Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Religious Athlete

It's impossible to watch ESPN, or an NBA game, or read the sports section these days without hearing or seeing a reference to Jeremy Lin.

From the awful ("Linevitable"?) puns in the New York Post to breathless "Top Ten Lin Moments" on SportsCenter (after one week as a starter? seriously?) he has been everywhere. And not without reason - his is a "feel good" story if ever there was one, although one suspects if he was plying his trade in Houston or San Francisco, his two former NBA teams, he wouldn't be getting nearly the press that comes with playing in Madison Square Garden.

Lin shooting over a Laker in a recent game.

By far the most interesting analysis regarding Lin's instant fame, however, hasn't been from ESPN or even the New York Times sports section. It's been from David Brooks, the Times' columnist, who analyzed Lin's faith and, as Brooks sees it, the inevitable conflict between devoutly religious athletes and athletic success. 

Brooks believes that success in the sports world and living a religious life are antithetical. Far be it from me to summarize Brooks' position -- he is perhaps the political and social pundit whose writing and intellect I admire most -- so let's just let him say it:

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it's not about you . . . Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed -- and fail.

As much as I agree with Brooks regarding many star athletes, I disagree just as strongly with regard to sport in general, and amateur sports in particular. Devotion to a craft or simply a belief in one's natural talent may result in self-centeredness at the pinnacle of a sport, particularly individual sports, which may be difficult to reconcile with subservience or submission to a great power or the greater good. But Brooks paints with too broad a brush. While a belief in oneself or the need to prove oneself may be necessary to the inner drive that is required to succeed at the very highest level, team sports teach us something very different.

The concept of team, and with it that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, is the very essence of sport. It also permeates every aspect of our daily lives, on the field and off. Being a "team player" or "taking one for the team" are concepts that everyone in our culture understands and most value. Sports at any level can and do teach us that practice, hard work, and perseverance can help make even that teammate who is not naturally gifted or athletically talented a valued member. Even if it's just by working hard in practice, or providing a warm body to scrimmage against, or supporting teammates during a game.

These values that anyone can learn by participating in a team sport - loyalty, honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice - are exactly the same as those demanded by our religious ethos, or even more generally, by democracies. I don't see a conflict between succeeding as a team member and religion or society. In fact, I believe that what sports teach us about teamwork is another reason why our society values sport, and why it can and does make us better members of that collective effort.

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