The Case of Jeremy Lin: The Persistence of Racism in Professional Sports

The NBA G League — the official organization of the NBA’s minor league — announced on March 12 that it had identified the player who called Santa Cruz Warriors guard Jeremy Lin “coronavirus” during a recent game. In a decision supported by Lin, the player will remain unnamed and the two have already met to discuss the escalating racism towards Asian Americans amid the pandemic.

The player that insulted Jeremy Lin is not alone; more incidents of professional athletes using hateful speech are popping up. Just one day before the G League announcement, Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard was fined $50,000 by the league and given a week-long suspension from team activities for using an anti-Semitic slur during a recent video game livestream. 

These incidents come in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which brought the complex relationship between professional sports and social justice to the national stage. Both the The racism endured by Lin and the anti-Semitism expressed by Leonardopen this debate once again: what is the role of the athletics world in fighting systemic injustice? 

The first American of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, and the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, Lin remains part of a small minority in professional basketball. Despite the sport’s widespread popularity among Asian American youth, coaches and sociologists alike cite stereotypes and cultural factors as reasons that many promising young talents in the Asian American community don’t rise  to high-profile play.

Specifically, stereotypes about the physical capabilities of Asian Americans have been particularly difficult for Lin to escape, such as being labeled as “deceptively athletic” from a young age.

“[Basketball] is a sport for white and Black people. You don’t get respect for being an Asian American basketball player in the U.S.,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008.

Lin achieved international fame playing for the Knicks during the 2011-2012 season, leading the team to a seven-game winning streak and kicking off the cultural phenomenon known as “Linsanity.” Lin subsequently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was named in Time Magazine’s  Time 100 as one of the most influential people in the world.

Even now, Lin’s  status as a well-respected NBA veteran could not shield him from racially charged comments. However, he has decided to move on from the incident — choosing not to name the player involved — and focus himself on the deep-rooted problems facing the Asian American community. 

“I know this will disappoint some of you but I’m not naming or shaming anyone. What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down? It doesn’t make my community safer or solve any of our long-term problems with racism,” Lin explained on Twitter.

Leonard, on the other hand, was not a victim of offensive language in the sports world but instead a perpetrator. The 29-year-old center was recorded making an anti-Semitic comment while playing “Call of Duty: Warzone” on streaming platform Twitch, and the clip quickly spread on social media. Leonard has been publicly apologetic about his use of the anti-Semetic slur.

“While I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, my ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong,” Leonard wrote on Instagram.

The incident was met with sharp disapproval from the league, which issued a statement calling his actions inexcusable and imposing upon him the maximum possible fine. Leonard will also be required to complete a cultural diversity program in accordance with a recommendation from the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism.

Despite coming from opposite perspectives of offensive speech,  both Lin and Leonard are in a time of reflection. For the NBA, this is an opportunity to step up and recognize the issues faced by both the Jewish and Asian-American communities.Lin remains unsure — cautious even — of what the outcome will be and whether or not the NBA will actually change:“So here we are again, sharing how we feel. Is anyone listening?”