The Time 100 List Has An Athlete Problem

The Time list of 2012’s 100 Most Influential People omitted any black athletes and praised Jeremy Lin for his lack of “bling.” What’s going on here?

The only two American athletes to make Time’s list of the Most Influential People of 2012 are Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. They’re not unreasonable choices, of course: both have become celebrities and phenomena beyond their (insignificant, trivial) achievements on the field/court. But if you’re gauging the influence of athletes — who play sports — and you think Tebow and Lin outweigh guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Cam Newton, and Mike Vick, you should think about it a little more.

The magazine’s rationale for including Lin seems especially off. In Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s blurb on Lin, he writes:

Often it’s the bling, the glam, the individual that gets celebrated — not the team and working together to advance a goal bigger than oneself. … And I don’t care whether you are an Asian-American kid, white, black or Hispanic, Jeremy’s story tells you that if you show grit, discipline and integrity, you too can get an opportunity to overcome the odds.

Between his confused-dad-in-the-’90s use of the word “bling” and his weird interpretation of overcoming the odds — you, too, can overcome the odds that accrue against you as a result of GOING TO HARVARD — Duncan seems to have his own problematic views on what makes someone a role model.

Let’s talk about Derrick Rose and LeBron James for a second: Rose grew up as one of four children of a single mother in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. And yet, he won an MVP award at a younger age than Jeremy Lin was when he started his first game. By all accounts, he is a kind and humble guy who gives back to the community. LeBron hasn’t been on the list since 2005, when he was noteworthy as an idea, for his potential, and less as a person. This year, though, he’s having one of the greatest NBA seasons in history, and he has become a cultural giant who inspires heated debate and fierce adoration. “Bling” shouldn’t come into the equation; who is Arne Duncan to say how people spend their money, anyway?

The issue here isn’t Lin’s merits. It’s that somehow, because he went to college for four years, because he is Chinese-American and a Christian — because it isn’t the “bling” that’s being celebrated — Lin is a worthy role model to children of every race. He is, but it’s not because of bling, whatever the hell that means. Rose and LeBron are right now two of the five best basketball players in the world, and millions of kids look up to them for it as well, and, if Lin and Tebow are on that list, at least one of them should be too.

The American Secretary of Education may call their visibility bling or glam or whatever. I call it influence.

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