By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University
It is hard to be anywhere in New York and not hear the name of Jeremy Lin. His accomplishments are impressive, and his story is compelling, but he also has clearly filled a void in the New York media world, at least where the struggling Knicks are concerned.
The anomalous highlights of his meteoric two-week career are well known: a Taiwanese-American point guard who played college basketball at Harvard, one whose masterful timing in the pick and roll nonetheless failed to generate sufficient interest to earn him a starting role on any of the three teams who considered fielding him.
At least until February 4th, when the desperate New York Knickerbockers (then 7-15) decided to shake things up yet again, and started him. Lin played tenaciously and intelligently, and he led (if that is the right word) the Knicks to the first of seven straight wins, the last of which came with a buzzer-beating shot of his own against the struggling Raptors (9-21) on Asian Heritage Night in Toronto (“Be my VaLINtine” posted one eager fan). The Knicks’ streak came to a groaning halt last Saturday night with an 89-85 loss to the New Orleans Hornets at home in Madison Square Garden. I heard those groans loud and clear in the New Jersey bar where I watched the fourth quarter.
Given his religious commitments, comparisons between Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow were inevitable, I suppose—the up and coming star with some obvious technical flaws but great heart, the spiritual adept turning a struggling franchise around with repeatedly dramatic and last-minute victories they seem virtually to will into being.
Enter David Brooks who, in a column drafted after the Knicks’ VaLINtine victory, curiously referred to “the Jeremy Lin Problem”.
Brooks refers to “a religious person in professional sports” as an “anomaly,” which seems rather odd to anyone who has witnessed the prayer circles before and after most professional football games, or the finger-to-the-sky salute after most home runs in baseball, but let that lie. It is the reasons Brooks finds the marriage of religion and sport “anomalous” that are worthy of consideration.
For Brooks, there is an inescapable moral tension between what he calls “the ethos of sport” and “the ethos of faith.” By “faith,” he explicitly limits himself to the three scriptural monotheisms, so we might well wonder if what he really means to underline here is an apparent contradiction between pagan virtue and Christian virtue.
Reading on, we discover that this is precisely what he means to do.
The pagan virtues of the athlete, he tells us, are fierce competitiveness, personal ambition, pride, self-assertion and self-dramatization, a willingness to do anything to win. By contrast, the virtue of the religious person may be captured in one word: humility.
In other words, you can’t connect the Sermon on the Mount to the gridiron.
Except that you can. If you have never read the Sermon on the Mount, and just recall those memorable lines about the meek and the poor being blessed and inheriting the earth, then it’s easy to forget that Jesus in this same Sermon tells his hearers that if their hand or eye offend them, then they should cut them off or pluck them out. Many a professional athlete engages in precisely that sort of ascetic self-denial throughout their relatively short careers. Religion, very much like professional sport, is a hard code.
But the key for Brooks is this: “[The athlete’s] primary virtue is courage–the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.” He then casually throws out the conclusion that explains what this essay is really all about. This athletic ethos, and this list of pagan virtues, is what ultimately explains the contemporary world of corporate, academic, and political life.
Yowza. Let’s try to break that down.
For Aristotle, that great summarian of pagan virtue, courage was indeed a headline virtue. It is the first virtue he discusses at any length in the Nicomachean Ethics and it has been remembered ever since as one of the so-called cardinal virtues. Most of Aristotle’s examples in his discussion of courage come from the battlefield rather than the Olympics, however.
It was Thomas Aquinas’s great achievement to suggest, and then to display how, pagan and Christian virtues were not necessarily incompatible. The point for Aquinas was to take the virtue of courage off of the battlefield, and to explore its essential qualities in other social arenas… like martyrdom.
But Paul, himself reputed by the tradition to be a very early Christina martyr, repeatedly used athletic metaphors in describing the life of Christian faith (“I have run the good race,” he suggests most memorably, “I have fought the good fight”). Later Christians, already in the late first and second centuries, regularly referred to the martyrs as Christian “athletes” (it’s a Greek word, after all).
Why does Brooks fail to see this? Why does he want to drive such a wedge between pagan and Christian virtue? Is he simply suggesting that Wall Street, the modern university and the US Congress cannot be Christianized?
No, what Brooks misses is that Jeremy Lin is the member of a team, and that the virtues are social phenomena, not individual ones.
Now, it is the case that there were no team sports at the ancient Olympics; Greek athletes competed ferociously, and they competed alone. But team sports are the dominant feature of modern sport, and they are an essential feature of modern life. The key for a point guard like Jeremy Lin is not to score on every trip to the basket; the point is to enable someone on his team to score. He is a brilliant passer as well as a deft reader of set screens and posts. His virtue is his ability to bring a flagging team together.
That is what modern sports are centrally about. That is why we encourage young people, boys and girls alike, to play them. Sport is a school for virtue, and virtues like courage do not belong strictly to the athlete or to the Christian. They are supposed to belong in every social arena, regardless of confession or creed.
That is the story embodied in the fledgling careers of Jeremy Lin, of Tim Tebow, of a hundred other athletes whose names we know, and the thousands more whose names we do not. It is primarily a story about teamwork, selflessly working toward common ends and aims, the demanding code of individual excellence married to our moral responsibilities for one another.
And that is the story the current Republican ethos, an ethos that Brooks’s columns represent quite eloquently, seems most consistently to miss.