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.