David Brooks is becoming must-readable these days.
Yesterday he had a column in the New York Times which, invoking the Harvard-grad and budding Asian-American NBA superstar Jeremy Lin, made the bold claim that, “The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.” You see, Jeremy Lin is trying to be explicitly religious while he climbs to NBA stardom. But Brooks says:
The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.
The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.
He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.
For Brooks, this is in conflict with this religious ethos on many levels, which “is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.”
I have suggested elsewhere that the violence built into sports like American football might be at odds with Christian values. And though Brooks is onto something here as well, his sweeping claims about the “moral ethos of sport” are far too strong. It certainly doesn’t apply to the whole world of sport, and the world of team sports perhaps especially resists Brooks’ critique.
Lin plays basketball. Consider that one of the most important statistics for him as a point guard is called an ‘assist.’ Of its very nature, it is a relational- and other-centered statistic. In my view, an even more important statistic is one’s ‘assist-to-turnover’ ratio (Lin’s is actually quite poor), which compares how much you help your team verses how much you hurt your team. Hockey is even better at highlighting this point, and closely tracks a +/- statistic which measures how well your team does while you are on the ice without any reference to what you have done specifically or individually to make that happen. (They also measure a player’s second assists–the person who assisted the person who assisted the person who scored. Talk about a relational anthropology!)
Yes, sport may be about winning, but it is also about following the rules. It is not all about winning. The University of Southern California learned this recently when they had their football national championship stripped for a host of serious rules violations. Fairness and justice are set up to trump the ‘win at all costs’ mentality.
Perhaps where Brooks’ argument has its strongest point of contact with sport is when it becomes infected with consumerism. In the era of the first true media superstars, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s were promoted in part because they made their teammates better. (Their assist and rebound numbers were proof of this.) But Brooks is right to point out that the major American sports have since become leagues in which we prize and promote the individual-warrior-celebrity in ways that are incompatible which the ethos of the Abrahamic religions.
The Olympics of the last 15 years or so have put this all on display quite clearly. We saw that USA basketball had devolved into the money- and individual star-making enterprise that ESPN and Sports Illustrated created, and in the process it had lost the very virtues that help teams win basketball games. But given that the whole league had changed, and because it was insulated from other leagues, it didn’t realize this fact. Once out of the consumerist NBA bubble, however, the best basketball players in the US were beaten by teams that had inferior individual ability, but played team basketball. In other words, by playing basketball with the virtues inherent to the practice of basketball rather than with the virtues inherent to the practice of consumerism. It wasn’t until Coach K returned us to our roots of team basketball–which involve sacrifice of the self for the good of the community (both the team, and that group of people which the team represents)–that Team USA played to its potential.
Brooks’ important argument certainly applies to the effect consumerism has had on sports, but not to the very nature of sports, which can and does build important virtues in players which actually support the religious ethos he wants to defend.