Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday's Musings on Sports - Armor, Frozen Yogurt and a Few Good Words

With every passing day, the Linsanity seems to grow. People who had abandoned all hope in the New York Knicks are now beginning to watch games again. Casual fans are reading the sports pages or listening to sports radio. But the impact on the non-sports fans is even more difficult to believe. If news reports are to be believed, Taiwanese tour groups are selling $2,000 trips to the United States, which include tickets to a New York Knick game. Meanwhile, fans in China are tuning into games like they did when Yao Ming first came to the Rockets. And the Linpact has been credited with causing a reconciliation between Time Warner and Cablevision so that the Knicks could be seen on cable again.

Given Jeremy Lin's Asian-American heritage, there has also been a concomitant impact on the self-image of Asian children in this country who have come to identify with Lin, both as a basketball player as well as a person. The Lin story has appeal beyond the court, since he is a player who was twice cut and needed the right opportunity to show his skills.

But while there have been many, many, positive stories about Lin and his heritage, there have also been some negative pieces as well. Numerous athletes have posited that if Lin was not Asian-American, there would not have been as much of a story about his impact on basketball. But even more than the players who have voiced their opinions, there have been racial slurs from the media, such as the headlines which used a pejorative term for Chinese in connection with armor.

(No I don't have a problem with the Ben & Jerry's flavor which used fortune cookies together with lychee honey and vanilla ice cream. If they made a flavor with matza farfel or some other Jewish ethnic food and named it after a Jewish athlete other than Ryan Braun, I would be proud, not perturbed, but I digress...)

The negative impact on an Asian kid who saw the headline or heard it on the radio is hard to overlook. Certain terms are known to be racial slurs and even if the word has a neutral meaning in other contexts, when the word is used in connection with a minority athlete, there simply cannot be any innocent explanation.

I heard a story about the power of words at the end of this past week's R' Frand shiur. R' Frand told a story about a man who recently passed away in his mid eighties. The man had been a builder of his shul and the local Jewish day school in a community which did not have a large Jewish population. When he was asked once why he was so dedicated to building these Jewish institutions, he told over a story about his bar-mitzva.

The man had been bar-mitzva'd seventy years earlier in a different small town. At the time, a bar mitzva was simply an aliyah and the reading of the haftorah - nothing like today's production. After the (boy) finished reading the haftorah he heard two men discussing him. One commented that the boy had done a good job, while the other responded, but will he come back for Mincha. The first man responded - "this one is different." The boy never forgot this conversation and the simple four words spoken by this anonymous man stayed in his head for the rest of his life. R' Frand (who did not reveal the name of the man) said that the man was the only one from his family to go away to yeshiva to learn, was the only one who married an orthodox Jewish woman and all of his children and grandchildren were frum. All because of the simple four words spoken by a man who probably did not know they were being heard - "this boy is different."

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