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.
Thanks for this piece, Charles. A corrective to DB was much needed and much appreciated. For anyone interested further in competition and sports:
Matt Morin – The Good Gift of the Game
Also by Matt Morin – The Confessions of a Cage Fighter: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the Fear of Losing Control
Have a great weekend,
I appreciate the distinction between sports and the consumerism that has infected it and everything else, but I wonder about the inherent virtues of sports. Even if sports at its best directs players to place the team above their own glory, players are supposed to do this for the glory of their team. Why is that an important good to pursue? Does playing major league sports really develop virtue in its players? Does watching major league sports help viewers grow in virtue? Do all the hours that kids now spend in sports develop virtue in them and in their parents who spend all those hours driving and watching them? I don’t know. It sure doesn’t seem like a general trend, and I’m not sure we can blame all of that on consumerism. Wouldn’t it better if both grown-ups and kids found other practices in which they could engage in self-sacrifice for the sake of goods communities truly need?
Hi Julie…thanks for your hard and good questions. I suppose one thing I’d want to do is distinguish between “inherent virtues in sports” and then some of the other things you mentioned like “doing things for the ‘glory’ of your team” and “obsessed watching of major league sports” and “parents obsessed about sports, driving their kids all over the country, etc.”, etc. I can certainly see how those things might be bad under certain circumstances.
However, first, I’d be careful not to underestimate the value of learning to sacrifice for the good of the community (which happens on almost every sports team). That is a very important lesson to learn especially for a young person, and there aren’t many places today where they are able to do it–especially in a way that fits within their local community or social group. Getting up early before school, staying late after, workout out hard in the gym, developing discipline, etc. Second, I’m not sure that it really is all about glory–either for the player or for the parent who is encouraging it. Many players train and work hard even if they know they are likely going to have a poor team. In fact, one of the reasons I always wanted to encourage my children to play sports was to understand the importance of learning how to lose. Learning how to deal with disappointment. Learning how to be gracious to the other team after a loss and shake hands. Learning how to deal with adversity and pick one’s self up off the mat and go back to practice and get better. Third, also don’t underestimate the importance of learning to play by the rules. Learning that the ultimate rule which governs sport is not actually “glory” or evening “winning” (is wanting to win necessarily bad? and is it the same as wanting “glory”?), but justice and fairness. It was a great lesson for all of us on my junior high basketball team when a bunch of our teammates–three very good players, without whom we weren’t going to win–were forced to sit on the bench in a shirt and tie because they were academically ineligible.
I’m not saying that there aren’t issues. But the vast majority of them seem come from sports being infected by other kinds of values. Of course, it is naive to think that isn’t going to happen–sports take place in a culture and that culture will affect the values with which sports is played. But I’ve played, coached, and watched sports is a fairly pure form and seen the good it can bring. It is not something to be dismissed as necessarily in tension with our religious values as Brooks claims.
Thanks, Charlie, for a great post. Your link drove me back the earlier post (which I missed) about the morality of football. As a life-long and, okay rather rabid, NY Giants fan, I’ve wrestled with the violence of football quite a bit though I’ve never played it extensively myself. I’ve been frustrated with the NFL’s hypocrisy in its failure to throw its full weight behind concussion-reducing helmets and edified by players such as Kurt Warner who speak out against the the over-amped machismo culture that drives players to return to play before being medically cleared. I think Charlie is right to point at the ability of sport to from us as self-sacrificial people, even if there are overly violent ways of harnessing that team mentality and executing the play of the game. This is anecdotal, I know, but I remember hearing a study presented on NPR a few years ago that suggested that the higher a baseball player scored on the individuality portion of a personality test, the better a baseball player he was. It was the opposite for football. I think that John Gagliardi’s approach to coaching football at St. John’s in Collegeville – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ku61YoB9xQ – and his record doing so speak to the possibility of having an excellent football program at a Catholic school (the driving question of Charlie’s earlier post). Even though St. John’s is a division III school, Gagliardi’s success without seemingly encouraging a “knock their block off” mentality is, at least, hopeful.
Tim and Charlie,
I appreciate your highlighting aspects of team sports I probably overlook. Yet I still wonder, Is so much focus on this particular activity really the best way to form people in virtue?
We just received a contract from one son’s team at his Catholic high school. It talks a great deal about giving your all to the team and doing your personal best. And it tells us in no uncertain terms that nothing is to get in the way of the two and half hour practice every day (and Saturdays if there is no meet)–not service or any other school activity, not family time (even on Spring Break), not taking the SAT, not visiting colleges, not a job. This rigorous schedule leaves no room for players to serve others or develop their talents in any other area. More and more, athletes are encouraged to focus on one sport year-round. They go to school, go to practice, do homework, and get up and do it all over again. I know these young men are learning self-discipline and teamwork, but I’m not at all sure that they’re becoming men for others, which is supposedly what Catholic schools are all about. Maybe some balance is called for.
That is pretty extreme, Julie. In fact I’ve never heard of that before for a high school–especially such long hours of practice. I think this kind of thing should be called out, particularly at a Catholic school. However, this will not contractually bind him in the summers or off season, right? During this time he could take on some other kinds of other-centered activities, no?
Charlie, thanks for your thoughts on this topic. Julie, I hear you and think your point is very important, in light of the fact that parents get caught up in unhealthy patterns of competition. I could say stuff about mimetic rivalry writ onto the playing field, but I’ll refrain.
I just finished watching the Mighty Macs with my 12 year-old basketball player. Great story–the women’s version of Hoosiers–about how a team raises the hopes of an entire college. It’s a bit of a truism: seeing past self to greater good of the team; team’s performance helps people there think differently about themselves; spirits rise; excellence ensues, etc. (Full disclosure: I teach at the university where Doug Flutie’s statue stands outside the football stadium.)
Here’s my point. There is nothing inherently sinful about sports any more than about buying and selling or any number of other human activities. The question for me is how we can engage in sports–and encourage our kids to engage in them–in light of the redemption. How can we redeem sports so that goodness and truth and beauty emerge?
I also spent many years coaching (rowing). I understand the “no excuses” policy for showing up, especially in a team sport. If one person misses only every couple of weeks you never have a full squad. Does that cause a burden? Yes. But it can be seen as a form of respect for all the others who have to make similar sacrifices. Perhaps the sacrifices are hard precisely because we are already overscheduling our kids’ lives, and focusing on one thing is helpfully countercultural.