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Seth Engel Headshot

Jeremy Lin and What It Means to Be an Underdog

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Lin-sanity! Lin-VP! Lay-up for the Lin!

A Harvard grad with a name worth $14 million in advertising deals is being praised as a hero of the downtrodden, an underdog who made it big, and the savior of both the Knicks (who have always needed saving) and Asians (who might need saving now because of this kind of thing). Reverend Al Sharpton has called Lin's tale "Cinderella-like" and a "reminder never to look down on the marginalized."

A Broken System

Before we hop on the bandwagon, let's take a field trip back to high school. Remember that absolute genius in calculus who was able to intuitively grasp complex mathematics and put the solutions on paper? Aced every exam? And don't you remember how cool it was when recruiters from Princeton and MIT observed your classes and eventually drafted her straight out of high school? No, you don't remember?

OK, fine, she was kind of a nerd anyway. But what about that student who made the insanely complex machines out of tubes and balloons in physics class? Remember how she was headhunted by Carnegie Mellon right out of 11th grade? What? You don't?

Oh, OK. I realize why you can't remember any of this -- because it didn't happen. Because it was the lacrosse, football, and baseball players who were being scouted, paid, honored, and touted as heroes. Because excelling at science and math, while in theory a good thing, were seen more as liabilities in high school than advantages. Except for the rare exception, in fact, those who excel in math and science would find themselves marginalized and the artistically inclined would find their favorite classes the first to be cut.

The U.S. is very, very behind in science and math education. In what many see as the richest country in the world, we are below the world average in science and math education (placing even behind Estonia), costing our economy an estimated 9 to 16% of its potential growth.

The Real Underdogs

Jeremy Lin went to Harvard University. He had the extraordinary choice to go to this school, in no small part thanks to his basketball skills. He then went on to doggedly pursue his dream, a career in basketball. But how many kids would kill just to go to Harvard? How many Asian Americans hunger for the chance to study at one of the world's top institutions, who are, contrary to popular cliché, not all gifted in science and math? And which qualified individual's spot was instead taken by Jeremy Lin?

One of the novelties of Lin's story is that he went to Harvard as a basketball player and then, despite his diploma, persevered as a basketball player after graduating. In a way, he represents the ultimate victory of the jock over the nerd -- between his hands he grasped the biggest honor an academic-minded high-schooler could dream of and threw it away in order to dominate Madison Square Garden.

Let's not forget that education is a class and a race issue. Lin-sanity is occurring in a country where living in poverty means little to no healthcare coverage, where 16.3% of all people have no medical insurance, 27% of blacks and Hispanics are poor, and there is a 46% variation between the math scores of kids in poor and wealthy neighborhoods.

As fun as it is to watch the Knicks play well again and to see an undrafted Harvard kid lead them to victory, I refuse to see Lin as an underdog. Yes, he overcame tremendous odds as well as racial stereotypes to get where he is. But these odds came in the context of a privileged world, a world where sports rule and poverty is scoffed at. Not all underdogs are created equal -- let's not forget to root for the forgotten ones as well.