For Asian American sports pros, stereotype is the challenger to beat

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Taiwanese American Jeremy Lin was the Knicks star player in 2012, handing his team a turnaround victory and sparking "Linsanity." But that didn't stop the racial slurs hurled at him then — and today.

Why it matters: Lin has bounced around the NBA from team to team, and from the pros to the minor leagues and back. He's one of a handful of professional Asian American athletes who have broken color lines and struggled to open doors for athletes coming after them.

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By the numbers: Asian Americans are among the fastest-growing U.S. ethnic groups, yet are underrepresented in professional sports.

  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders account for 20.4 million people in the U.S., roughly 6% of the nation's population.

  • Still, they are vastly underrepresented in the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Scholars say Asian American children are stereotyped as strong students, blocking them out of the sports recruiting systems that pull in Black and Latino youth. Parents also seek to protect them from discrimination.

  • "Japanese Americans... were so traumatized by the incarceration during World War II that our parents told us to strive to be a professional. It's more secure. Sports is too fragile," Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, told Axios.

  • Sports organizations don't provide mentoring for Asian American athletes because they're perceived as "not really athletic," Stan Thangaraj, an anthropology professor at The City University of New York, told Global Sport Matters in 2018.

Between the lines: Hearing slurs while scrimmaging as children also discourages young Asian Americans, Souichi Terada writes for the Guardian.

Details: Stereotypes today depict Asians as nerds, emasculate Asian men and fetishize Asian women as meek and submissive, according to the American Psychological Association, images that don't align with athletics.

Of note: More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered to internment camps during World War II. The internees organized baseball teams that were allowed to travel to play teams in other camps, Nakagawa said.

Reality check: Asians and Asian Americans have been part of professional or semi-professional sports in the U.S. for nearly a century.

Asian American athletes are now breaking ground in mixed martial arts (MMA).

  • Joshua Quinlan has gained a following with his explosive punching and undefeated 4-0 professional record.

  • Quinlan, who is Japanese and white, told Axios he has always been aware that fewer Asian Americans compete in MMA because of the stereotypes.

  • "I'm not letting that limit me," he said, adding that it's more important for him to "push through and be the example" for other Asian Americans who want to pursue the sport.

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