Every college basketball fan knows Bruce Pearl. The University of Tennessee men’s head coach is famous for turning around losing programs and his brash, outsized persona; at a woman’s basketball game last year, he painted his face and chest orange, wore a headband, and sat in the student section.
It’s tempting to think that Pearl is simply a crazy, and crazily successful, basketball coach. Yet Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post‘s showed that Pearl is more than a hail-fellow well met. He is a serious Jew:
If there is a subject on which Pearl is most passionate, it’s his Judaism, about which he talks so feelingly that his eyes well up. When he first arrived in Knoxville, some local Christian worshipers invited him to church and told him they wished he would make Jesus his personal savior, so he could get to heaven. It wasn’t enough for Pearl to politely inform them he was Jewish and attended synagogue. He described the role of God in his life, how he worshiped, lit candles, believed in mitzvahs. (Some of the local Christians still invite him to church.)
When Pearl took his team on tour of Europe last summer, he scheduled a stop at the Terezin concentration camp. As they toured the site, he told his players, “They killed 6 million of us 50 years ago ’cause of how we prayed.”
Jenkins did more than reveal Pearl’s motivation. She also revealed part of his character:
When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a “Jew Boy.” Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl’s mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner’s face and started swinging. “I went to dukes,” he says. He was tossed from the game.
Since I was seven or eight, I have read the sports pages religiously; for the last two years, I have also subscribed to Sports Illustrated. My experience has been that sportswriters write about the religious motivations and practices of coaches rarely. So Jenkins is to be praised for writing this profile.
That said, Jenkins’ story contained a serious flaw. It was a celebration of Pearl and his faith, rather than a critical look at them.
High-level college coaches in football and basketball face lots of temptations. One is to recruit star athletes who have no intention of going to class, much less graduating from college. The graduation rate among basketball teams in the NCAA tournament is notoriously low. Another temptation, for the married, is to neglect your marriage in favor of your career.
Jenkins’ profile mentioned nothing of such moral pitfalls. Without dwelling on the topic, Jenkins might have written a paragraph on how Pearls’ Jewish faith helps him deal with such dilemmas.
For example, Jenkins might have noted that Pearl filed for divorce recently from his wife of 25 years. The couple had or have four children. How did Pearls’ faith influence him on this matter? Readers might conclude that Pearl should have spent more time with his family at home, rather going to his university’s games:
Meantime, Pearl’s quest to win over the community was just as energetic. He stormed the campus dining halls, shaking students’ hands and pleading for their attendance. He showed up at every football game, baseball game and women’s basketball game.
“He jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon,” Summitt says. “If there was an event, he was at it. He could be elected mayor in a heartbeat.”
It’s great when reporters explore how religion motivates and forms the character of athletes and coaches. But it’s better when they examine how religion forms the whole person, warts and all.