It’s Linsanity

Matthew Salesses talks of Jeremy Lin and ESPN’s racist “Chink in the Armor” Headline

Yesterday, after the New York Knicks lost their first game since Jeremy Lin entered the starting line-up, ESPN posted the headline “Chink in the Armor” underneath a picture of Lin, on the front page of their website. And I told myself I wasn’t going to write anything about Linsanity.

Earlier in the day, I’d read an article that mentioned it might be a good idea for sportscasters not to use that exact phrase when referring to Lin. There was even a slip on live TV, though this is difficult to blame on the network/media giant itself, since it is one person with no editor to approve what he was saying on behalf of a company that sets the news for millions of people.

Posting this phrase as a headline, on its own, with no context, under a photo of a Taiwanese American player, is so offensive I don’t even know where to start.


Racism in this country has long been spoken of in terms of black and white, with occasional mention of Hispanics. Once a week, I attend a seminar at Harvard on “Inequality.” I can’t remember a time when Asians even entered into these presentations, though you would be very hard-pressed to find a single Asian American who hasn’t been a victim of racism (see here). Racism toward Asians has always been more tolerated, if not ignored completely, by academia and by everyday society. Today, if you bring up this headline or hear people talking about it, you might hear an explanation of why it is so offensive that goes something like this: what if ESPN ran the headline “Call a Spade a Spade” after Lebron James had a bad playoff series? But the real tragedy here is that in order to get it through people’s heads that the “Chink” headline is racist, even Asians will be framing it in terms of black and white. This is how it is.

The reason I haven’t wanted to write about Lin is because I played basketball for a long time and have watched way too much basketball on TV (my wife can attest), and I find it impossible not to point out his many flaws. It’s amazing to me that analysts are for the most part ignoring, or even making excuses for, his weaknesses, though hype seems the main part of sports analysis these days. The truth is, Jeremy Lin can’t go left, makes bad decisions when he thinks too much, seems to play even more recklessly (though somehow also effectively) when he starts operating on instinct later in games, is awkward and underly athletic compared to the players he faces, and forces shots. He had 9 turnovers last night. The biggest thing Lin has going for him (and this is huge) is that he knows all of this. He seems to understand exactly what he is good at—getting a shot in the lane or drawing a foul, playing the pick and roll, hitting down an open mid-range jump shot, going right—and will do whatever it takes to get himself into the positions that work for him, even if getting there looks ugly and sometimes results in a turnover. Not to get too far into basketball talk, but for the people comparing him to Steve Nash and John Stockton, he is not. The best comparison I’ve seen so far is to a young Sam Cassel, though Lin is not as quick. The real comparison is to Tyler Hansbrough, whom I watched at UNC get into the position he liked over and over, make a terrible move, look like he would never be able to score, and then complete an awkward basket. He succeeded on willpower and, basically, stubbornness. This is what I see when I watch Jeremy Lin. Limited moves, limited athletic ability, unlimited competitive spirit. Combine this with a weak Knicks team (at least positionally) that is asking him to do far too much, and the result is over 20 points a game but also over 7 turnovers.


So why are we all so in love with Lin? A. He “came out of nowhere.” B. He’s winning against all odds. C. He’s Asian. D. He’s doing this in basketball’s mecca, Madison Square Garden. Take away all but B. and you have Tim Tebow. Take away D. and Lin would be far less of a deal outside of the Asian community. A. and C. I would argue, as others have, are very hard to separate. Some coaches, in referring to why they passed on Lin, said they “didn’t have a frame of reference” for him, which I think we can assume means he was Asian and they couldn’t see an Asian basketball player succeeding unless he was over 7 foot (Yao Ming). There are plenty of frames of reference for Lin—they simply aren’t Asian American. The frames of reference for Asian Americans in sports are exactly what produced a headline like “Chink in the Armor,” a headline ESPN has already been criticized for using before in reference to a game between the US and China national teams.


About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.


  1. ESPN perhaps just assumes Asians are too busy studying math, playing chess and practicing violin solos to follow basketball? Cause that’s what Asians in the US do, right? Yeah, racism is racism…

    Glad they got fired. If it wasn’t deliberate (hard to believe) then obviously the author (and editors) don’t know enough English to qualify to be journalists.

  2. I’m not sterotyping here! I’m just going by my experience with Asian American friends of mine throughout the years. My friends are American born and as American as me. Their parents are immigrants and there are strong cultural ties When it comes to their Parents, even in “middle age”(my friends ,that is) they show a respect that I truly admire. Besides, if I’m so wrong, where is the “mass outrage”? Can you Imaginemattew, if ESPN had publiished a “Spade is a Spade” headline? Rev. Al would have 5 or 6 buses of people protesting in Bristol as we speak!

