Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Robert Griffin III makes a case for being the #1 pick...again...

“Baby I’m a star. Might not know it now, baby, but I are. I’m a star. I don’t want to stop ‘til I reach the top.”

Lyric from: Baby I’m a Star from the Album Purple Rain
Written By: Prince
Performed by: Prince and the Revolution

Robert Griffin III, Photo Courtesy Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy, becoming the first player from Baylor to do so. He was a 2011 Consensus All-American. He was named College Player of the Year by the Associated Press. And he was the 2011 Davey O’Brien Award Winner.
Yet somehow he needed a great showing at the NFL Combine to help his stock rise for the upcoming draft.
Lest my first paragraph attempt to paint the entire picture of RG3, I should add that he was born in Japan where his parents, who were both U.S. Army Sergeants, were stationed at the time. He was a three-sport star in high school from which he graduated early, landing on campus at Baylor at 17 years old where he joined the track team and ultimately finished first in the 400-meter hurdles in the Big 12 Championship. Graduating early from Baylor as well, he started working on his Master’s degree all while playing football.
This is not a guy with character issues. He’s obviously pretty smart. He’s clearly athletic. And we knew these things before the combine. But only now are there rumblings from the Colts that maybe he deserves a look as the #1 pick.
To be fair, maybe this isn’t a discussion about Griffin being overlooked. It’s just as likely a story about the overly inflated, yet ambiguous importance of the NFL Combine.
Just before this year’s combine we learned that Trent Richardson wouldn’t be able to participate because he was having minor knee surgery. The talking heads of sports were aghast, saying that Richardson’s absence may cause his draft stock to fall. Not because teams would be worried about the knee but because teams were eager to assess his potential via the combine. Really? How is that even possible? A guy who was a 2011 finalist for the Heisman and a major contributor to two BCS Championship teams needs a standout performance at the combine to cement his reputation as a beast. How did we get here?
Not too long ago, we actually used a guy’s college career as the stick by which we measured his NFL potential. Now-a-days it seems as if all talk has turned to vertical leaps and 40-yard dashes. Andrew Luck’s numbers in this year’s combine are now being favorably compared to Cam Newton’s numbers from last year’s combine.

A comparison that is sure to yield further comparisons about what Luck can accomplish during his rookie season in the NFL and what records he will break. It seems almost ridiculous. Shouldn’t I care more about what a QB does in 20 or 30 yards than in 40?

Should I care at all about his broad jump ability? Please respect the marketing genius of the National Football League for engineering a scenario in which we do care about these things.
Jerry Jones was interviewed during the combine and talked at length about his desire to bring cameras into the interview sessions with athletes. He indicated that the move was the next evolution of fan access to this event. I am sure that his desire did not fall on deaf ears in the league offices.

The NFL has capitalized on its meteoric rise to the top of the sports world at every turn-most recently moving the draft’s broadcast to primetime. The league has taken full advantage of our football obsession and in these reality TV dominant times the feeling is often that the more exposure, the better.
But perhaps the combine’s more palpable value is that it’s the latest meal to whet our “what have you done for me lately” appetites. Our memories are so short. You know the drill, If a guy plays well all year only to fizzle out in a bowl game we replace the period at the end of his sentence with a question mark.

We require constant reminders of a player’s greatness. My guess is that our beloved athletes know this as well. It’s why even in an All-Star game after an evening of fancy ball handling and spectacular dunks that a guy like Lebron James is visibly dejected in his post game chat with Craig Sager on the heels of a turnover that costs his East team a chance to win.

And it’s why NFL hopefuls take the NFL Combine so seriously. They know how quickly we-team executives, the media, the fans-forget.
RG3 ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. And it’s a good thing he did. He spared us the chore of having to rely on our collective long term memories and spared himself a question mark.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jeremy Lin is fun to watch and he's Asian

“It’s like yesterday I didn’t even know your name. Now today, you’re always on my mind. I never could have predicted that I’d feel this way. You are a beautiful surprise.”

Jeremy Lin, Photo Courtesy of Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Lyric from: Beautiful Surprise from the album Voyage to India
Written By: India Arie Simpson
Performed by: India Arie

I’m just gonna say it…Jeremy Lin is not getting all of this attention because he’s Asian American but it's pretty cool that he is Asian American.
The New York Knicks are 8-2 since Lin was inserted into the starting lineup, so he’s played 10 games now. In those 10 games he has averaged 23.8 points and 9.4 assists a game. Since game 2 of this 10 game stretch the naysayers have used a lot of hot air to convince the masses that his success is a fluke. I disagree but, I understand.

