Over-Identification with Mormon Athletes

March 7, 2005 | 50 comments
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I have a problem. I think I need a 12-step program, if one existed for this problem. I am over-invested in the success of Mormon athletes.

I enjoy sports. I read the sports page on the train going in to work, and everything else on the train going home. I subscribe to Sports Illustrated. Things of course are more interesting when we have a rooting interest, and the default rooting interest is geographical. So yes, I am a fan of the Chicago Bears, the Bulls, the Cubs, and I have followed with interest the exploits of the Fighting Illini basketball team.

But I particularly follow Mormon athletes. I know who they all are (which annoys my 18-year old son no end). When they do well, I feel as though I’m on top of the world. When they tank, I feel depressed.

It’s almost as though I relate the strength of the truth claims of the Church to how well its athletes perform. I know intellectually that that is irrational; the Church was no more true on a night that Danny Ainge scored 24 points than it was on a night he laid up a bunch of bricks. It really shouldn’t matter that much to me. But it does, for reasons I cannot explain.

Does anyone else feel this way? Anyone care to psychoanalyze my little problem? (It’s really not *that* bad; I’m using a little hyperbole here for effect.)

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50 Responses to Over-Identification with Mormon Athletes

  1. William Morris on March 7, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    Kevin:

    I kind of have that problem. But it’s not like there are that many prominent Mormon athletes to identify with anymore. Who is on your current roster? Jeff Kent? (too cranky, too weird). Andy Reid? (creates conflict with your interest in da’ Bears).

    I’ve actually taken the cynical step of becoming a free agent, fair weather fan (with two caveats: I still root for the Giants and hate the Dodgers –and– this doesn’t apply to college sports [Go Bears!]). I figure that inasmuch as players move around all the time anyway and it’s only the owners who want me to feel loyalty to the ‘home’ team (while, you know, keeping their eye on greener pastures in case they need to move or sell the team) I might as well root for the teams/players/coaches that interest me and that are experiencing success.

  2. Kaimi on March 7, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    William,

    Don’t forget about Todd Heap and Rulon Gardner, man!

  3. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    I have the exact opposite problem. I tend to be openly suspicious of any athlete (in organized sports- usually football)- mormon or otherwise. I often erroneously pre-judge athletes in the Church by thinking that they can’t possibly be “good” mormons. I assume (unless I have come to know otherwise through my own experience with a particular person) that they probably secretly do all sorts of evil things, like rape. I assume that they probably beat up people who were smaller than they are (if not now, then at some point earlier in life), and then still got recognition from church leaders and others outside the church despite the fact that they are very unkind and mean to anyone who does not share the same love of sports. I assume that they view life as a game and people as pawns to be manipulated. And church leaders I have known, as well as university officials, high school teachers, parents, etc., are all willing to turn a very, very blind eye to the (sometimes) very serious transgressions and missteps of athletes.

    When athletes DO get punished, as happened very recently in Utah, there is often public outcry- “how could we punish these poor, innocent athletes?!?” In Sanpete County recently, for example, some fine, upstanding (probably LDS) athletes in a locker room “pinned [a] 120-pound [male] cheerleader, a sophomore, against a locker. The victim reported the wrestlers had pulled down his pants and shaved hair in his groin area with an electric razor.” Things like this had often happened, but people were afraid to report the incidents because some “local people ha[d] been ‘intimidated’ and afraid to speak out about the . . . assault because the wrestlers belong[ed] to prominent families.”

    When athletes today literally get away with rape, murder, and horrendous amounts of hazing that really hurts other people, it is hard for me to view any athlete with any amount of praise and adoration. This may stem from the fact that some of the worst treatment I have personally been subjected to or witnessed performed on others came from “respected athletes” who were “upstanding” members of the Church. The only person I ever caught cheating on tests when I taught at the University of Michigan was an athlete on the Wolverine football team. And when it is reported, nobody cares because these athletes are their special people. I personally have always wondered at what I perceive as a mormon obsession, well personified here by Kevin Barney, with sports and athletes. I have grown tired of rolling my eyes in quorum meetings and church meetings and even in General Conference to all of the contrived allegories to sports and the stories of famous athletes who play them.