    • Matthew Salesses says:

      Even “positive” stereotypes are racist. Knowing a few Asian people who exhibit (a) quality, does not mean that ASIANS are (a). It’s the idea that people look at an Asian person and think, he must be like that, where the same person would know better when it came to other races, that is the kind of difference in racism that I’m talking about. Saying something like, “I admire Asians because they’re so respectful,” or, as I’ve heard many times, “Asians are good at math,” is racist. It just is. Accepting one stereotype leads to accepting others, and letting people accept one stereotype leads to them believing it is okay to use others.

    • It’s interesting that you call it “respect.” Racism deserves no “respect” whatsoever. Admiring Asians for their “respectfulness” is like admiring women for their “obedience.”

  3. Matthew Salesses says:
  4. Yeah, no doubt it was intentional. When you earn a college degree in Journalism or Communications and words are how you make a living, you don’t unintentionally use such a pharse. The thing is , Asians don’t fight back. It’s not in their culture and there quiet respectfulness is mistaken for weakness by this loud, bravado filled culture of ours. the only reason you don’t see slurs against Blacks or hispanics is fear of reprisial. Even Arabs and Muslims were “Fair game” for a while until they fought back. Now all of a sudden “Enlightened people” everywhere are “Sensitive ” toward them.

    • “Yeah, no doubt it was intentional”

      Doubtful on the part of a publicly traded media company like ABC. Just not the way business works. Terrible judgement for sure, though.

      Also, there are over 2 billion Asians. Hence, saying of all 2.2 billion that “they don’t fight back” is a an untrue stereotype and may be just as offensive as the headline you are criticizing, even if that was not your intent.

      Something to think about.

      • Matthew Salesses says:

        Yes, I would say this kind of stereotype is part of the problem and another example of how racism towards Asians is not considered racism at all. Stereotyping a person or people by race is racism.

  5. I agree with everything here, although I know too little about basketball history to comment on that part.

    The one point I want to add about Lin’s popularity is the Nerd factor.

    Whether one applied to, much less attended a prestigious college is irrelevant, if one attended high school in the US, one has witnessed the Nerd ghetto, and I think Jeremy Lin has the Hermione Grainger (sp? sorry) fans all rooting for him…

    I do think one or two people, at least, at ESPN should be fired or demoted.

  6. So, of he was white or black would it have been intentionally racist? My money is on it being a blunder rather than an intentional attempt to lower revenue by purposely offending it’s customer base.

    • Matthew Salesses says:

      Count the number of puns used in headlines these days, especially sports headlines. (Think: Linsanity.) If Lin was white or black, the headline wouldn’t have been “Chink in the Armor.” It would have been something else entirely.

      • “If Lin was white or black, the headline wouldn’t have been “Chink in the Armor.” It would have been something else entirely.”

        How do you know? That would mean that the term is only used in reference to Asians, never in reference to non-Asians. Ever. Do you know that to be an absolute fact?

        Why would ABC, a publicly traded company, intentionally alienize many of its viewers, thereby lowering its revenue?

        • Matthew Salesses says:

          What, in the last 10-20 years of corporate America (see: housing market/Wall St), would indicate that corporations have their customers in mind when they do anything?

  7. What? Damn that’s low.

    Its low because of the fact that such a word is offensive to Asian people probably didn’t even register with them as being f’d up. The person that make that remark would have probably said the same thing about any other NBA player under the sun who was a sudden rising star that dropped the ball so to speak.

    Folks got start thinking about that stuff.

    • Matthew Salesses says:

      I don’t think whoever wrote this was in the dark about its meaning.

      • Possibly. However at the same time I do think that when it comes to writing that the rush to chime off a smart remark about an athlete’s performance its possible that the person that ran this honestly didn’t even consider the racist implications of it. I can totally see this remark being used about any rising or current star player on any team that slipped up in the slightest. Its just that they didn’t think about the fact that the athlete they were talking about this time was Asian.

        That being said what they did was racist and f’d up and they shouldn’t get a pass on a count of “not thinking about it”. I just don’t want to go jamming intent down someone’s throat (especially considering how much people claim it supposedly doesn’t matter).

