Sidelined: Jeremy Lin and How Race Keeps Players Out of the Game Sidelined: Jeremy Lin and How Race Keeps Players Out of the Game

Sidelined: Jeremy Lin and How Race Keeps Players Out of the Game

by Cord Jefferson

February 13, 2012

When Jeremy Lin put up 28 points and eight assists in his first career start for the New York Knicks on Monday, he knocked the world of NBA basketball off its Jordans. Lin's performance wasn't remarkable just because of its excellence—not in 30 years had any first-timer gotten as many points and assists—but also because it came from someone so remarkably unassuming.

These numbers were certainly no accident. What happens in the NFL is the same thing that was happening in professional baseball: Black players are put in positions where strength and speed are revered (linebacker), while whites dominate positions of leadership and intelligence (quarterback). In the infamous 1987 words of Al Campanis, a former player, scout, and general manager in the MLB, the reason you don't see blacks in leadership and management positions in sports is because they "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager." He went on to say that the reason blacks aren't good at swimming is because they don't have the same buoyancy as whites. Ultimately, Campanis resigned from baseball two days after letting his bigotry show, but the beliefs he held still linger.

There are indeed structural variances between black bodies, white bodies, Asian bodies, and Latino bodies. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in the New Yorker in 1997, "Black men have slightly higher circulating levels of testosterone and human-growth hormone than their white counterparts, and blacks overall tend to have proportionally slimmer hips, wider shoulders, and longer legs." It's undisputed that there are differences. What is disputed is to what those differences amount. Is the key to NFL disparities that a white kid with wider hips and narrower shoulders can never be as good a football player as a black kid? Or is the important difference that a high school football coach, ingrained to believe that a white player can't be a linebacker, chooses to build and hone that white player's skills as a quarterback instead?

Even after thousands of years, human beings still haven't been able to reach a consensus about nature versus nurture when it comes to general success. Expecting us to reach that consensus in the NFL, NBA, or MLB anytime soon would be foolish. Until then, sports fans everywhere will have to wonder how many passed-over Jeremy Lins there are in the world—talented quarterbacks or point guards sitting on benches, waiting for the day their white teammate or black teammate gets hurt, so they can finally prove their worth.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ecov ottos

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Sidelined: Jeremy Lin and How Race Keeps Players Out of the Game