The obsession with New York Knicks basketball star Jeremy Lin, already a little over-the-top, took an ugly turn recently, with an ESPN employee posting an update on Lin's so-so performance in a game as being a "Chink in the Armor." It's hard to imagine what went on in the head of the person who came up with that incredibly offensive and racist play on words, and ESPN's initial response was stunningly lame, apologizing for the insult to the Chinese-American player and stating the network would have no further comment on it.
Subsequently, the author of the website headline was fired, and the anchor who uttered the phrase on a broadcast was suspended. The rest of the news media has not shown such insensitivity, but has displayed a bordering-on-bizarre preoccupation with the fact that Lin is Chinese-American and also an NBA player.
That sort of ethnic score-keeping is getting old, and in this case, it also misses the point. It's sports-beleaguered Harvard that's the minority breakthrough here.
It's not as though Harvard University has nothing to brag about—seven U.S. presidents, scores of Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners. Even the school's dropouts can do well, as witnessed by the success of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But professional sports? Harvard is not typically the route to fame and fortune in the pros.
Lin helps break that barrier, achieving pro basketball success despite being burdened with a Harvard economics degree. Then there's quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led the Buffalo Bills to a 4-0 start last season (before crumbling later in the season, in part due to team injuries). Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens is a Harvard grad, while former Harvard hockey forward Louis LeBlanc went to the NHL.
True, there tends to be more public concern about the college athletes at sport-centric schools who aren't getting the education they are purportedly there to receive. But if we want and expect gifted athletes to learn something in college, shouldn't we also promote athletic excellence and recognition at universities known for academics? The two strengths aren't at odds; quarterbacks in particular perform better when they have some smarts in addition to physical prowess.
Harvard students aren't always all that supportive. While at Harvard for an academic semester recently, I was stunned to see that the football stadium was far from full—and students can attend for free. Only the Harvard-Yale game attracts a strong crowd, and that's more of a social tradition than a sports attraction.
Now, Harvard is getting some deserved attention for its athletes. Let's hope the scouts and student fans will take notice as well.