"The moral ethos of sport," writes New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks today—and let's pause right there for a word of professional advice: if you use the word "sport," you should not be writing about sports, unless you are British and you also write "maths," in which case you may write about "sport" but we won't care because, good gravy, British sports.
American writers who use "sport" to mean "sports" are trying to signal that they are discussing something more ineffable and profound than the actual sports played by actual people. In Brooks's case, this is true, because what that sentence goes on to say is that the moral ethos of sport "is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim." All of this is Brooks's expansion on his central, eagerly news-pegged claim that Jeremy Lin is an "anomaly" because he is "a religious person in professional sports."
Brooks concedes that there is a "Tim Tebow" out there, and that the public has even "become accustomed" to figures who combine religion and athletics. Don't worry, Kurt Warner, Dwight Howard, Josh Hamilton, Troy Polamalu, and Albert Pujols! He's not trying to make you feel unusual. He doesn't really mean "anomaly" when he writes "anomaly." He's just saying that there is a "problematic" relationship between two of America's most widespread and overlapping sets of cultural practices.
David Brooks's entire career has been one long, tragic bluff, in which a spectacularly effete nerd from the University of Chicago—ensconced in the Washington D.C. suburbs and the community of elite mainstream journalists—peddles himself as an oppositional figure to the college-educated liberal professional class, an expert on Real America. This upmarket Jeff Foxworthy shtick has led to endless pratfalls over facts that any Real American sixth-grader could keep straight.
But it's impossible to shame a writer whose politics and persona are built on displaced self-loathing. So here's Brooks, tying on his leather football helmet and dashing into the fray, explaining what Americans want from the ideal Hero of Sport:
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....
This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.
But there's no use denying—though many do deny it—that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.
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.
Yes, as the saying goes, there's no "I" in "religion." Oh, wait, that's not how the saying goes, is it? On reflection, Brooks's vision of American sport—"assertive, proud, intimidating," making a "straight shot" for the "admiration" of other people—is not a bad description of the loudest strain of American born-again evangelicalism. Whatever he's been doing instead of watching athletic contests, Brooks apparently hasn't been watching the Republican debates.
The Jeremy Lin Problem [New York Times]
Jeremy Lin Already a Legend? Reality-Checking the Hype [Daily Beast]