    I, however, realize that it is a sin to judge others. Judging athletes is a huge fault of mine.

    The point of this long and convoluded comment is that I don’t feel the same way as Brother Barney, but rather quite opposite. Anyone else in my camp? (Probably not, since athletes are almost universally blindly adored and idolized by everyone, especially in the church…)

  4. Chad Too on March 7, 2005 at 6:39 pm

    Don’t be too quick to invoke Rulon Gardner… he’s now doing professional wrestling. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    As to the original question, imagine my surprise recently to fget an e-mail from my wife that said we have tickets and hotel reservations in Canton in August for Steve Young’s induction to the Football Hall of Fame. She’s Diehard.

  5. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    Regardless of my ill-founded animosity towards athletes, is there something wrong with the general church obsession with sports? Why does BYU *have* to have organized sports? Why do we have to heap so much praise on athletes? Do they really deserve it?

    Note that I do not like the fact that I seem to have a pre-disposed animosity towards athletes. I am working to get over it by trying to withhold judgment on, for example, student athletes in my ward, until I actually get to know them.

  6. Kaimi on March 7, 2005 at 6:46 pm

    Jordan writes:

    “Judging athletes is a huge fault of mine.”

    Well, you’re not alone — judging athletes was a problem with that ice dancing panel a few years back, too.

  7. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    That was pretty funny.

  8. John T. on March 7, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    You don’t need a program at all, you’re in step with Church leadership, Kevin; one of Danny Ainge’s jerseys is displayed in the Museum of Church History and Art at Temple Square. (Did Nate’s father obtain that?). There were 1 or 2 others as well, If I recall correctly; maybe Dale Murhphy’s and Steve Young’s.

  9. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    One more thing that puzzles me about the obsession many mormons have with sports- sport-watching robs lots of family time. How do avid Latter-day Saint sport spectators justify spending so much precious time glued to the latest sport event?

  10. gst on March 7, 2005 at 7:10 pm

    I would wager that sport brings together more families than it pulls apart. I seem to remember a Kevin Costner movie about it.

  11. Jed on March 7, 2005 at 7:46 pm

    Kevin: Your Fighting IIllini finally lost one. Welcome to our world, buddy.

    I have similar feelings about the LDS athletes. I want them to do well and am strangely saddened when they do not. I was embarrassed when Jeff Kent told the world he broke his wrist washing his truck and later it was discovered he broke it popping wheelings on his motorcycle. Professional athletes lie about things all the time, but when a Mormon lies, it reflects poorly on the whole team.

    I am still waiting for the day when we approach Rodney Stark’s large growth predictions. Then, I reassure myself, BYU will be winning national championships at least every year, gathering in the best Mormon athletes from across the world just as Notre Dame took in the best Catholics in the 1920s and 30s. Could it be possible?

  12. Jed on March 7, 2005 at 7:47 pm

    Correction (#11) “…at least every other year…”

  13. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 8:02 pm

    Why would you be disappointed to find that mormon athletes lie? They are, after all, athletes- mormon or not.

  14. Ivan Wolfe on March 7, 2005 at 8:05 pm

    There are Mormon atheletes?

    news to me. Of course, I don’t follow sports (despite playing 5 a year in high school).

    Now – over identification with Mormon sci-fi authors – that’s another tale…………………..

  15. A. Greenwood on March 7, 2005 at 8:05 pm

    They are, after all, Mormons–athletes or not.

  16. Johnna Cornett on March 7, 2005 at 8:06 pm

    Sports bore me. I overidentify with mormon apologists.

