Your humble blogger has, on occasion, opined about the intersection of sports and politics. This topic is both tempting and treacherous. Tempting, because a lot more people pay attention to sports than world politics, and so it's a way for the pundit to A) show how "in touch" s/he is with the mass p;ublic; and B) use the sporting moment-du-jour as a metaphor to make a point that was already in the pundit's back pocket. This is why most of my writings on this topic have been either to debunk the notion that sports really affects world politics, or just as another excuse to mock the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community.
Which brings me to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. In a month Lin has gone from being demoted to the development league to leading the Knicks to a globally televised victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. It's a great story: undrafted , devout Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate bucking the odds -- as well as numerous outdated stereotypes -- to seize his moment in the sun and turn what had been a lackluster Knicks
decade season into something exciting.
This is a narrative that one simply has to enjoy. Professional basketball is, at best, my third-favorite sport, but I tuned in yesterday to watch the Kincks-Mavericks game. Unfortunately, I've noticed that some ink has been spilled and some keyboards have been tapped about him -- and here we get to the treacherous part of this post. Some sportswriters have used the opportunity to wax grandiosely about the Deeper Meaning of Linsanity. Some politics commentators have tried to use Lin to make deeper arguments about the fabric of society and sports.
Let's be blunt -- most of these efforts result in utter crap. Unfortunately, too many sportswriters know too little about the rest of the world to even try to comment on the social or cultural significance of Lin. Numerous idiots have not helped the sportswriting profession by writing things that result in apologies from said idiots for stereotyping Lin and amusing Saturday Night Live skits. We're not seeing the second coming of Red Smith in most of this output. As for the politics writers, well, the lack of actual sports knowledge in some of these efforts makes one almost nostalgic for George F. Will's Sports Machine. Almost.
So I was all set to blog a request for everyone to leave Jeremy Lin and his family alone... but then Gady Epstein wrote something interesting about the whole phenomenon over at the Economist about China's reaction to Lin and why their own sports programs could never have produced someone like him:
Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.” Even when Mr Lin was still a young boy, one look at his parents, each of unremarkable stature, would have made evaluators sceptical. Ms Beech’s other half happens to be Brook Larmer, the author of the fascinating book “Operation Yao Ming”, which details how Chinese authorities contrived to create China’s most successful basketball star, Mr Yao, the product of tall parents who were themselves Chinese national basketball team players. The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.
What of Mr Lin’s faith? If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so. China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sports model. One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.
Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. (One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal). Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.
In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.
So China almost certainly has other potential Jeremy Lins out there, but there is no path for them to follow. This also helps explain, as we have noted at length,why China fails at another sport it loves, football. Granted, Mr Lin’s own path to stardom is in itself unprecedented, but in America, the unprecedented is possible. Chinese basketball fans have taken note of this. Mr Lin’s story may be a great and inspiring proof of athleticism to the Chinese people, but it is also unavoidably a story of American soft power.
Epstein is overreaching juuuust a bit with that closing -- if Lin is an example of American soft power, then all the galactically stupid puns and stereotypes that the Lin story has propagated is a demerit to that soft power as well. Also, last I checked, the countries that dominate the top of the FIFA rankings are not exactly models of laissez-faire in sports.
Still, Epstein has probably done the best possible job of trying to relate Lin to Deeper Global Meanings. Let's hope the rest of the writing class reads him and gives up their own futile quest to do the same.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.