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Of Lin, Tebow, and America

. . .

January 8, 2012

The Denver Broncos shouldn’t even be in this position. The momentum has shifted decisively in favor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a superior team and last year’s AFC champs. Indeed, overtime seems a mere formality for the latter, despite the fact that the home team’s managed to win the coin flip and will thus have first crack at winning the game and advancing to the Divisional Round.

The Broncos start at the 20, a vast gulf separating them from a happy denouement to a contest which they’d appeared to have all but won a mere quarter ago. The ball is hiked, the QB drops back and throws to a receiver streaking over the middle. It’s not a perfect pass by any means, nor is it particularly daring; but it’s a smart one. At least a first down, perhaps more.

But the receiver keeps going. And going. And going. He glides into the end zone as the fans erupt into celebration.  The QB rips his helmet off, smiles, and looks to the sky.


February 14, 2012

With the game near it’s conclusion and the score tied at 87 apiece, it’s all too obvious who’s taking the final shot. The clock keeps ticking, he bides his time, dribbling patiently as his man offers a tempting gift: the space required for a clean three-pointer. It’s a smart concession; to guard him too closely would open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities: a circus layup, a pass to an open shooter, a bone-headed foul. It’s best to take one’s chances with a long jumper.

He makes his move with nary a moment to lose, falsely advertising his intentions with a slight feint to his right. He steps back, hoisting an ungainly jump shot from just outside the arc. The audience gasps, the ball falls through the basket without so much as glancing the rim.

He struts down the court, his on-lookers simultaneously dismayed and enthralled.


. . .

The sporting world has, over the last few months, been utterly captivated. Not by Drew Brees’ record-breaking season, nor by the Packers’ pursuit of perfection, the Giants’ miraculous Super Bowl run, or the interminable Peyton Manning-Jim Irsay saga. Neither have the Thunder or Bulls, nor Lob City or the night-in night-out excellence of LeBron, Kobe, CP3, Durant, etc., quite captured the imagination of the casual fan as it would have under normal circumstances.

No: what’s driven ESPN pundits bonkers, and inspired columnists to spill thousands upon thousands of words, and left millions across the nation in hysterics, are the miraculous, improbable, ludicrous, Horatio Alger-esque success stories of Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. Ascending from fourth on their respective teams’ depth charts, both have reinvigorated franchises whose catastrophic starts to the season had left most observers reciting their last rites. Everyone loves an underdog, but what really tickles the fancy of fans and analysts alike is when an underdog is able to transcend fluke-status, transform him or herself into a bona fide leader and habitual winner, and reshape the fortunes of a team on the ropes. That two of this sort have burst upon the scene nearly simultaneously, and under similar circumstances is, quite simply, miraculous (pun intended).

Yet despite the sheer volume and ubiquity of the media coverage Lin and Tebow have generated since their emergence from sports Siberia (i.e. the end of the bench), remarkably few have commented upon their symbolic importance, beyond simply remarking upon Tebow’s faith or Lin’s Taiwanese heritage or Harvard pedigree. For however remarkable and unique those qualities, and however many commonalities they may share, their differences serve as an apt summation of the contemporary political climate.

Indeed: as the son of immigrants and the beneficiary of both an Ivy League education and a starring role on basketball’s greatest stage in the world’s greatest city (which, coincidentally, also serves as a bastion of liberal politics), Lin is a fitting symbol of America’s cosmopolitan future: multi-cultural, progressive, and exciting.  And as the son of deeply religious parents, an avid proponent of conservative causes, and the hero of not one, but two “Red State” cities (Gainesville and Denver), Tebow represents America’s heritage: deep, rich, and edifying.

The symbolism doesn’t end there. Lin plays in a league awash in individualism and style, and marked by its broad international appeal and the support of a domestic audience that falls largely on the left end of the political spectrum. Tebow, meanwhile, stars in a highly regimented sport, one intimately associated with the idea of America and enormously popular in the South and Midwest (particularly on the high school and college levels). That progressives have claimed the former (though some notable members of the Right have likewise appropriated Lin for their own ends) and conservatives the latter should come as no surprise: Lin is, as The Nation‘s David Zirin has written, a walking-talking repudiation of racial/ethnic stereotypes and pigeonholing, while Tebow is the perfect embodiment of those qualities most desirable to such conservative luminaries as Charles Krauthammer and Rich Lowry, as well as to Presidential candidates and self-described Republicans in general.

One can, of course, find kernels of each narrative in the other. Lin himself is deeply religious, and besides, what is more traditional, more quintessentially“American,” than immigrants and their children transcending barriers and staking a claim to this country’s prosperity? And Tebow? However much his religion is associated with modern conservatism, one must remember that evangelicalism was from its inception a revolutionary faith, the influence of which can be observed in abolitionist tracts, the protests of Progressive-era reformers, and and the words and deeds of a myriad number of other radicals and reformers throughout American history.

Beyond the generalizations and superficial similarities and distinctions, however, lies a central, unifying link between these two narratives. Indeed. in an era in which partisan rancor and political polarization have allegedly sundered the American populace into ideologically hostile camps, Tebow and Lin have reminded us of the invalidity and mendacity of claims by one group or another to represent the “real” America. Much as notions of what constitutes “English-ness,” “French-ness,” “German-ness,” etc., have been called into question by the presence of diverse immigrant communities in the cities and towns of Britain, France, Germany, and other European nations, so too have the athletes in question thrown into sharp relief the protean qualities of “American-ness.”