  17. danithew on March 7, 2005 at 8:12 pm

    I’ve noticed, strangely, that some celebrity Mormon athletes get a level of respect and attention in certain areas in which they don’t necessarily have any particular expertise. For example, I’ve seen at least one case where a celebrity LDS athlete was somehow connected with a tour of the Holy Land (or maybe it was Book of Mormon lands). I simply couldn’t see why there would be any connection between the two. I can understand them running a basketball camp or football camp … but doing a tour of the Holy Land? Why?

  18. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 8:13 pm

    For many of the mormon athletes I have encountered, being “mormon” does not matter. Several of the upstanding athletes in my priests quorum growing up had no problem whatsoever fornicating and drinking with reckless abandon on the weekend, then blessing the sacrament on Sunday. They lied all the time. They weren’t the only mormon athletes who did so. Athletes are athletes, mormon are not. There are nice ones and there are bad ones, and religion does not seem to matter a whole lot. But I see I am hijacking this thread so I will stop talking about this. now.

  19. Bryce I on March 7, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    Unfounded speculation on my part: The new NCAA academic guidelines will make it harder for collegiate LDS athletes intending to serve full-time missions to schools other than BYU, or schools with large LDS populations. This is too bad, as it seems more and more LDS athletes are found playing various sports at schools outside of the Mountain West conference.

    Me, I follow NBA teams with former Duke players. Go Grizz/Clips/Bulls/Jazz! (It’s harder to pull for Golden State and Miami for some reason).

  20. Travis on March 7, 2005 at 9:00 pm

    I am playing fantasy baseball again, this year. And for the first time, I have put together my team of called the Mormon Marauders. They are mostly Momon players. I can’t seem to find a Mormon Catcher, 1st/3rd baseman, and there is only 1 outfeilder, so I need another. Other than that, my team is all Mormons.

  21. gst on March 7, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    Travis, you could sub in some Seventh-day Adventists in the meantime.

  22. Sheri Lynn on March 7, 2005 at 9:09 pm

    I wonder if moving too much as a child and teenager correlates with total apathy toward competitive spectator sports, or if there are other factors involved in whether or not your life hinges on where a ball goes. I’ve never even been to a football game, and only vaguely recognize major team names. When an important chemistry lecture was cancelled because my university’s football team had a victory, I was furious! I think someone thought we’d have trouble concentrating on our studies or something.

    I don’t mean to sound as if I have no idea why anyone cares about sports….but…

    …um, I have no idea why anyone cares about sports. I have, however, come up with some ideas for sports I WOULD like to watch. Bwahaha.

  23. Mathew on March 7, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    Jordan,

    I’m just sitting here laughing–man, you have got some issues when it comes to athletes!

  24. Eric Russell on March 7, 2005 at 10:16 pm

    Travis,
    I believe John Buck, starting catcher for the KC Royals, is a Mormon.

    Bryce,
    Why would the new NCAA academic guidelines make it harder for RM’s to go to other schools?

  25. John Kane on March 7, 2005 at 10:45 pm

    Sports has often been a useful tool in bringing my family together. When the Red Sox made the series this year, we all dropped everything and got together in Boston and had a wonderful time, at present moment, the Red Sox do a better job of holding my family together than the Gospel does.

  26. Michael Stone on March 7, 2005 at 11:04 pm

    I like to see Mormons do well, no matter what they are, be it athletes, business people, singers, etc.

    There are always good Mormons, and bad Mormons, and there are always good athletes and bad athletes.

    To generalize about athletes in general, and imply they all do bad things, is a little cynical, and I refuse to beleive that all, or even most, athletes are bad, just on the basis that they are athletes.

  27. David Rodger on March 7, 2005 at 11:58 pm

    All of us tend to have some (awe, admiration, interest, attraction to, etc.) for famous people in one area or another. That’s why there have been 50 biographies or more published about George Washington, and none (I presume) about the man who tended his sheep.

    Ahletes are famous, as are people in the performing arts, and politicians, and writers, etc. So we are interested in them.

    Why do people support the home team? Why should someone who lives in the Monterrey Bay area support the San Francisco 49ers instead of the Denver Broncos ? Well, of course there are exceptions, but the reality is that we tend to identify with the home team. That’s what gets us to root for the home team. And, in a very real sense, Mormons in any endeavor are, for us, the home team.

