The parable of the unsung hero is a lost American tradition; many of our athletic gods have been knighted as teenagers. Players don’t come from nowhere in this page-view obsessed world. A 90-second Google search now, and we know everything about anybody. —Mike Wise, Washington Post.
The most remarkable aspect of the Jeremy Lin story is that he existed at all, as such. With the thousands of scouts, professional and amateur bloggers, journalists, observers, and other riff-raff that populate the amorphous world of sports media, the fact that Lin hadn’t already found his way into some niche following is slightly more than surprising. I say that knowing full well that there are several sport hipsters out there who would argue that they knew Jeremy Lin would eventually explode even after he was relegated to the NBA D-League for the third time. I’ve tried for several days to think of a similar sports phenomenon: one where a talented guy mired in obscurity becomes the biggest name in that sport in a few weeks. It’s tough.
You can think of examples in various other industries. There was the Homeless Man With the Golden Voice; Albert Einstein (as everyone knows, he was an obscure figure working in a patent office before he burst on the physics scene in his mid-twenties); Jacques Derrida (rose to prominence in literary criticism in his mid-thirties); Rebecca Black; Lana Del Rey; Kurt Warner; Whoopie Goldberg in Eddie; the kid in Rookie of the Year. The only (non-fictional) sports related analogy I can think of (and this is a rough analogy) is the five-year old baseball prodigy Ariel Antigua, who rose to (albeit brief) fame through Youtube videos of him hitting 60 mph fastballs. My point is that the effect of social media on sports is different than on most other aspects of our culture. Within the realm of art and politics, it serves to exponentiate the rise to fame from obscurity and aggregate awareness of the talent being marketed. Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook have cast the American Dream in concrete, tangible terms. We used to view it as a indeterminate process that took time, work, and energy, and normally, a lifetime. Now, a scrawny kid from Canada can become the most popular singer in the world in less than two years.
In sports, the internet (social media included) generally works to squelch overnight success stories. Like kudzu, it seeps into every cranny of our world, coating every athlete in a sleaze of statistics, rankings, and otherwise objectifying information. By way of example, look at the treatment of the 2011 Little League World Series–every (child) player on every team that qualified out of their region was given a Scouting Report and a Sabermetric breakdown. You can look up the stats for any athlete in any sport at any university in America. European soccer clubs sign children, and you’re lucky if you ever hear about them again. They are enrolled in a program which, by design, like the Manhattan Project, sequesters them away from the prying eyes and pressures of the media. They emerge years later, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that guy.” In sports, it’s more and more an age race–who can find the best prospects and sign them before their competitor, regardless of how young they are. Sports executives speak in terms of long-term investments and risks, potentials and growth, physical or mental. The internet is crucial in helping develop a complete picture of an athlete before you commit to them.
In music and film, executives only care about the finished product. Why are you interested in children, unless they are ALREADY good actors and singers. Taking a Darwinian razor to the actions of film or music companies, you can theorize that the reason they (largely) don’t approach young talent like sports franchises do is because it isn’t financially feasible. How much more efficient is it to comb social media for someone uploading videos of themselves, someone with a silky voice and stage presence, someone who can make an immediate contribution to your wallet? These industries are built to accommodate the overnight success. We enjoy it, one way or another. American Idol, the ultimate tribute to overnight success, is year-after-year the highest rated show on television; Rebecca Black went from upper middle class (middle upper class?) anonymity to the 21 million views on Youtube; Tila Tequila went from a Myspace inamorata to having her own reality show on VH1; the homeless Man with a Golden Voice got a house, a job, went crazy, and then got it all back.
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Jeremy Lin’s emergence, despite the tried and true system we have in place for developing basketball talent, highlights an unavoidable flaw in the system. One that we can also see in how soccer players are trained in this country. Club coaches (I’m speaking of basketball and soccer) who want to win right away tend to put the biggest, fastest, and strongest kids into play. Those kids benefit from more playing time, frequently at the expense of the more creative (but weaker), more dynamic (but smaller), late bloomer types. Those kids either lose their interest in playing, or are never developed or taken seriously in the same way. We’ve spoken numerous times on this blog on how soccer is tangibly different from other American sports. How athleticism is so often preferred over intelligence and creativity. For the reason above, players like Steve Nash, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey (creative types) are so much more the exception in our culture than the rule.
Whereas the US might be able to win the gold medal in basketball at the Olympics every four years by overpowering (literally dunking over) every other country in the world, the same cannot be said of how we will perform in the World Cup. It doesn’t take a masterful tactician to point out that you can’t overpower your way to a major international trophy. We are a country that has the infrastructure to find creative kids who can contribute to winning us a World Cup. We don’t need to rely on the chance that an overnight success like Jeremy Lin will find his way into our kit. Hopefully his success will increasingly inspire coaches to begin giving kids who don’t demonstrate the typical or standard signs of success more opportunities on the soccer field. Imagine a world in which Linsanity isn’t so Linsane after all.