Jeremy Lin: Sports vs. Religion?

By Tom Rosshirt

February 24, 2012 5 min read

Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate who was not drafted by any team in the NBA but has had a stunning debut season playing point guard for the New York Knicks, has been the trigger for a lot of talk over the past few weeks. But one of the most interesting lines of discussion was suggested last week in a New York Times column by David Brooks, a man who makes it safe for columnists to write about deeper subjects than political campaigns.

Brooks wrote that Lin's "biggest anomaly" is that he is a "religious person in professional sports. ... We shouldn't forget how problematic this is."

Brooks argues that sport is oriented around victory and supremacy, glory and fame, whereas religion's primary virtue is humility, self-effacement, serving a larger cause. The ethos of professional sports, Brooks says, "violates the religious ethos on many levels."

"The two moral universes are not reconcilable."

I agree with Brooks that there is tension between the two worlds and that the worlds seem irreconcilable, especially when you see the displays of passionate self-worship in the NFL and NBA. But at the same time, there are athletes who play hurt for the team, embrace a supporting role, pass the ball instead of taking a shot, or refuse to gloat in front of a fallen opponent.

In those moments, it seems to me that the values of team and the call of faith make the same claim: Swallow your pride; show some humility; do something for others.

David Maraniss wrote in his biography of Vince Lombardi: "The fundamental principles that (Lombardi) used in coaching — repetition, discipline, clarity, faith, subsuming individual ego to a larger good — were merely extensions of the religious ethic he learned from the Jesuits. In that sense, he made no distinction between the practice of religion and the sport of football."

Brooks wrote, "The sports hero tries to perform great deeds into order to win glory and fame." But are glory and fame really the daily goal of the right guard or of the guy who sets up as the last blocker in front of the punter or of the guy who holds the football for the placekicker? He doesn't get glory or fame. He gets anonymity or public shame.

Yet the most surprising aspect of Brooks' argument is that he singled out the conflict between religion and sports. But if you wanted to choose a livelihood more hospitable to religion, where would you go? Politics — in which a campaign can be won by smearing your opponent? Business — in which the quest for profits can be made easier by underpaying workers or overcharging customers? Conflict is everywhere. There is even conflict between religion and, say, religion. Many clerics sacrificed the lives of young boys to protect the reputation of the church.

In the end, is Brooks saying that Lin would be a better Christian if he weren't an NBA player? Or is he saying he'd be a better NBA player if he weren't a serious Christian?

I'm not sure either has to be true. Can't Lin be a better Christian precisely because he is a professional basketball player — because the culture offers him daily temptations to pride — and temptations, when resisted, make us stronger? And can't an unselfish player be more successful than a selfish one?

But even if you insist that a professional athlete has to sacrifice excellence to pursue humility, it's hard to argue that professional athletes don't have an advantage in answering the lighter, more joyful call of religion — to spread good will and do good deeds.

In early October 2005, I took my young son out to Nationals Park to see the Washington Nationals' last game of the season. We arrived early and went down near the home team's dugout to watch batting practice. After completing his swings, second baseman Jamey Carroll walked toward us, carrying his bag of batting practice bats. He stopped at the top of the dugout steps, pulled out a bat, looked straight at my son and, with a wink and a smile, slid the bat to him across the top of the dugout.

What other line of work lets you give that kind of joy to an 8-year-old boy?

Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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