When I was in college, I participated in a weekend training program at the Los Angeles Times. I remember very little from that experience. But I starkly recall one of the paper’s sportswriters effusing that sportswriters were special because they were writers and not reporters.
I usually have to hold down my lunch when I think of that comment, particularly when I think about who made it.
It never mattered to me whether the term was religion writer or religion reporter, though RNA has taken a position. And despite the fact that sportswriters often participate in hagiography (and not of the Tim Tebow persuasion) and the fact that they ask some of the most mundane/absurd questions (Shanahan excited to be in D.C. — really?) sportswriters are journalists, just like the rest of us.
I mention this because it provides context for the gimmicks sportswriters often try — and too often fail at. I was reminded of this as I listened to Frank Deford on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday.
The piece was “Thou Shalt Not Covet They Neighbor’s Sports Star.” The extended metaphor, as you can imagine, was the Ten Commandments. The delivery could not have demonstrated a greater ignorance about probably one of the most universally known details of the Bible:
Ten is a nice round number, but let’s imagine that Moses only came down from the mountain with, say, eight commandments. Which ones wouldn’t make the cut?
Well, certainly since nobody keeps the Sabbath holy anymore — especially football teams — that one has already gone by the board. And then, I think if something else had to go, it would be that business about coveting.
Compared with ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ or steal, for instance, coveting seems relatively small potatoes.
Except perhaps in New York City, where coveting has run amok. In New York sports, the conversation is always about what players some other poor, little city has that we want, that, in fact, we deserve to have in New York. The Yankees feed this attitude by simply taking whomsoever they desire, like King David just grabbing Bathsheba for himself from poor Uriah the Hittite.
If the Mets don’t go out and pillage a small franchise of some superstar that fans covet, everybody gets furious at the Mets for not being properly rapacious. But all this baseball coveting is nothing compared with how New York covets LeBron James.
What’s wrong with this picture? Many things — like which Sabbath is he talking about? — but lets just tackle the big ones, starting with how we might have gotten only nine commandments without losing any of the original 10 if God had an editor.
First, can you name the Ten Commandments? We did this exercise in the newsroom at my first paper, and the results were miserable. By five or six commandments, I was the only person to name them all. And I was a religion reporter with a solid knowledge of Christianity.
Here’s the traditional division of the 10. Notice any that are essentially the same? Yeah, the first two — thou shalt have no other god before Me and thou shalt not worship any idols — are essentially the same, or at least have enough of a common core to have been condensed into one commandment.
Next, I’m not sure coveting is the next commandment to go after disposing of the Sabbath. There are other candidates that also seem less severe than murder — dishonor one’s parents for instance or using the Lord’s name in vain, which God-fearing Jews and Christians do far too often — but why are we getting into grading the severity of these transgressions? Oh, that’s right. It’s a gimmick.
And this gimmick continues, with more of the commandments metaphor. Finally, Deford closes with a pun that works but probably flew right over most listeners. It concerns King James’ place as the NBA’s Chosen One. We the fans, as Nike has reminded us, are all witnesses. How serious a sin would it be for LeBron James to forsake Cleveland, which has always been his home, when he becomes a big-contract free agent this summer?
For him to abandon the unfashionable land of his nativity to go to glitzy New York might reek of disloyalty and hurt his pristine reputation. Why, you could even say then that LeBron would be bearing false witness against old neighbors.