    So we have more than a passing interest in an Orson Scott Card, or a Mitt Romney, or a Steve Young, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We identify with them; they’re part of our home team. Not everyone, of course, it depends on our interest.

  28. John Climacus on March 8, 2005 at 12:33 am

    Kevin,

    If I may, I would like to analyze your interest in Mormon Athletes. I think we take a special interest with Mormon athletes because they bring acceptance to a sometimes ‘peculiar’ people.

    That is, I think we tend to believe that the eyes of the world are upon us, and with this belief comes an enormous amount of pressure. So, anytime we se “one of us” succeeding, we tend to think that our “peculiarity” is becoming socially acceptable and even praised.

    In essence, we feel that we are being praised, recognized, and accepted, albeit indirectly, through the athletes’ own fame and recognition. Anyways, I am probably stating the obvious.

  29. Sheri Lynn on March 8, 2005 at 12:54 am

    David Rodger–does that go for a Glenn Beck too? :-) Orin Hatch, Harry Reid? I see what you mean about “our team” even if I don’t “get” following sports. I tend to see disabled people as “my people” too.

  30. yossarian on March 8, 2005 at 1:42 am

    Right you are John in post 28. Every time a Mormon does well in sports or otherwise and brings attention to him or herself is another time that I do not have to explain the distinction between Mormons and Aamish folk. Kudos to that.

  31. David Rodger on March 8, 2005 at 4:01 am

    Sheri Lynn…we don’t HAVE to like a famous Mormon…I for one have always had some disdain for one prominent LDS athlete who was visiting the Sacred Grove, and was rude to some LDS teenagers who went up to him for autographs (outside the Grove). I can readily see that some famous people could get upset at being constantly asked for autographs, but still….

    Or maybe I was jealous that they were asking him for one…and I was a nonentity (lol!). But I do have some feeling of kinship with prominent LDS in almost any discipline, just like I do with the only famous chemist I seem to know.

  32. John Kane on March 8, 2005 at 5:12 am

    I don’t think athletes are any more evil or unworthy than any of the rest of us. They are often faced with greater temptation and under a microscope. You don’t know that the boy who is an A student in your ward blesses the sacrament while unworthy, but he very well might too.

    Why are college athletes held to a higher standard than a drunken frat boy?

  33. Bryce I on March 8, 2005 at 7:30 am

    Re: missionaries and the NCAA

    The new NCAA regulations regarding student-athlete academic performance have very real penalties attached in the form of lost scholarships for programs that do not meet the requirements. While schools can receive exemptions for athletes who go on missions, LDS missions will be an element of uncertainty for most schools that do not handle them on a regular basis. Programs that are underachieving academically may be scared off of recruiting LDS athletes because of the potential they have to generate bad numbers for their program by leaving for two years.

  34. Mark B. on March 8, 2005 at 9:01 am

    It’s as old as the golden calf. We humans are suckers for idol worship, and in this age it’s the jocks, instead of the graven images, that are the objects of our veneration.

    Anthropologists in 10,000 years will wonder about the special powers invested in a vestment with “Jordan” (not “Jordan Fowles”, we can be sure) written on it. Some minor deity, they’ll presume, whose name will give the wearer some mystical powers.

    I’m with Jordan (Fowles, that is) in wanting to reach for the airsickness bag when another Mormon jock gets held up as an ideal in any forum–from the online LDS News to general conference talks. The bread truck driver who works 12 hours a day to support his family and is honorable in that work is more worthy of praise and emulation.

    And, then there’s the “Johnny Miller” phenomenon. I had a wonderful time on my mission in the golf-crazed nation of Japan trying to explain why how we as a church could be serious about keeping the Sabbath. (And, now that he and Steve Young and others are retired from their games, they manage to show up on TV on Sunday regularly–the habits they learned about the sanctity of the Sabbath have stuck with them.)