As saccharine and obvious as the following may sound, the enthusiasm with which the public has greeted both athletes (though Tebow does not lack for critics) has only confirmed that underneath the “culture wars,” and the virulence of the presidential campaign, lies a nation that tacitly acknowledges the variety of the American experience. Race and ethnicity, religious and political affiliation, economic, cultural, and social background: all fade into irrelevance the moment a player steps on the court or field and the clock starts ticking. The sports world may be highly imperfect (particularly in regards to gender), but it’s infinitely more egalitarian and representative of what America (and, perhaps, the world at large), and Americans, could (and should) be, than our infantile political universe.

Note: While the inestimable Charlie Pierce is undoubtedly correct in arguing that Lin (and, by extension, Tebow) deserves better than facile and “cartoonish” characterizations, he underestimates the subtle importance of such a figure.  As an unfortunate consequence of the toxicity of American political discourse and the simmering resentments that still reside beneath the placidity of everyday life, athletes like Lin and Tebow are significant for reasons other than their individual and team successes. Just as Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali,  Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, etc. were representative of larger political and social currents, so Lin and Tebow are also symbolic of something larger for fans, journalists, and talking heads (as can be evinced by the voluminousness of the coverage both have received in print, online, and on television)*.

*Lin and Tebow are, of course, much, much less significant historically than than any of those other athletes listed.


7 Responses to “Of Lin, Tebow, and America”

  1. Sean, great post. For all the discussion about how Tebow and Lin represent different facets of America and the American experience, I think they share a common message that explains a lot of their mainstream appeal. They both stand for the notion that adding hard work, determination and yes, faith (as you point out, Lin is quite religious too) to talent can enable one to achieve great things and to rise above all obstacles, whether they be obscurity, disparagement of one’s abilities or otherwise.

    That notion, in essence, is the American Dream. Much of this year’s presidential campaign has revolved and will revolve, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the question of whether or not the American Dream is still alive. Whatever their politics, or the politics of anyone following them, I think we can agree that to many, Tebow and Lin are living evidence that it is.

    Posted by E-Dog | February 28, 2012, 4:30 pm
    • Yeah but those qualities, hard work, determination, faith and talent, are hardly limited to Tebow and Lin. In fact, they are pretty standard among professional athletes in general and especially the NFL and NBA. There’s nothing unique about Tebow and Lin in that regard. I think it’s more of an underdog thing.

      Posted by ks | February 28, 2012, 9:06 pm
      • Good point, ks. America does love its underdogs; there’s a reason why the 1980 Olympic hockey team is the most beloved team in U.S. history. It’s the obstacles that have made Tebow’s and Lin’s stories so compelling.

        Posted by E-Dog | March 1, 2012, 5:06 am
        • True E-Dog. I think more Lin than so Tebow regarding overcoming obstacles though I tend to think both cases are a bit overstated. After all, Tebow did play on a stacked major D-1 college team and while Lin was undrafted coming out Harvard he did get picked up by GS before the season started.

          Posted by ks | March 1, 2012, 7:19 am
          • Thanks guys. While I do agree that much of their appeal can be explained by the underdog component in each of their narratives, and that neither’s sports-related attributes (“hard work, determination, faith and talent”)are necessarily unique, it seems likely that their cultural characteristics have as much to do with their popularity as their on-the-field/court accomplishments.

            Posted by Sean Cribben | March 1, 2012, 10:52 pm
          • I agree with this. I don’t consider Tebow an underdog at all. Jeremy Lin is a talented kid who just for whatever reason was under the radar and all he really needed was a chance to show what he can do. Guys like that have to work twice as hard and may never even get that chance. He flat out said he considered quitting over the past year.

            Tebow otoh has never been under the radar. He was the #22 overall ranked recruit in the ’06 class and #1 dual threat per Rivals. Committed to a top SEC school, won the Heisman, National title and was a 3rd round pick. His issue is that his success in college does not necessarily translate to the NFL. And the fascination with Tebow is that his numbers were just flat out terrible yet his team just kept winning, whereas Lin just burst onto the scene and put up great numbers right off the bat over several games.

            If anything, I would compare Lin more with Kurt Warner coming out of nowhere in ’99 to lead the Rams to the Super Bowl. All he needed was a chance too, but he had always been under the radar. Warner was only named starter due to a pre-season ending injury to Trent Green. Of course the rest is history and he ended up playing 3 Super Bowls with 2 different teams.

            I don’t know what’s going to happen to these guys in the future, but if I had to put money on it I think Lin is going to stick around for a while. I’m still not sold on Tebow though. He deserves a chance to go into this off-season and be the starter but I just don’t think he’ll be able to run an NFL offense effectively enough to ever amount to much.

            Posted by Milhouse | March 2, 2012, 2:05 pm
  2. Sean,

    Absolutely. The cultural part is huge and certainly helps to explain the over the top reactions.

    Posted by ks | March 2, 2012, 1:11 pm

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