Sunisa Lee and Racism in the Sports World

Written by: Ryan

Edited by: Jagat

Visuals by: Macy

Last Monday, November 15, Olympic gold-medal gymnast Sunisa Lee said she was a victim of a racist attack. She was waiting for an Uber in Los Angeles with a group of Asian friends when a car pulled over and told them to “go back to where they came from” before the unidentified passengers pepper sprayed the gymnast’s arm and sped off. The attack, which was clearly racially motivated, deeply angered her. “I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” Lee said. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen.” 

The incident occured in the wake of an increase in Asian hate crimes in the US, many of which were motivated by the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other athletes have also been experiencing racism both on and off the court. Jeremy Lin, an Asian American NBA player, said that he was called “Coronavirus” by a player on the opposing team. Younghoe Koo, a kicker in the NFL, stated that his own teammates made jokes about the shooting in Atlanta in which six Asian women died.

Many figures,both Asian and non Asian in the sports world have taken to social media to address the issue, using hashtags such as “#stophate” to spread awareness about Asian hate. However, the increased awareness has not resulted in a substantial downtick in Asian hate crimes. Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University and a co-founder of the reporting forum Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate, said that the posts have been instrumental in raising awareness. However, “Asian athletes can be in the ‘in group’ and the ‘out group,’” Jeung said. “They can bond with their teammates, but they can also be vilified by the opposing team and ‘othered.’ Rival fans can be pretty racist.” Rui Hachimura, a Japanese NBA player, posted on social media that he receives these comments “almost every day”.

The persistence of Asian hate in the sports world calls into question the influence that athletes have on their fans. The Black Lives Matter movement that was reignited by the death of George Floyd in early 2020 united the whole sports world to spread awareness on the issue. While Asian hate crimes have not been as incessant as those against African Americans, the contrast sheds light on the representation of the Asian community in professional sports. For example, in the NBA, 74.2% of athletes identify as African American while only 0.4% are of Asian descent (and there is even less representation in most other leagues). So naturally, when many of the star players such as Lebron James and Stephen Curry tweeted out about the issue of Asian hate, they were not as passionate about it as neither of them are Asian, and most of their teammates are not either. 

The racial disparity in the sports world is its own issue, but the lack of Asian representation in major sports leagues means that positive change regarding Asian hate will have to come from athletes of other ethnicities. Just as white, Asian, and Hispanic athletes stood behind African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, athletes of all races must support the Asian community for progress to happen.