  35. Chad too on March 8, 2005 at 9:05 am

    More Steve Young from my house. Last night before going to bed my wife asked me to help her set things up so she could record onto VHS from the Tivo. The program was Steve Young: In His Own Words from the NFL Channel. There was a great scene called “The Language of Steve Young” where the folks at NFL films edited together clips they had of Stevie (as he’s called in our house –sheesh!) caught cursing. Seems Brother Young was channelling J. Golden.

    Yes, some big bombs were dropped. All the same, it just made him more human to me.

  36. Mary on March 8, 2005 at 9:40 am

    Sad to admit, I’m like that guy in the “Single’s Ward” who is always pointing out who is Mormon and who’s not. My husband even gave me Paul Skousen’s book, “The Skousen Book of Mormon World Records” for Christmas. I love that kind of trivia.

    But my favorite Mormon athletes are the runners. I try to read Ed Eyestone’s article in Runner’s World every month. I also like cheering on Maggie Chan (I can’t remember her married name) when she runs in the Olympics.

  37. Travis on March 8, 2005 at 9:58 am

    Eric,
    Thanks for the tip. John Buck is a Mormon, he is only listed as being in the Minor Leagues at FamousMormons.net. But since his listing he has gone pro.

    gst,
    I do have one evangelical Christian on my team, Sean Casey, but that’s because he is a good player more than because he is a Christian.

  38. A. Greenwood on March 8, 2005 at 7:34 pm

    Some Mormon athletes are indeed to be admired. No one can argue otherwise.

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=1020

  39. Jordan Fowles on March 8, 2005 at 7:57 pm

    I don’t disagree, Adam. I just think that such are admired because of the quality of their choices, not because of the quality of their game.

    Such admiration should extend to any LDS who so lives, not just to LDS athletes.

  40. Sheri Lynn on March 8, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    “There was a great scene called “The Language of Steve Young” where the folks at NFL films edited together clips they had of Stevie (as he’s called in our house –sheesh!) caught cursing…”

    I don’t know why but I find it horrifying that that was done to him.

    Is the sin of cursing greater, harder to repent, if one is filmed doing it and held up as a hypocrite for the mockery of the world? I think it would be. The times when I found out I was setting a bad example of what Mormon ought to be were far more painful times than the times when I just realized I was doing something wrong, but nobody else knew. One does not want to be an anti-missionary.

    When I was new in the church, we were doing some silly thing involving wedding rings and chains that was supposed to predict the number, gender, and birth order of one’s children. How the ring on the chain swung when suspended over the back of the hand supposedly predicted this. It seemed uncanny at predicting this in “hindsight” for those who already had kids, so we were laughing and having a good time teasing the unmarrieds and those who didn’t have any kids yet. I had only two then, boy and girl, and it predicted three for me, boy girl boy.

    We showed it to a Catholic friend who then showed it to a Holy Roller friend of hers. The Holy Roller acted as if she’d been shown how to scald infants. “Who taught you this? This is witchcraft!” “Well, I have these Mormon friends…they taught it to me.” “See, those Mormons are a cult…”

    Yet, she was right, once I got to thinking about it: it was witchcraft. Attempting to get signs or change reality through any manner other than by prayer and honest effort is witchcraft, I decided, even if one really wasn’t serious about it. And I did give someone a chance to bash my Church as a whole. Our Catholic friend was curious about our church before that…after that she was disinterested. Was it our fault? Of course. And something to repent.

    Anyway, I had boy girl girl.

    (They aren’t really big on sports either. But the eldest will be playing Volleyball at church.)

  41. Austin F. on March 9, 2005 at 12:18 am

    Have you noticed that some Latter-day saints within the world of sports are villified? For example, Norm Chow is almost universally resented by LDS folks. There are rumors about his inactivity in the Church, which may or may not be true, but if he isn’t active, he does a good job of making his kids into believers.

