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

The New York Knicks' latest phenom could possibly have been an all-star years ago. Did his ethnicity hold him back?

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.

In the months and years prior to his big debut, Lin, who graduated from Harvard in 2010, was ignored by the professional basketball draft, cut from two teams, and—the final blow—sent down to the NBA's development program, where he was left to languish. After having a stellar game in the minors, Lin was called back up to the Knicks, where a series of unfortunate variables—a death in Amar'e Stoudemire's family, a Carmelo Anthony injury—took him from benchwarmer to starter overnight. So mercurial was Lin's career, in fact, that he'd never even bothered to find himself a permanent home, preferring instead to crash on his grad student older brother's couch in Manhattan. This week he's finally decided to find his own place.

There are a lot of reasons coaches and teams might undervalue a player like Lin. At 6'3'' and 200 pounds, he's big for a man, but small for an NBA player, who tend to be about 6'7'' on average. Lin's small stature is coupled by a diminutive personality: He's soft-spoken, possessed of a down-home humility, and very, very Christian. He says he might want to be a pastor one day after he's done with basketball. This is not the kind of man one envisions throwing elbows in the rough-and-tumble world of professional sports. Oh, and there's one other thing: Jeremy Lin is Asian—Taiwanese American, to be exact. And save for Yao Ming, Asians don't play basketball...right?

It's something a lot of news outlets seem content to pussyfoot around—you won't find the word "racism" in the New York Times' writeup of Lin, or New York magazine's—but it's an Asian elephant in the room Lin himself isn't afraid to acknowledge. Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, Lin said he believed his race was definitely a factor in his not being offered a Division I scholarship to college despite an award-winning career in California's high school basketball ranks. "I'm not saying top-5 state automatically gets you offers," he said, "but I do think (my ethnicity) did affect the way coaches recruited me. I think if I were a different race, I would've been treated differently."

Say that sports in America are racially biased and you're likely to be balked at by every red-blooded fan from coast to coast. "There are minorities all over professional sports," they'd probably say. "How can sports be biased?" The widely held notion is that professional athletics is a meritocracy, a place where talent, and only talent, catalyzes a person's ascent. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story.

As early as 1970, when an article called "Racial Segregation in American Sport" popped up in the International Review of Sport Sociology, we've known about what's called "racial stacking" in professional sports. That year, sociologists J.F. McElvogue and J.W. Loy found that black players composed a fraction of Major League Baseball's infield players, but made up about 50 percent of the outfielders. The theory reserved for explaining these disparities is that assumptions about what specific races are good at guides coaches' and managers' hands, leading them to believe that one race is simply "better" for certain positions. For instance, the baseball positions of pitcher and catcher require intelligence and speedy thinking, and thus those spots are reserved for whites. Outfielders, on the other hand, need to be powerfully quick, fast, and, on occasion, able to jump high. These positions are for blacks.

The racial stacking problem is more significant in the NFL, where the player population is nearly 70 percent black, according to a 2007 study. Despite being the clear majority on the field, black players are not at all distributed evenly, thereby making them a distinct minority in some positions. In a 2008 bit of data plumbing, the Minneapolis City Pages discovered that, save for a few spots, the racial makeup of football positions is staggeringly segregated. Eighty-one percent of starting NFL quarterbacks were white, while 92 percent of wide receivers were black. In the case of starting running backs, a full 100 percent were black, and in the case of place kickers, a full 100 percent were white. Punters were also almost all white, while defensive backs were almost all black.

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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