        • Matthew Salesses says:

          My problem with that is twofold. 1. When you write something, you think more about what you are writing than you might think about what you are saying. These articles are not (usually) dashed off in a draft. 2. This made it past, or was made up by, an editor who represents ESPN and whose job it is to catch these things.

          • Well I’ll say this.

            Regardless of whether one thinks it was intentional and regardless of whether it was intentional we agree it was racist and wrong of them to do.

  8. Chink is definitely derogatory and that was deliberate in the headline. Asians tend to fall on the side of introverts and dislike confrontations…but what was ESPN thinking??? What a racist network. If it had said Nigger…that writer would have to watch his back…but most basketball players are black, so would never happen. ESPN needs to post an apology! APOLOGY, apology, apology!!!

    • Matthew Salesses says:

      They did actually apologize:
      But for sure this is deliberate. There’s no way you write this headline and not know what it means. And then for it to be approved by an editor–it’s like sanctioned racism.

      • From that link:
        “To be sure, the headline is a double entendre. “Chink in the armor” is a perfectly legitimate term to express vulnerability. But when you use the term to refer to someone of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, it takes on a whole new meaning.”

        A legitimate term? You gotta be kidding me. Here, double entendre means double the racism:

        1) Chink is derogatory/racist
        2) to say it expresses vulnerability is stereotyping Asians as weak, regardless the race of the person to whom it refers to; it is an oppressive expression

        Replace the expression with “White Trash in the Armor”, would ESPN get away with that? Or Nigger in the Armor? or any number of other racist terms. Would we see that as harmless and appropriate?

        Asians don’t complain or protest much (usually because we know people come from a place of IGNORANCE and best thing to do is to ignore them), don’t mistake that for weakness — nor does that give people permission to attack a minority group.

        • I 100%, completely agree that in this context, as used, it was a racist and unacceptable use of the word “chink” and the phrase “chink in the armor”.

          However, both the word and the phrase *are* non-racist when used other ways. The word chink has long meant, and still means, “a crack, cleft, or fissure”. The phrase “a chink in the armor” has long meant, and still means, a crack or weakness in one’s armor, either literally or figuratively. It is not, in regular usage, a racist phrase. The ESPN headline was clearly not regular usage, and and intended to evoke the racial slur that “chink” also happens to be. To say the word and phrase are always racial slurs is sort of like saying the word niggardly is a racial slur, when it’s got nothing to do with the slur it sounds like. In both cases, however, it’s perhaps prudent to avoid words or phrases that could easily be mistaken for slurs, even if the dictionaries back you up.

          I think the apology came close but bounced of the rim. The phrase is a legitimate and not inherently racist, but the only double entendre possible was the racist one, so they shouldn’t be dodging accountability because the player happened to be of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. Without that, the headline wouldn’t fit at all, and there’d be no double entendre, so the only reason for that choice of phrase was a racist one. That’s what they should be apologizing for, not some accidental double meaning that innocently slipped through while the good folks at ESPN were busy not noticing that Lin is Asian.

    • Asians tend to fall on the side of introverts and dislike confrontations…
      unbelievable, your mind is a hive of weird thoughts

    • “Asians tend to fall on the side of introverts and dislike confrontations.”

      Seriously? Do you actually know any Asians? What if you had said “Blacks tend to fall on the side of extroverts and always pursue confrontations?” You’re as bad as the people at ESPN, you just don’t have a tv network as a platform.


  1. […] for Lin or at least were caught up in the narrative. Then the first loss came, and with it the Chink headline and lower TV ratings, and finally, injury, and Lin was out of the news cycle. Sports media shifted […]

  2. […] he is. They mention that he is humble. When I wrote about the “Chink in the Armor” headline for the Good Men Project, a commenter responded by pointing to Asian Americans being too respectful to speak up against […]

  3. […] They mention that he went to Harvard, how smart he is. They mention that he is humble. When I wrote about the “Chink in the Armor” headline here, a commenter responded by pointing to Asian Americans […]

  4. […] he is. They mention that he is humble. When I wrote about the “Chink in the Armor” headline for the Good Men Project, a commenter responded by pointing to Asian Americans being too respectful to speak up against […]

  5. […] Racism in this country has long been spoken of in terms of black and white, with occasional mention …, but “Linsanity” has brought the topic of racism toward Asian Americans into the spotlight.  During AASU’s Asian American Sexuality Workshop last year, the APAs in my group discussed how we hated walking down State Street on a weekend night because someone, almost without fail, would say a racist comment. […]

  6. […] ESPN’s mobile site ran a headline that said “Chink in the Armor” about a less than stellar performance by the rising […]

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