  42. Clark on March 9, 2005 at 12:54 am

    Most Mormons I know thought Norm Chow got screwed by BYU. I know a lot of player friends who dislike him. But that was more due to his actions. (i.e. picking favorites and largely not mentoring the rest) But I think to say LDS portray Chow as a villain is a bit much.

  43. Salem on March 9, 2005 at 9:15 am

    #33 “Programs that are underachieving academically may be scared off of recruiting LDS athletes because of the potential they have to generate bad numbers for their program by leaving for two years.”

    Any coach who would be scared off because an athlete may serve a mission, would be scared off by just that. Leaving on a mission shows unloyalty to a team if outside an LDS atmosphere. The NCAA regulation will be a non-factor.

    David, Whenever we meet someone we try and make a connection, “Where are you from? Oh I have a buddy from there. . .” Identifying Mormon athletes is the equivalentof finding a connection.

    Norm Chow did get screwed by BYU.

    Finally, If we are going to praise the milkman who works hard to provide for his family we ought to make a video of all the times he swore, or whatever particular sin he is struggling with, just to make it fair.

  44. gst on March 9, 2005 at 6:38 pm

    Not just screwed–he was allegedly called a “Chinaman” too.

  45. A.Frost on March 12, 2005 at 2:22 am

    It wouldn’t surprise me…racism (in a non-violent, but nonetheless visible form) is a real problem at BYU. Besides being incredibly ignorant, calling Chow “Chinaman” is only half right…he’s half Hawaiian as well!

  46. David Rodger on March 12, 2005 at 6:12 am

    Sorry…stories gain in the telling.

    What happened, according to him, was that they were breaking ground for a new facility, and one of the speakers, trying to be funny, said: “and we have a bunch of Chinamen ready to go to work tomorrow morning.” Insensitive and stupid.

    But what compounded the problem is that he got a form letter from the individual, apologizing for the comment. Insensitive, stupid, moronic, and cretinous.

    Had the individual gone to Norm Chow, apologized in person, and said “I don’t know what came over me, I’m sorry”, the problem would have been over.

  47. John W. Redelfs on March 13, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    I just wish that Mormon culture produced a surfeit of professional scientists, artists, and musicians the way it produces a surfeit of athletes and businessmen. Just imagine how blessed we would be as a culture if we stressed intellectual achievement to the degree that we stress money and sports prowess.

  48. ryan on March 14, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Plenty of intellectual achievement in athletics and business, my friend, plenty. Breaking down vocations by one’s perceived “intellectual value” misses the mark, big time. Athletes, and many Mormon ones that I know, that went on to work in business are some of the most thoughtful, “intellectual,” spiritually savvy people that I know. Right along side are the “scientists, artists, and musicians.”

    I think it’s neat how diverse a unified-in-spirit Mormon community can be. A blessing of common covenants, I guess.

  49. Greg Walker on March 25, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Jeff Kent is a practicing Mormon. He admits as much, and admits at the same time that he is not perfect. In the ESPN article, which he was featured on the cover of the magazine, he talks about all this. He says he has a problem with cussing and he hates playing on the sabbath. At the same time he says his lifestyle is way different from most of his teammates. He doesn’t drink, fool around on the road, etc. He attends church, etc. Kent if possibly a future HOF. He’s the all-time home run king for second basemen with 302 HRs. He passed up Ryne Sandberg last year and Ryno just got put into the HOF. He’s got 1200+ HRs. He was MVP in 2000. He’s got 7 100+ RBI seasons. Another record for a second baseman. I could go on and on. He’s a quiet person and I think Mormons overlook what Kent has done in baseball. He’s the best Mormon athelete we got in sports right now. He doesn’t shy away from telling people he’s a Mormon. He’s proud of it. At the same time he’s honest about saying he’s not perfect. He’s got, at least, two more years left with the Dodgers and by the time his career is done I’m betting we say HOF.

  50. Greg Walker on March 25, 2005 at 11:50 am

    Typo. I meant he has 1200+ rbis (not HRs). He has 302 HRs as of right now.

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