National Basketball Association
The Art of the Sports Meme
National Basketball Association

The Art of the Sports Meme

Updated Jul. 15, 2021 7:01 p.m. ET

By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports columnist

What’s the first image that pops into your head when you think about the Red Sox trading Mookie Betts to the Dodgers for a "more flexible payroll"? Is it Mookie wearing a Dodgers hat, holding the World Series trophy? Is it Mookie winning MVP for the Sox in 2018? Is it me, weeping into a glass of wine? 

I’m willing to bet it’s not "Young Spartans Exercising," a painting by Edgar Degas. Unless, that is, you follow the Instagram account @artbutmakeitsports. Because once you see this post, you’ll never be able to separate Degas and the Red Sox again. 

Memes from this account have been blowing my mind for months now. I’ll be scrolling through Instagram, liking pictures of houses for sale in Sweden and memes about astrology, when a post from @artbutmakeitsports will stop me in my tracks. 

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Like this one, starring Philip Rivers and the soul of Philip Rivers.

Who, I wanted to know, was responsible for this brilliance?

It turns out that the account is run by LJ Rader, a New Yorker who works for a sports data company. He kindly agreed to talk to me, so we hopped on a Zoom and I asked him if he’s secretly an art historian. Did he major in art? How on earth does he do it? 

"I took a few art classes in college," Rader said. "I can’t say I know a ton, but I have a decent sense. I guess a decent sense of art is more than most people have, but I definitely have much more of the sports background than art."

Rader is modest about it, but this guy knows his stuff. And get this: most of the paintings he uses are pictures he took at museums. Yes, that’s right — almost all of them come from his phone, not from a web search. 

At least they used to. Thanks to the pandemic, Rader had to find about 25 percent of the art he uses from open sources, since most museums have been closed and he hasn’t been traveling for work as he normally does.

When the world isn’t falling apart, he visits museums every chance he gets, and he’s taken thousands of pictures in galleries all over the country. He’s looked through his photos so often that when a meme-able moment happens in sports, he knows what he has to work with. 

But how, exactly, does he do it so perfectly? What goes through his head? How, for example, did he come up with this, which compares Jacksonville quarterback Mike Glennon to "A Portrait of a Student (L’Etudiant)," by Amedeo Modigliani from 1919? 

"So I know Modigliani, and I knew I needed one of his paintings, because I knew he did paintings of people with long necks," Rader told me. "So I looked through pictures of his to see which one most resembled Mike Glennon, a pretty unique looking guy — he’s bald and has a beard. [Modigliani] didn’t do any of those kinds of paintings, so I just found the one that looked the most like him." 

Each of Rader’s memes captures the essence of whatever sports occurrence he’s mimicking, and he maintains a level of subversion. Standard sports memes involve moments from games, GIFs of athletes, or embarrassing pictures of fans. 

There are layers to what Rader does, and the depth is most apparent when he uses religious images. The blood, sweat, and tears shown in Renaissance art — most of which originally hung in churches — match the blood, sweat, and tears of athletes and sports fans in arenas and stadiums, our modern halls of worship. 

"Sports memes that I see are just so dumb and overused," Rader said. "A lot of them are homophobic and sexist, and it’s like, 'Alright, I want to do something completely different but still using sports as a theme.' I could go out there, take a picture of art, and slap some stupid caption on it, but part of the challenge — and why I like doing it — is the more layers I can try to bake into it, the better I feel about posting it."

One of Rader’s best multilayered posts involves Vanderbilt senior Sarah Fuller, whom he put next to "Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (copy after Guido Reni)" by Benjamin West. 

On the surface, it works because the poses are similar, and the composition of Fuller’s helmet mirrors the man’s head on a platter. But the man’s head on the platter is the whole point. Fuller sent a corner of dudes on the internet into a frenzy a few weeks ago when she became the first woman to play college football for a Power Five Conference school. 

She kicked off for Vanderbilt to start the second half of the Commodores’ game against Missouri, and many of the angry men said Fuller flubbed it. But they clearly don’t know football very well, because she actually executed (pun intended) a squib kick perfectly.

In addition to making fun of the ridiculous, a few of Rader’s images simply capture the subtle grace of sports. Like this one, which compares three leaping Bills and Cardinals players to an Antonio Canova sculpture of three women who resemble ballet dancers. 

I’ve had a long-running bit that everything can be sports. "Is it sports?" you can ask about dating, or parenting, or cooking, or anything. If you approach it in a certain way, any activity can be competitive, graceful, or make you feel alive, dejected, ecstatic — the essential components of sports. 

Art — and looking at art — is certainly sports. It’s a way to briefly leave the world you’re in, to dip into another place and be moved by how what you’re seeing makes you feel. You forget the earthly things you’re worried about, if only for a moment. 

Not too different from a particularly beautiful Patrick Mahomes throw. 

"You would think it’s pretty niche, but you don’t really need to know art to get it," Rader said. "You need to know sports. There are actually a few people that follow that have no clue about sports that really enjoy it, which I think is really funny." 

The moral of the story is that you should follow @artbutmakeitsports on Instagram. 

You’ll definitely laugh, and you might even learn a thing or two about paintings. 

A win-win. 

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