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The Case for Greater Asian-American Representation in Athletics

If die-hard sports fans were asked to name their favorite players, they would most likely be able to rattle off a few names in a matter of seconds. But, how many of those athletes would be Asian-American? If we’re talking about players from the Big Four, the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL, chances are that none of the names mentioned would be from this demographic. In fact, Asian-American student athletes only comprised of 0.57%, 0.53%, 0.9%, and 0.67% in the NCAA. While Asian-American student-athletes comprise 2.1% of the NCAA, the Asian population in the U.S. is about 5%. In comparison, African-Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 16% of NCAA athletes. From stereotypes and cultural norms to underrepresentation, many factors have contributed to low Asian-American athletic participation. While these numbers are on the rise in particular sports and the Asian continent has capitalized on the sports industry, there is still far more work to be done to encourage athletic involvement in the Asian American community.

A Historical Overview of Athletics in Asia

The emergence of sports in the Asian continent, starting in the 20th century, can be attributed to Western modernization and globalization. In order to keep up with new technological and economic advancements, which has often correlated to an increase in athletic resources in the West, Asian countries have hosted athletic meets and games such as the Far Eastern Games and the Asian Games to foster a sense of national unity. In addition, three Asian countries, Japan, Korea, and China, have hosted six Olympic games since 1964. The next two Olympic games will also be held in Asia: the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, demonstrating Asia’s increasing involvement in the athletic world.

Opening Ceremony 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Lois Greenfield, Guang Niu /Getty Images.

Cultural Norms Among the Asian-American Population

With a strong emphasis on education and academia, the Asian athlete is often touted as “weak, fragile, and biologically ‘unsuited’ to modern sports,” according to Jonathan Long, Ben Carrington, and Karl Spracklen, in their study: “Explorations of Racist Discourse within the Professional Rugby League.” In addition, the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard case raised questions about discrimination against Asian applicants in the college admissions process, alluding to the fact that this demographic tends to outperform others in multiple categories. Their higher average test scores, GPA, and extracurricular involvement often results from their access to more educational resources and the overall emphasis Asian families place on education itself.

Furthermore, the emergence of the “Model Minority” stereotype has specifically impeded Asian American children from pursuing nonacademic interests. According to Dr. Alyssa Hellrung, a part-time lecturer in the Gender, Women’s Studies, and Sexuality Department at the University of Washington, children often steer clear of activities that they don’t see themselves represented in because they don’t “match the norm.” Echoing Hellrung’s sentiments, Kirk Kim, a former Division I basketball player at the University of California at Berkeley, explained that as a Korean, “academics is [sic] always going to take precedence over everything.” Ultimately, children of AAPI descent are boxed into a stereotypical norm revolving around academics and education, eliminating the pipeline to college and professional athletics.

Overcoming Stereotypes: Success Stories of Professional Asian-American Athletes

While Asians make up less than 1% of NCAA athletes in sports such as basketball and baseball, they comprise a whopping 10.5% of women’s Division I golf and 14.6% of men’s fencing. The stark differences in these statistics highlight the disparity in the sports Asians choose to participate in. The sports in which Asians have the greatest amount of participation is golf, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, and volleyball. But regardless of which sport, negative stereotypes about Asian-American athletes continue to be reinforced.

For example, Michelle Wie, a South Korean-American professional golfer, was the champion of the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open but could not participate in the 2019 event due to an injury. Upon discussion of Wie’s participation on SiriusXM, Hank Haney, a professional golf instructor, claimed that a South Korean would win the tournament and stated the following: “I couldn't name you like six players on the LPGA tour," Haney said. "Nah, maybe I could -- well, I'd go with Lee. If I didn't have to name a first name, I'd get a bunch of them right.”While this comment did not directly attack Wie, it serves as an example of the racism and stereotyping that Asian athletes deal with.

Michelle Wie, American professional golfer / Professional Golf Association.

Jeremy Lin, an American professional basketball player for the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association, also experienced discrimination on his path to NBA stardom. Best known for his winning streak with the New York Knicks, generating a phenomenon titled “Linsanity,” Lin achieved great success in the professional basketball arena—a sport in which Asian-Americans tend to be highly underrepresented relative to other sports. However, his success did not come easy. He did not receive any scholarships to Division I schools and after competing at Harvard, he was overlooked by any teams and not drafted to the NBA. During his appearance on his teammate’s podcast “Outside Shot with Randy Foye,” Lin detailed the racism he encountered particularly during his college career. Spectators would shout racial slurs such as “beef lo mein” and “chicken fried rice” at him, and ask “Can you even see the scoreboard with those eyes?” Lin also struggled with remarks against his physical strength, especially being one of few Asian-American point guards. He was considered “weak” and “not athletic enough,” an indirect allusion to his Asian-American background; however, when “Linsanity” emerged, he was constantly asked about his experience “being Asian in the NBA.” While he serves as a role model for many Asian-American children, especially those who aspire to be athletes, “Linsanity” emphasized how his success was particularly important because he was Asian-American.

Jeremy Lin, #7 of the Atlanta Hawks November 2018. Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images.

A Call for Change: Encouraging Asian-American Athletic Participation

While Michelle Wie and Jeremy Lin, among other Asian-American athletes, have learned to defy stereotypes against their race, there is still more work to be done in terms of erasing these stereotypes altogether. Asian-Americans are not solely capable of making contributions to Silicon Valley, the same way that African-American basketball players are not only capable of making NBA history. While cultural norms have defined the career paths Asian Americans take, both the NCAA and professional leagues must take active steps to recruit Asian American athletes; however, this should not stop with just Asian American athletes—both collegiate and professional athletic associations should work to recruit Asians globally. From Lia Neal, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, to the Shibutani siblings who received both individual and team bronze medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is certainly a rise in Asian American athletic participation and media representation. Following the 2018 Olympics, the Shibutani siblings, often referred to as the ‘Shib sibs,’ made appearances on multiple media outlets including NBC Sports, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue. In a 2018 interview with the Huffington Post, Alex Shibutani explained how they were “the first team of Asian descent to win a medal in [their] discipline of figure skating in ice dance” and didn’t have “role models to look up to that looked like [them] in this sport.” Not only has this media exposure allowed the Shibutanis to be well-recognized for their achievements, but it has also sparked conversation about defying stereotypes and becoming role models for future Asian American athletes. Ultimately, with the turn of a new decade and the impending Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, it’s about time Asian American athletes receive adequate representation, fair opportunities, and true recognition for their successes.


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