The Modern Mormon Athletic Image

Mormons have always held a precarious yet consistent place in America’s sports culture. Danny Ainge, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, and, most recently, Jimmer Fredette are among those have captured the nation’s popular imagination at various moments in the past four decades with their college accomplishments and, at least in the first two cases, professional success. (Still cheering for #Jimmertime success in China, of course!) The gritty workhouses of LDS communities, whose churches feature indoor basketball courts and bloody youth leagues, have produced constant competitors that seemed disproportionate to their small population. In short, Mormons know how to play ball.

Two things stand out about these figures. First, they were all funneled through Brigham Young University, the Church-owned flagship school located in overwhelmingly-Mormon town of Provo, Utah. And second, they were all white. (They are also all male, but I’ll leave the important gendered dimension for future consideration.)

Those facts themselves are central to the modern Mormon athletic image. (Or, as I’ll argue in a minute, they were until very recently.) On the basketball court, the “white dudes” at BYU are known for their three-point shooting, consummate teamwork, and hustle–you know, the facets of the game typically tethered to non-athletic white kids. As Matt Bowman has argued, these very characteristics reaffirmed classic stereotypes of the Mormon community. On the gridiron, the BYU cougars simultaneously hearken back to a classic age of pigskin orthodoxy mixed with the modern-day west-coast offense. Hunter Hampton has studied how BYU’s football program was, in some ways, an explicit vehicle through which Mormons attempted to assimilate into a particular Christian community. Of course, like most of Mormonism’s assimilation projects, they got a seat at that table only when the national mainstream left it for another. The 1984 national championship of yesterday is seen, then, as the contrarian triumph to the me-now, selfish, star-driven brand of SEC football today. What I’m emphasizing, anyway, is that the Mormon sports identity is closely aligned to their concomitantly conservative cultural identity.

With that background, let me now note the stark divergence seen in Mormonism’s three most prominent athletes today: Bryce Harper, Manti Te’o, and Jabari Parker. All three break significant cultural expectations for Mormon athletes. None of them were raised in Utah or attended BYU. Two of them are not white. One of them has made a point to speak out on progressive social issues. Together, they point to what may be the future of Mormonism’s public image.

Besides his classic “clown question, bro” retort, Bryce Harper has embodied the figure of a modern-day superstar. Though immensely talented (and immaculately sculpted), he has been accused of being selfish and temperamental by old-fashioned columnists. He is not the shy, soft-spoken, and reluctant figure typified by an LDS athlete. In many ways, Jimmer Fredette paved the way for this modern-day Mormon superstar, as outlined, again, by Matt Bowman: both athletes broke with Mormon trends of team-centered, cooperative play in favor of transcendent superstardom in the form of a Michael Jordan. This is assimilation into contemporary popular culture reflective of the post-Hinckley era. And with Harper, his professional play actually justified the hype. (But I still love you, Jimmer!) One of the hottest discussions in Major League Baseball right now is whether Harper will sign an astronomically high salary that breaks all previous precedents, or if he will become the newest high-priced and highly-acclaimed free agency savior of the pin-striped evil empire. (Ironically, it’s Harper’s contemporary rival, Mike Trout, who fits the traditional Mormon stereotypes of being quite and unassuming with a humble and workman-like persona.)

Things are more complex with Te’o and Parker, especially with the racial component. Both players made a conscious decision not to attend BYU, even though the school was amongst their finalists. (BYU students even made an, um, interesting recruiting pitch for Parker.) Te’o was one of the most decorated defensive players in recent history at Notre Dame and, after the notorious and humiliating fake girlfriend scandal (which deserves its own dissection within the Mormon context), has carved out a solid, though not yet exceptional, career with the San Diego Las Angeles Chargers. He led the team in tackles in 2015 and was voted as captain of the team the following year, but missed most of the 2016 season with injury. Of course, Te’o represents Mormonism’s long-standing Polynesian culture which has taken an increasingly prominent role in BYU’s football culture, as seen with their recruiting history, pre-game performances of the haka (which has caused some debate), as well as their recent coaching hire. They even made a video about this cultural link. If Te’o returns to stardom in the years ahead, he will help project this image nation-wide.

Raised in urban Chicago, Jabari Parker is my favorite challenge to the stereotype of Mormon athletes. He spent one year at Duke before being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and blossoming in his third year. Prior to succumbing to a season-ending knee injury last week (apparently another characteristic of the modern-Mormon image), he was averaging twenty points per game and considered a borderline all-star. Most importantly, Parker was the subject of an excellent Ringer profile last week that highlighted his social awakening and decision to speak out on racial issues. (It also mentioned that he only became aware of Mormonism’s racial restrictions while a college student–that must have been awkward.) If Parker continues his upward trajectory and commitment to speaking out on national issues, he’ll be a fascinating and significant figure in modern LDS culture. I, for one, have become a Bucks fan with him on the team.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact these athletes will have in Mormon, sports, and American society. But I think they represent an undeniable shift. One of the next big Mormon athletes, Frank Jackson, is another African American basketball player who is following Parker’s route through Duke. (Though he attended High School in Utah County, most of Jackson’s upbringing was in the DC area.) Even BYU’s football team has adopted a more diverse image, as football coach Kalani Sitake has infused the program with much-needed pep. (And as they try to recover from a checkered racial past.) Just check out their team hype video from the last year, which would have been unthinkable in previous generations:

This isn’t your grandfather’s BYU.

As the Mormon faith and community moves to adopt a more diverse image, it makes sense that athletes would lead the way. Sports has long been a venue for cultural transformation within the LDS tradition. Following the careers of these current athletic stars, then, offers insights into the overall trajectory of the church they happen to represent.

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