“Lincredible!” “Lin your face!” “Just Lin Time!” “May the best man Lin!” Beginning in early February 2012, for the next two weeks or so, these were just a handful of the “punny” headlines plastered across each edition of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. During this time, New York was overcome with a serious case of Linsanity fever due to the unexpected rise of New York Knicks’ point guard, Jeremy Lin. As he led the New York Knicks team to its seventh straight victory, Lin began to capture national and international headlines. It seemed like the whole world was captivated by Lin’s phenomenal play on the basketball court and his inspiring rags-to-riches-type story. Or were people merely fascinated by the fact that Jeremy Lin is Asian-American, Taiwanese, to be more specific, and excelling at basketball? As Lin’s popularity rose, as did the media’s attempts to derive other creative headlines associated with Jeremy Lin. Some of these headlines began referencing Lin’s ethnicity and race, typically in a stereotypical manner, prompting some to question whether the media hype surrounding Lin was about his athletic abilities or really about his ethnicity/race. Consequently, the ethics and motives behind some of the racially-charged media portrayals became subject to scrutiny. Utilizing Kantian’s approach to ethics, as it applies to each isolated situation, the media’s portrayal of Jeremy Lin could be seen in either light – ethical or unethical.
To truly understand the magnitude of Linsanity, it is important to have a grasp on the rise of Jeremy Lin, as well as some background information. Jeremy Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, was born and raised in California. He began playing basketball at a young age, eventually leading his high school to a state championship, and being named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year during his senior year. Lin anticipated receiving athletic scholarships to play basketball at the collegiate level; however, he did not receive any and ended up attending Harvard University (Stephens 2006). Even then, it was evident to some that there was a stigma attached to being Asian and playing basketball. As Gregory notes, “[Lin] was scrawny, but don’t doubt that a little racial profiling, intentional or otherwise, contributed to his underrecruitment” (Gregory 2009). This racial profiling was also apparent throughout Lin’s collegiate career as there were numerous occasions in which Lin was the target of “racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian” (Gregory 2009). From college, Lin, again, went undrafted, even though he set a number of program records at Harvard. He ended up playing with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Summer League in 2010, and bounced around among several teams until the New York Knicks finally picked him up in the 2011-2012 season. Once on the Knicks, he was sent down to the NBA Developmental League a few more times until February 4th – when fans across the world began experiencing symptoms of Linsanity.
On that fateful day, the Knicks, riddled with injuries, called upon Jeremy Lin to play in the point guard position against New Jersey Nets All-Star guard, Deron Williams. Though it was against a lower-echelon team, the Knicks ended up winning the game due in large part to Lin’s career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, outplaying Williams.
Due to his spirited play, Coach Mike D’Antoni rewarded Lin’s efforts by starting him against the Utah Jazz for his first career start, without the help from superstar teammates Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Again, Lin led the Knicks to victory with 28 points and eight assists. From then on, Lin led the New York Knicks to five more victories, including one where he outscored the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and a Valentine’s Day thriller where he drained a three-pointer with less than a second to go to give New York the win over the Toronto Raptors, prompting the New York Post to use the headline, “Amasian!”.
The New York Knicks fans were also overcome with Linsanity, taking a stab at Lin nicknames and slogans of their own, including “Linderella,” “Super Lintendo,” and “To Linfinity and Beyond.” MSG Network showed one of these fan-made graphics during one of their telecasts that featured Jeremy Lin’s head emerging from an open fortune cookie with a fortune that read “The Knicks Good Fortune.” The imagery of the fortune cookie is evidently an allusion to Lin’s Taiwanese ethnicity. With its broadcast on national television, along with the New York Post’s “Amasian!” headline, both incidents arguably got the ball rolling as far as how the fans and media perceived Lin.
The media’s focus on Lin’s ethnicity primarily began when Floyd Mayweather tweeted, “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise” (Mayweather 2012). While his statement is factually erroneous, as “Lin became the first NBA player of any color, of any ethnic origin, to score at least 20 points and dish seven assists in his first four starts,“ there is a question of how ethical his statement is (Woods). The simplest approach to Kantian theory is the notion that “it isn’t the intention behind an action rather than its consequences that make that action good” (Bowie 3). In other words, what determines if an action is good is the intent behind it. Breaking down Mayweather’s comment using this aspect of Kantian theory, it appears as if he may have had good intentions since he started off admitting that Jeremy Lin is a good player. However, his comment veers off in a completely different direction when Mayweather brings up the fact that Lin is Asian, and that is the sole reason he is receiving any media praise – not because he is a good player. Consequently, this situation brings up another question of whether or not Mayweather was being honest when he called Lin a good player. Another aspect of Kantian theory details that a person is “only truly moral if he or she is honest because being honest is right (one’s duty)” (Bowie 3). In Mayweather’s case, maybe he was being honest about Jeremy Lin being a good player, but he seems to only admit to this so that it gives him leeway to bash Lin. To clarify, it is similar to when someone says “no offense, but…” and goes on to insult you anyway. Just because they said “no offense,” genuinely or not, they view it as a green light to go ahead and say what they want, regardless of the consequences. Therefore, Mayweather isn’t being honest because it is right; he is being honest about Lin being a good player so that he can proceed to bash him without looking like a complete bad guy. Consequently, based on the simple definition of Kantian theory, Mayweather’s tweet is not ethical.
