This is one of my favorite times of the year, and not just because of the increased daylight or St. Patrick’s Day or the spiritual renewal of Lent and Easter. It’s mostly about sports.
Thursday marks the beginning of America’s single greatest sporting event – the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (I don’t count the four play-in games today and tomorrow.) Also, spring training has begun, and as the Yankees have reloaded their starting rotation, I’m feeling particularly hopeful. The shortened and sloppy but immensely fun NBA regular season is rounding its final turn. Lionel Messi and his Barcelona side are looking like the best soccer team ever. And the college women’s basketball tournament could feature a deep run by my alma mater.
While I love sports more than most people I know, it’s not an uncomplicated love. Sometimes, I wonder if my near-obsession with athletics fits in to my worldview. What about the absurd amount of money involved? It’s a mockery of justice that Alex Rodriguez gets paid $25 million a year to hit a few baseballs while half of the country is living in or near poverty. Throw in the concussion epidemic and sex scandals and my consuming fascination with the college choices of 17-year old pituitary cases, and my level of interest seems almost embarrassing.
I sometimes think I should just quit sports altogether.
Then, last month, in a New York Times column about Jeremy Lin – the sensational point guard/Harvard grad/Taiwanese-American/overnight icon who happens to be also be a devout Christian – David Brooks argued that Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) doesn’t have a “moral ethos” consistent with sports. My guilt started to grow.
Brooks argues that the assertiveness, pride, and ambition that characterize what he calls “the modern sports hero” are what we love and pay to see. He writes, “But there’s no use denying – though many do deny it – that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.” The humility that is at the heart of the world’s major religions gets you nowhere in sports.
“The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict,” Brooks writes. “Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.”
The sports website Deadspin reacted quickly, with a post titled “David Brooks Has Written The Dumbest Jeremy Lin Column So Far”. After annoyingly attacking Brooks and the Times, the writer argues that Brooks’ description of the athletic hero “is not a bad description of the loudest strain of American born-again evangelicalism.”
Maybe so, but I couldn’t help feeling that Deadspin was missing something. And then, it appeared to me that Brooks was missing something, also. I ended up with three reasons why there is a place in Christianity for sports, without giving in to the caricature of religion that Deadspin presents.
1) Sports can be a vocation. Or, “Be who you are, and be that perfectly well.”
St. Francis de Sales said the “Be who you are” quote, and it’s one of my favorites. I am blessed to know so many talented and wonderful people, and it’s often tempting to look at them and think, “I wish I could write like he does,” or, “I wish I were as funny in front of a group as she is.” While it’s OK to aspire to be better, I have been given certain gifts, and I should be happy and grateful for the “me” God has created.
I always love watching someone doing what he or she has clearly been made to do. My brother, for instance, is the most passionate percussionist I have ever seen. Whether he’s playing a marimba concerto in front of a crowded concert hall or just practicing drum set in his room, the joy and love he displays are signs that music is one of his primary vocations. He gives glory to God by using his gifts well.
I wonder if David Brooks has watched Jeremy Lin play. Jeremy is so fun to watch because he has this child-like exuberance on the floor, combined with great skill and impressive effort. He is using his God-given gifts well. He is living one of his vocations. What else could we ask of him?
2) Sports can make people better.
Living rightly is one of our most important tasks as Christians. With the gift of free will, we act as moral agents in the world, making decisions everyday that shape our character.
The key is in the doing. We can claim to be kind or compassionate people, but if we aren’t spending time serving those in need, going out of our way for others, and listening to friends in difficult situations, then our words are empty.
Living well is difficult and takes practice. If I’m not the best listener naturally, I can concentrate on that skill and develop it over time. Eventually, it will become a habit. A word in the Christian tradition for a habit that enables us to live well is “virtue.”
While the entitlement and selfishness common in professional athletics is frustrating, sports can be some of the best ways to develop virtues.
I’ve become friendly over the past couple of years with a woman who played division-one volleyball in college. We’ve talked a lot about values she developed over 15 years of competitive volleyball that have carried over into her life. For instance, she is reliable, supportive, disciplined, others-oriented, and perseverant. As she prepares to enter the Catholic Church at Easter, she likes the idea that our community has structure and calls its members to active participation. These are all virtues she developed through sports that she can apply to her professional, personal, and spiritual lives.
3) Sports can be beautiful.
Part of the wonder of being human is that we’re able to co-create with God. Using our gifts, we help God build his kingdom on Earth. Beautiful human creations can be glimpses of the divine, and powerful signs of God’s life in the world: art, music, dance, theater, film, architecture, literature, powerful social movements, new inventions.
But competitive athletics can also be a source of incredible beauty. When I’m arguing with myself against sports, I try to dismiss them as brutish activities that are not as important as art or music. But then an athlete does something I’ve never seen another human being do, and I’m moved and inspired. Why should a painter’s stroke of originality and beauty mean more than that of a basketball player?
In his brilliant 2006 essay about tennis legend Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace describes this phenomenon as “kinetic beauty.”
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
He argues that one thing Federer’s beauty is not is “televisable.” You have to be there and see it for it to make sense – like receiving a postcard of a Van Gogh versus seeing it on the wall in a museum. Or like watching Mass on an Internet stream versus being there yourself. When you encounter incredible beauty of whatever type in-person, it’s hard to not be changed somehow.
As a bus driver in Wallace’s story says, watching Federer is a “bloody near-religious experience.” If beauty is a way we get to share in the divine life, then he’s exactly right.
Ultimately, none of these arguments justify some of the grossest things that are often bound up with professional athletics. But sports themselves can be valuable parts of a holistic Christian life. So say a quick prayer of thanksgiving as you fill out your bracket this year.