This past month or so has been pretty amazing for Asian and Asian American sports fans. While JACL was concluding our annual National Convention, Collin Morikawa was wrapping up his PGA Open Championship for his second major victory in as many years. The Tokyo Olympics brought the names of Jay Litherland, Justine Wong-Orantes, Lee Kiefer, Torri Huske, Erica Sullivan and, of course, Sunisa Lee into America’s awareness. Asian Americans and Japanese Americans were well-represented amongst the athletes and the medal winners.
Bookending all of this were Shohei Ohtani’s appearance in MLB’s All-Star Game as the brightest star in baseball, and recently, he became the first player to reach 40 home runs in a game where he pitched eight innings, giving up only one run. Yet, despite his achievements on the field, the stories around both those events were not actually about Ohtani, but the remarks of individuals from the sports media.
Before the All-Star Game, Stephen A. Smith, an often-controversial personality on ESPN, asserted that Ohtani is harmful to the league as the face of baseball because he communicates through an interpreter. Just last week, Jack Morris, a former pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and now an announcer for Tigers’ television broadcasts, used a mocking accent when talking about Ohtani.
This was a perfect example of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ohtani was criticized for using an interpreter because his English is not proficient enough to respond to media questions in English, but even if he were to do so, it would be with an accent worthy of mockery by that same sports media.
It is an unsurprising, yet all-to-often refrain when talking about Asian athletes. Rather than focusing on the performance, distractions around issues of language have taken the front seat in news about Ohtani. It is especially ironic when sports are thought of as a meritocracy, and yet for all the successful athletes seen at the Olympics, we don’t always see similar success in the professional leagues.
Former NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin alluded to this when not a single NBA team picked him up during his recent time spent in the NBA’s development league despite performing at a high level, with stat lines comparable to or better than those of players who were elevated to NBA rosters. Instead, he has returned to China to play professional ball there, where there is no stigma to being an Asian athlete in a league where there are few others that look like him.
It largely went under the radar, but also within the past two weeks, a Green Bay Packers wide receiver was quoted using the word “ch*nky.” The reality is that whether it is in sports, or wider society, these incidents continue to happen.
Within the context of over 9,000 reported hate incidents to the site StopAAPIHate.org since March 2020, it is not a stretch to wonder how many more of these incidents happen behind closed doors, whether it is in the locker rooms or the board rooms, where Asian and Asian American representation remains minimal.
What these incidents demonstrate is the myth of the meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy is peddled in tandem with the idea of the model minority, that Asians are successful when we are judged purely on our merits through test scores and quantitative assessment. Quantitatively, Lin should probably have been playing for an NBA team these past few years instead of going to China. Clearly, that is not the case.
All of these incidents demonstrate that anti-Asian racism exists in the supposedly purely meritocratic world of sports, it is not much of a leap to believe that racism impacts playing-time decisions, whether it is in the Major Leagues or the Little Leagues.
I have been coaching my son’s Little League teams since he started in tee-ball. Coaches at that level possess immense power in saying who gets to play what positions and how much. Decision making as inconsequential as making the lineup for my son’s team can still have ripple effects further down the line.
A player who gets encouragement early, or maybe discouragement, will change how they see the game and whether sports is a viable path for them. Seeing how players like Ohtani are treated by the public also influences how younger players might expect they will be treated in their futures.
These incidents of seemingly minor racism and xenophobia only scratch the surface of how those attitudes impact much larger decisions and why not only Major League Baseball but also the National Football League and all of America need to examine our prejudices and how they impact our decisions regardless of the type of discrimination to which it eventually takes form. We must do better so that today’s little leaguers can aspire to be the next Shohei Ohtani.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.