Starved for Heroes: Fame, Fandom and Linsanity in Sports Today

Lin. Jeremy Lin. Linsanity. Without ever having used Twitter, I can make an educated guess that these are the most popular “trending” terms in the tweeting world. Everywhere you turn, you hear the name Jeremy Lin. And it’s not just limited to the sports world. Forbes and The Economist have feature articles on him. Time Magazine’s  Asian edition is featuring him on its cover. Heck, even Floyd Mayweather is talking about him, albeit negatively. All this, after just seven games. Yes, I agree that they were seven very exciting games. But that’s all they were. They weren’t playoff games or championship games.

And that is what gives rise to my cynicism. Jeremy Lin may be a feel-good, inspirational story. He may yet be the next big thing in basketball. He could possibly carry the New York Knicks on his back all the way to the Championships. He may even go on to break some records in his career. Judging from all the attention he is getting, you would think that he has already done all of that. The fact remains that he hasn’t.  In this way, Lin’s supernatural flight to stardom is similar to that of another recent athlete turned star, Tim Tebow. Just 2 months ago, it was “Tebow” time every Sunday, all over North America. Tebow seemed to single-handedly take his Denver Broncos, via a succession of thrilling fourth quarter comebacks, all the way to the NFL playoffs. Fast-forward to now, Jeremy Lin’s thrilling game-winning shot against the Raptors, and he seems to be doing the same: carrying the Knicks. For all intents and purposes, the similarities may end there. We know how Tebow’s season ended, with a crushing loss to the New England Patriots. No one knows where Lin’s season and future will take him.

The problem with sports today is that we are so starved for drama and spectacle that we create heroes out of mediocrity. My intention is by no means to downplay everything Jeremy Lin has accomplished to this point. My issue is that we celebrate “greatness” prematurely. We don’t judge based on results or achievement. We do so based on promise. There are two reasons this is not a good thing. Firstly, in today’s world, attention spans are short and information is changing at light speed. To prematurely launch someone into celebrity status may mean that by the time they actually accomplish something, fewer people care. Secondly, for those fans who do care, this may set them up for disappointment if the accomplishment doesn’t meet their lofty expectations.

So why are we so quick to deify certain athletes? I believe it is because the sports world in North America has long been mired in normalcy. Normal is not a bad thing. We’ve seen some exciting seasons in baseball, basketball, hockey and football. There have been records broken, and milestones achieved. Along the way, many skilled athletes have thrilled and wowed us. And yet, for a long time professional sports in North America have been awaiting the next Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky; you know, those players that are destined to shatter records and save the entire league. In fact, we are so hungry for such messianic players that every time a new star appears in the pipelines we start shouting “the next Jordan” or “the next Gretzky”. Major League Baseball seemed to have that in Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. And for a couple of seasons we all, fans and non-fans of baseball alike, watched them clobber homerun after homerun. Then, we found out they cheated. The National Hockey League almost had its saviours in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Crosby suffered a concussion and Ovechkin suffered from an ailment only he can diagnose.

What made heroes of yesterday great was that they were (or perceived to be) great in every way. Jordan and Gretzky were not just amazing athletes, they were also great ambassadors for the sport. They were role models. They inspired with their play and with their words. Over time, we have come to expect that of our sports heroes. We are not satisfied with exceptional play, clutch performances and record-shattering accomplishment. We also want, nay, demand Hollywood pizzazz, perfect humility and impeccable character. If a hero fails on any of these accounts, they are hurled from god-like status overnight (see Tiger Woods).

That brings us to today. Every sport currently has its great players. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Lebron James are bona fide NBA stars who have proven themselves. NHL has its Sedins, Steve Stamkos or Pavel Datsyuk. NFL has Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Payton Manning. You could even add Eli to that list now. All of these players are consistently among the best in their sport. They deserve accolades because they have accomplished great things, time and time again. They may not be super human, but they are great. Yet, we keep yearning for more. We want that drama and spectacle. We want that rags to riches, bench-warmer to MVP story. Great isn’t good enough any more, so we take mediocre and somehow turn the “promise” of greatness into godliness. Then, when the promise fails us (as with Tebow) we quickly jump on to the next big wave.

From a truly sports standpoint, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin are not great. They may one day become great. But that remains to be seen. To hurl these players into celebrity status so quickly is to lower the standard of success in sport. Look at it this way: according to a recent Forbes article, Jeremy Lin has now been on the cover of Time Magazine as many times as Michael Jordan (Jordan was only featured once!). Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Martin Brodeur, Sidney Crosby, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have never been on its cover.

I hope that one day Jeremy Lin achieves greatness, whether by winning a championship or by consistently being a league leader in scoring. That day, I will celebrate him and incessantly write “linsanity” on my Facebook statuses. Until then, he is just another good basketball player with plenty of promise.

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