Sports and religion … oil and vinegar? (Or “oil and Linegar*”?)

David Brooks, one of the more independent-minded and therefore one of the more thoughtful pundits around today, offers a thoughtful but flawed take on sports and religion, citing the Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow crazes.

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.

Not that Lin and Tebow are exactly the same, as my terrific former colleague Cathy Lynn Grossman points out at USA TODAY. Tebow, perhaps through no fault of his own, sparked a conversation about divine intervention in sports. I don’t see Lin doing that. As someone who would struggle to explain why a divine entity would mess with field goals but not with famine, tsunamis and so forth, I’m therefore a little less agitated by the Lin craze than I was with Tebow-ism.

Brooks says Lin, being a thoughtful guy who surely had to grapple with deep questions at Harvard, has wrestled with the balance of God and team:

In a 2010 interview with the Web site Patheos, Lin recalled, “I wanted to do well for myself and my team. How can I possibly give that up and play selflessly for God?”

It’s a strange question to those of us who grew up in the “muscular Christianity” ethos of the Athens YMCA and its camps, where I was taught to be a good Christian by beating the crap out of other kids in games like “water basketball” (basically water polo with less officiating, more water in lungs) and “ball” (essentially, whoever has the ball is fair game for just about anything).

But somehow, we were also taught sportsmanship and respect for opponents. We believed we could compete all-out, then pray together afterwards, as NFL players such as my fellow YMCA alum John Kasay have done for decades. (Yes, before Tebow.)

Sports and religion can be an awkward mix on the personal level. MMA fighters and boxers sometimes say plenty of nasty things about each other before a fight, only to follow up the fight with a shout-out to Christ for making everything possible. Some athletes — like a lot of celebrities, politicians and other people in power — take advantage of their positions for all sorts of sordid behavior, whether they profess to be religious or not.

And Brooks has a point about the balance of self-confidence in competition and humility in Christianity. Athletes may need to ask themselves whether their competing to better themselves or destroy others. The former is easy to fit in religion, teaching lessons of self-sacrifice and perseverance that can be sustained in other aspects of life. The latter is more difficult.

Ironically, more secular Europe might be better at competing for all the right reasons than the Bible-thumping USA. Crowds gather for Olympic-sport competitions and cheer all the athletes — maybe a little louder for their favorites, but  they’re not antagonist. Soccer is an exception, of course, and the nastiest antagonism is actually the sectarian-driven nonsense most notable in Glasgow but also seen elsewhere.

But even once you get past the rowdier crowds, you have athletes who often compete with mutual respect. Some American pundits lament that respect, longing for some mythical good old days in which the Colts and Packers genuinely hated each other. Those days, if they ever existed, have faded. What we see now is (mostly) honest competition.

Brooks’ piece is worth a read. But the conclusion rings false to those of us who have talked with elite athletes who can psych themselves up to hit each other without hating each other. Ultimately, Brooks’ conclusion puts a limit on the human spirit. And sports are all about challenging such limits.

* I have now fulfilled my obligation as a sports journalist to make a Lin pun. I don’t intend to make another.

(HT: @JeffKassouf, who also disagrees with Brooks)

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