Sports columnist William C. Rhoden complains in the New York Times:
Between the Tebow phenomenon in the fall and the recent Lin explosion, I had been asking myself a variation of Lobo’s question: When was the last time a young, untested professional African-American athlete had been on the receiving end of this type of adulation? Specifically, adulation that had more to do with positive, universal characteristics — faith, humility, selflessness — than with athletic acumen.
The intensity and suddenness of Lin and Tebow’s acceptance has led to a flotilla of half-baked ideas about sports and religion and ill-conceived, even insulting notions about race and ethnicity.
Examples involving African-American athletes were difficult to come by, especially adhering to the criterion of athletes who had come from out of the blue, because very few athletes do these days.
LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was a 6'-8" 240 pound high school junior.
(Tim Tebow didn't exactly come out of nowhere: he was one of the most famous college football players ever. But he has the worst throwing motion in the NFL since roughly Doak Walker's era, so it was very interesting watching him try to make it in the NFL. He is a white quarterback with a typical black QB's skill set (good runner, not so good passer), so that was intriguing. Plus the super-sophisticated passing game of white NFL QBs these days is a little intimidating, so it was interesting watching him try -- and often succeed -- at winning games through old fashioned heart, guts, and sheer dumb luck, like a high school quarterback in a Chip Hilton boy's novel.)
The point of bringing up Robinson and the Williamses in the context of Tebow and Lin is that African-American athletes faced and continue to confront negative stereotypes that militate against being invested with the type of universal character traits that are at the root of the Tebow and Lin phenomena.
Asian-Americans often complain about being stereotyped as smart, authors of perfect College Board scores. The Asian-American is stereotyped as unathletic.
African-Americans fight the stereotype of lazy, undereducated products of dysfunctional homes. The African-American is stereotyped as ultra-athletic.
You know, there's something blacks could do about that: stop being so often lazy, undereducated products of dysfunctional homes. C'mon, just do it to spite us.
The panel at the Connecticut Forum never did satisfactorily answer Rebecca Lobo’s question about black equivalents to the Tebow-Lin phenomenon. Lobo’s inquiry is actually an important question for the 21st century. As we in the United States continue to dance around issues of ethnicity, using diversity as a diversion, we will continue to struggle with the pick-and-roll of race.
From CNBC in 2010:
In fact, LeBron is now the sixth most disliked sports personality, according to The Q Score Company, behind Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Kobe Bryant. ...
Perhaps equally as interesting is the fact that James has apparently dragged down the general population’s opinion of his new teammates.
Dwyane Wade’s positive Q score went from 21 in January to 15 today.
His negative Q score rose from 18 in January to 25 today. Chris Bosh – whose move to Miami was part of what sealed the deal for LeBron – saw even a worse drop.
Personally, I think the public's negative reaction to LeBron James' decision to team with two other stars in Miami to try to win an NBA title was unfair. I think he just got caught in an ongoing unspoken reaction to the long series of events that culminated in the craziness of Obamamania in 2008. Talk about a guy coming out of nowhere for no particular reason other than his race. But, that's history now, and, though we're not supposed to articulate it, attitudes have been changing since 2008.
Blacks aren't the underdogs anymore, so people are looking for new underdogs. As I mentioned before, linebacker Dat Nguyen could have been a great story back in the 1990s, but that was the Michael Jordan era and people weren't interested. By now, however, blacks have been top dogs in sports and popular culture for so long, and lots of people are tired of that and less naive, so they are open to alternatives.
P.S. If you want to group Tebow and Lin, the real connection is that neither one is cut out to be a humble, team-first role player. Both need the ball in their hands all the time to do their thing. John Elway would have been very happy if Tebow had volunteered to help out at, say, tight end or linebacker. But Tebow has been dead set on being an NFL quarterback, so that's out. Similarly, no NBA team figured out a subordinate role in which Lin could contribute. Only when the Knicks, having lost their three biggest stars for one game, simply turned the entire offense over to Lin did a role for him in the NBA emerge: star.