While basketball pundits are analyzing what characteristics made Jeremy Lin a sleeper N.B.A. player, perhaps it is just as interesting to understand what makes Lin an international media figure. One simple answer to Lin’s popularity is his “rags-to-riches” story, where an underdog fought against the odds at every level until he reached the highest plane of competition. However, there’s more to Lin’s story than meets the eye.
To understand more about the Lin-centric media frenzy I reached out to a stereotype scholar (who also happens to be my wife) Dr. Anastacia Kurylo. She affirms that Lin’s extreme popularity is a product of race. A recent study by the National Basketball Association showed that 82% of its players are black, which makes them the “ingroup” representing the majority group. Once a population has ingroup status, all other people who are not members of that group are viewed as part of the “outgroup” and perceived as inferior. People associate positive attributes to ingroup members, which means in this case black basketball players are characterized as being exceptional athletes.
Dr. Kurylo asserts Lin’s Asian heritage meant that in the realm of basketball he was in the outgroup. Stereotypes against Asians subjected Lin to ingroup bias that allowed others to overlook him due to favoritism towards the ingroup, despite Lin’s ability. This would explain why he was disregarded by college and professional scouts despite his success at every level of competition.
The most common stereotypes of Asians in America portray them as intelligent but short and unathletic. Since basketball is a sport that favors taller players, these stereotypes of Asians make them appear to be ill-suited for hoops. These views exist despite the numerous successful Asian athletes. More shockingly though, even when Asian athletes achieve at a high level it reinforces the bias. So 10 time M.L.B. All Star Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, 3 time Olympic gold medalist Chinese gymnast Yang Wei, and Korean born 4 time N.F.L. Pro Bowler Hines Ward are treated as rarities that succeed despite the odds being against them. In this way, they are treated as the exceptions that prove that the stereotypes are true for all but the most extraordinary outgroup members.
Instead of showing that the outgroup and ingroup can share the same characteristics, Asian born N.B.A. players like Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, and Yi Jianlian further fuel Asian stereotypes. All three are at least 7 feet tall, which is unusual for any racial group. Yet, their success bolsters the perception that only the anomalies of the outgroup can succeed while the average members of the group would be unable to perform as well as ingroup members. Even their success, however, confirms the stereotype as they are labelled “skilled” players instead of “athletic” players, which plays into the intelligent and unathletic stereotypes of Asians.
Once Lin had a chance to prove himself capable at the N.B.A. level, he became the “model minority” where his achievement was now consistent with the majority of professional basketball players. Lin’s ability to generate steals, split double teams, and drive to the hoop are characteristics of the athletic ingroup. In this way, Jeremy Lin’s case is different from the other Asian N.B.A. players, because he is only 6’3″ tall and is physically gifted.
According to Dr. Kurylo, Lin transitioned into the ingroup gaining his current popularity as a media figure. With his sucess, Lin has earned status as a member of the ingroup of “N.B.A. players” while retaining his ingroup status in his Chinese-American and, more broadly, Chinese ethnic ingroup and his Asian racial ingroup. People who belong to any of these groups can claim Lin as their own. Hence those that appreciate the ingroup of “N.B.A. players”, can bond with Jeremy Lin on that basis, but Lin also enjoys an extra advantage of appealing to people who identify with “Chinese-Americans,” “Chinese,” or “Asians.”
Other non-Asian professional basketball players, even ones more talented than Lin, don’t have that same ingroup access. Playing for the Knicks, a team in an area with a sizable Asian population, creates a large built-in fanbase because even those that normally would not follow basketball may become interested due to this newfound ingroup bond. Lin is now an international media figure, not because of the generic rags to riches story that could be told about his basketball career, but because of his Chinese identity and how its value has shifted within the NBA once he broke through the America stereotypes of Asians.
Anastacia Kurylo, is an assistant professor of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the founder of TheCommunicatedStereotype.com.