Delving deeper into the Kantian theory, he also discusses the “categorical imperative,” which is essentially a moral obligation that is binding in all circumstances (Bowie 4). One of the formulations of the categorical imperative states that an act is good if it can be applied universally. Therefore, in Mayweather’s situation, to assess whether or not his tweet is moral, he would ask himself, “if the principle (maxim) of [my] action were a universal law (one that everyone acted in), would this be acceptable” (Bowie 4)? For instance, if there was a black hockey player that emerged in the NHL (in general, hockey is a predominantly white sport) as Lin did in the NBA (a predominantly black sport), and someone said that the black hockey player was only receiving media attention because he was black, would Mayweather be comfortable with this? He would probably deem the comment as racist; consequently, the principle of Mayweather’s tweet cannot be applied universally. As a result, even from a deeper Kantian theory analysis, Mayweather’s comment is still considered unethical.
One of the most prominent examples of the media’s racially-charged portrayal of Jeremy Lin came when ESPN utilized the phrase “Chink in the armor” in reference to Lin, not once, not twice, but three separate times. ESPNEWS anchor, Max Bretos, used it while interviewing Knicks analyst Walt Frazier; Knicks play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes said it on ESPN Radio New York; and most notably, ESPN editor, Anthony Federico, used the phrase as a headline on ESPN’s mobile website (Fry). While “chink in the armor” is a well-known phrase and “has been used over 3,000 times on ESPN.com,” it does not “absolve the writers and editors of responsibility to use common sense” (Badenhausen). Chink is a racist slur against Chinese people, of whom Jeremy Lin clearly identifies with; therefore, to blatantly use a derogatory term towards Chinese people to allude to someone who is Chinese seems obviously unethical. However, this perspective can change when analyzing the various scenarios in which the phrase was used. To begin with, when Bretos and Dedes used the term, they did so in situations where they could not monitor what they were saying. When doing live, real-time commentary, “an on-air reporter must think, listen and talk in real time, with no chance to review his or her words” (Fry). Viewing this from the basis of Kantian theory, while it would be difficult to say that Bretos and Dedes had good intentions when they used the phrase, they did not use “chink in the armor” as an attack on Jeremy Lin’s ethnicity. As a result, again, while it is difficult to deem this is as an “ethical” use of the phrase, the way the reporters used it isn’t necessarily immoral according to Kantian theory. In contrast, when publishing an article, there are typically editors that proofread and review everything before it gets posted. Unfortunately, in the situation involving Federico, it was him, the editor, that created the title and highlighted it on ESPN’s mobile platform. Thus, Federico knowingly published the story with the “Chink in the Armor” headline, though it is unclear whether or not he actually understood the racial implications associated with the phrase. While, again, it is tough to assess the extent to which Federico was aware of the racial undertones associated with the headline, the morality of his action becomes more latent when using Kantian’s universal categorical imperative. If a writer had written a negative article about a white person and used “cracker” in the headlines, would that be ethical? Or, if an author had written a negative article regarding a Hispanic person, and titled the article “No Longer Spic and Span,” would that be ethical? I argue no; consequently, by Kantian’s categorical imperative, Federico was clearly in the wrong when he knowingly used “Chink in the Armor” in reference to Lin’s poor game. Ultimately, Bretos received a 30-day suspension – a penalty far less severe compared to Federico’s, which involved getting fired by ESPN (Fry).
The most recent case of media portrayal with potential racist undertones against Jeremy Lin involves Ben & Jerry’s. In an effort to ride out the economic profits associated with Linsanity, Ben & Jerry’s created a limited edition frozen yogurt flavor called “Taste the Lin-Sanity.”
The issue, however, is not with the name of the flavor, like in the last example; the problem arises when one takes a gander at the ingredients – vanilla frozen yogurt with lychee honey swirls and fortune-cookie pieces (Torrisi). While some customers complained about the fortune-cookie pieces because they were “too soggy,” others protested that they “perpetuated an Asian stereotype” (Torrisi). Additionally, people also had issues with the lychee, a fruit from Southeast Asia, because Lin was from California, not Asia. In response to the uproar, Ben & Jerry’s issued an apology, declaring that they were “swept up in the nationwide Linsanity momentum” and that their intention was “to create a flavor to honor Jeremy Lin’s accomplishments and his meteoric rise in the NBA” (Torrisi). Again, analyzing this situation using Kantian’s ethical approach, it does not appear as if Ben & Jerry’s had any ill intentions when creating the frozen yogurt flavor, despite the response from the community. Since Kantian focuses on the intention of the actor versus the consequences of the actor’s actions, in this situation, Ben & Jerry’s Taste the Lin-Sanity frozen yogurt endeavor would not be considered immoral.
Overall, when applying Kantian’s approach to the ethics of each media portrayal regarding Jeremy Lin and his ethnicity/race, it is absolutely vital to speculate and gauge the intentions of each actor. While a few of the cases were classified as not immoral by Kantian’s standards, this does not dismiss the fact that there is still an underlying racial issue. While Anderson’s article “Racism in Sports: A Question of Ethics” focuses primarily on racism against blacks in the sports world, he echoes an important general belief that “sports is a reflection of society” (Anderson 361). Therefore, the fact that these racist incidents still occur in the sports world reiterates the fact that racism is still rampant in society as a whole. Hadley Freeman of The Guardian delves even further into this notion:
While no one would claim that racism against black people is no longer a problem in America, it is unthinkable that any news network or even half-brained TV presenter would use racial slurs against a black player equivalent to the Asian ones that have been used against Lin. This is because racism against Asians is not confronted as much and therefore is somehow seen as more acceptable – not even racist, even. (Freeman)
Since no Asian-American athlete has garnered nearly as much widespread attention as quickly as Jeremy Lin has (not even Yao Ming), the media did not know how to react, nor did they have a concept of what could be considered racist. While this is by no means a defense of those who have utilized racial slurs against Lin, it puts into perspective how much we, as a society, still have to learn. We might think that racism is no longer a prominent part of our history, but if sports truly is a reflection of society, then the mistreatment of Jeremy Lin by the media is evidence that there still is a racism issue, regardless of how apparent it may or may not be.