. While we don’t know where Lin’s journey will end as an NBA point guard, let’s be clear: ain’t nothing post-racial about it.    

 

Dave Stovall is an Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also teaches an urban sociology class at the Lawndale Little Village School for Social Justice.