The US sports world is full of cynical skeptics who are often reminded of the fact that when something seems too good to be true it usually is. The darker and uglier side of the Lin debate, however, is centered around this idea that the only reason we care at all is because he is Asian American.  
Listen, I get where this comes from. Whenever something or someone breaks a mold and challenges our assumptions we rush to make sense of it as best as we can.  To put it plainly for the sake of this post- whenever someone does something as a member of a race that statistics or tradition says is reserved for those of a different race, our society gets exposed for the still racially divided, diversity-ignorant people we are when we choose to minimize the enthusiasm for the achievement of that individual as race dependent.

“If Lin was black no one would care,” is what I keep hearing. And I couldn’t disagree more.

Bottom line, I contend that anyone who shows up in the NBA as the 2nd player from Harvard to ever do so, who rides the bench in obscurity until one day the coach calls him into the game and he promptly proceeds to go out and average 23.8 points and 9.4 assists in his first 10 starts at the point guard position, winning 8 of those 10 games gets to be a big deal.

Oh and did I mention that he is doing this in New York where the media will single handedly propel him to “bigger deal” status.

Yes, the NBA is mostly made up of black players. But give a black player Lin’s storyline and it’s still a standout, feel good story. It’s still a big deal. It’s still insanely exciting.
But here’s the thing, it’s okay for us to admit that the fact that Jeremy Lin is Asian American makes this story just a little cooler.
Because on the other end of the spectrum-far, far away from our racially divided selves is the eagerness of Americans to prove that there really is equal opportunity here. We want to separate ourselves from the reputation of our racially myopic past.

And so we end up pretending that having a black man as President isn’t that big of a deal because this is the land of equal opportunity and anyone of any race, gender or creed can be President here-as long as they were born here.

So it ends up going that those of us who don’t want Jeremy Lin’s storyline to be about the fact that we care only because he’s Asian American or worse yet, we care only because we didn’t know Asian Americans could hoop like that become fearful of acknowledging race at all-afraid that it will consume the headline as opposed to complimenting it.

That fear is contagious. I just hope that Lin doesn’t catch it.
I saw a one on one interview with Jeremy on Sportscenter earlier this week in which he talked about always dreaming about getting to the NBA, about watching Jordan’s moves on TV and then going out immediately to the court to try and duplicate them. He talked about wondering if he was going to ever get his chance in the league and about wondering if he needed to consider different career options the last time he got cut.

I don’t remember if much was made about what his success might mean to little Asian-American kids with hoop dreams but the more he succeeds, the more prevalent the topic will become during his camera time.

I have my fingers crossed that each time that he is asked he will manage the delicate balance of owning the significance of this accomplishment as an Asian American and how cool it must be for those Asian-American kids to see someone that looks like them succeed in the NBA while frankly rebuking the notion that it’s the sole reason that we should be paying attention.

Finding that balance is one of the great dichotomies of being a minority in this country, even in sports and it won’t be easy. Just ask Donovan McNabb.
You remember…Rush Limbaugh said that we were rooting for Donovan because he was a black quarterback. Outrage ensued. Donovan responded. I had my fingers crossed that time as well but was ultimately disappointed in his response.

I can’t remember any exact quotes but I remember what didn’t come across in his response or the responses of any of his black peers, namely Jason Campbell who was just settling into the league at the time, was that yes, being a black quarterback is significant because we all know that there was a time when blacks weren’t really allowed to consider that position as an option and as a result there weren’t any black quarterbacks in the National Football League.

But we didn’t need Donovan’s blackness to find a reason to root for him at the time. And he wasn’t excelling at the position in spite of being black. He was a successful quarterback in a very tough division, a perennial pro-bowler with a good arm and great legs. He was a big deal.
Jeremy Lin is an Asian-American player finding success in a league mostly made up of African-American players and that’s just one cool part of an off the charts cool story. A short time ago Jeremy Lin was considering a career change until his number was called.

He finally got his chance and he was ready. Twenty-three some odd points a game, eight wins and only two losses later in a Knicks uniform he deserves our attention and, we don’t need his race to give us a reason to root for him.