Bryce Harper was the first Mormon to be compared to Lebron James. He was also the first Mormon to have a temper tantrum full of particular 4-letter words go viral. Bryce Harper also posed for ESPN’s The Body issue without a stitch of clothing on him.[i] He was, by any definition of the term in regards to styling and dress, immodest. Mormonism’s modesty culture encourages young people not to “use a special occasion as an excuse to be immodest. When you dress immodestly, you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval.” Harper is tattooed, rocks a perfectly-coiffed modern hair-do, and his eyes sear into the viewer. His body may be objectified, but he is not a passive observer. Quite the contrary. His stance, eyes, and rippling pectorals denote physical and charismatic power. Most casual observers would not peg him for an active Latter-day Saint.
Yet, his Mormon-ness is important within the LDS community. Memorably, for me, he attended a missionary farewell in Northern Virginia while I lived there in 2013. One of those weird six-degrees-of-Brigham Young separation (his then-girlfriend’s former roommate’s brother). Harper was careful not to draw attention to himself, but when you’re that jacked and that tall it’s hard not to stand out. When he entered the chapel, an elderly woman sat next to me and asked, “Do you know who that is?” I answered that I did and she responded, “I’m so glad. We need more young men like him.”
This struck me as very odd. Harper didn’t serve a mission and was well-known for being competitive beyond even other professional athletes. He didn’t attend BYU. What made him so important to this octogenarian sitting next to me?
Harper is a far-cry from the Danny Ainge of the 1980s, who was known as a killer on the court and paternal cheapskate off of the hardwood.[ii] Ainge was also framed specifically as a Mormon, having attended Brigham Young University. Ainge’s Mormon-ness fit typical images of Mormon men as fatherly, hardworking, and an excellent teammate. Still, Harper is the latest in a long line of Mormon athletes to embrace his faith on a public stage. He shut down a question about drinking as a “clown question” and thereby created a meme about posing stupid questions (Harper was also underage at the time).
He was married in an LDS temple. He posts about church attendance on Instagram and other social media sites.
He does not look or act like Donnie Osmond or Wally Joyner, other white male LDS celebrities. In this way, he very much fits in with the “I’m a Mormon” public relations strategy of the LDS Church’s. There’s many ways to Mormon in the modern United States, and fighting on the field doesn’t mean that you can’t believe in modern revelation. Heck, you can use your popularity to get people to visit lds.org.[iii]
Indeed, by deviating from the typical Mormon masculinity , Harper gives credence to the message behind “I’m a Mormon.” He also performs a type of Mormon masculinity that is less about “drinking milk” and more about slamming home runs. And, if the older woman I spoke to in 2013 is any indicator, many Mormons are willing to embrace a wide variety of Mormon masculinities, including aspects of Mormon men’s personas that don’t conform easily to those most visible in missionary service or church service.
Will Harper be used as an example of the ideal Mormon man anytime soon? I doubt it. But that’s part of his appeal. He’s a baseball player. He’s a husband. And he’s a Mormon.
[i] I plan to dig into the politics of the male Mormon body in another post.
[ii] Be warned the article linked about Ainge’s paternalism is part of an article about the drug overdose of Len Bias.
Also, Ainge is still a cheapskate. He and Gordon Hayward were spotted there shortly after the Butler alum switched teams in July. I’m totally over the Jazz losing Hayward, why do you ask?
[iii] Harper links to an lds.org URL in his Instagram profile.