Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sport As Religion

Even a fake religion…can do real spiritual work.
David Chidester, Authentic Fakes (2005)

Take it from a former athlete, coach, athletic director and someone who has read the sports page first every morning since I was 10, there has been a lot to get excited about recently. Game 7 of the NBA Finals was some of the most intense basketball I’ve ever seen (especially that 4th quarter) and I can’t believe I just wrote that about an NBA game. I grew up rooting for the Showtime Lakers, just a 50 minute drive from my suburban privilege to the Fabulous Forum, so, of course, I was rooting for the hometown defending Champions. In that game alone, I was shocked how quickly I jumped back on the bandwagon (I rarely make time to watch the NBA these days), dropping f-bombs every time Kobe shot a fall-away and letting out a triumphant uproar after D-Fish hit that late-game high-arching dagger (it was more like a javelin).

This year the end of the NBA Finals coordinated nicely with the start of the every-4-years World Cup (I’m sure you’ve heard the noise of every American jumping on the bandwagon of the sport that the rest of the world is constantly tuned in to). The Cup has already had its share of surprises, including Serbia’s win over Germany and today's US win over Algeria to win the pool in the 91st minute (you’ve got to see Ben Silverman’s rather blunt Harper’s Magazine piece on that match and his toned-down-a-bit follow-up post here).

These games and celebrations call for a deeper reflection on why we get so caught up in athletic dramas whose outcomes, according to my good friend, “absolutely do not matter” (he included an adverb that I won't repeat here followed by a rant about 35,000 children all over the world dying every day from diarrhea). This was displayed nicely in Kobe’s pre-Game 7 interview when he referred to it as “life and death, but not that extreme." The sports-induced emotional outbursts, game-day hype, game-time anxieties and celebratory banquets ironically echo the jubilantly weeping father in the prodigal son story (Luke 15:23): “…and get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.” But that was when his lost-but-now-found son came home, not the quite-common-“big”-game on TV. Just think about all of our real American religious holidays, centered around sporting events: BCS, Super Bowl, March Madness, The Masters, NBA Finals, Wimbledon, the Entire-College-Football-Season and the World Series, not to mention the every-four-year extravaganzas (Summer and Winter Olympics and World Cup) to look forward to. I remember in my 20s, all those nights killing the fatted calf and celebrating every day with ESPN Sportscenter.

Sociologist David Chidester, in his book Authentic Fakes, describes how elements of American pop culture, from baseball to Coke to Disney, perform the basic function of religion for millions. What exactly is a religion? Chidester offers this trifecta:

Transcendent—-that which rises above and beyond the ordinary

Sacred—-that which is set apart from the ordinary

Ultimate—-that which defines the final, unavoidable limit of all our ordinary concerns

Sports as national religion fills a void for Americans who are not compelled nor fulfilled by traditional or institutional religious options. Ironically, however, many of the biggest sports fans I know are devoutly "religious" people who, perhaps, turn to sports to experience a more tangible source of what is transcendent, sacred and ultimate. The church, synagogue, mosque and temple, perhaps, are not adequately providing this. The dualistic nature of sports (us-versus-them) provides a clear-cut outlet for all of us as we journey through the complex and confusing chaos of life. In our world, when we passionately and critically engage with life, it is quite difficult to know who the actual winners and losers are and why conflict, wars and disasters happen. There is not a common scoreboard for all to see. Take the Gulf oil spill for example. Who's at fault? BP. Other companies working on that rig. Various governmental agencies. Obama. An entire society addicted to oil. And, how can we overcome the odds and win the game? Make BP pay billions. Make Obama pay at the polls. Stop drilling offshore. Start carpooling. Stop complaining and keep drilling. At the end of every sporting contest, one team wins and one team loses (even the World Cup will have not have ties after pool-play). The Lakers won the Championship. Period. And there are a few obvious reasons why they won it (home-court advantage, Kobe, Artest's performance in game 7, the Celtics' age, the Lakers' 4th quarter defense, Phil Jackson, etc). In our world, with a variety of media outlets, we're not really sure who wins and who loses and there are conflicting (Fox versus MSNBC versus CNN versus the networks versus independent news) narratives explaining why this is so.

So we turn to sports, a refuge of simplicity in a world of complexity. But is this a good thing and are we just robotically going about life, not really thinking about the effect that sports-addiction has on our souls? As Radiohead sings, we are all "like a pig/in a cage/on antibiotics." Here are some questions EasyYolk ponders for all of us who care about the redemption of our world:

• Is the world of sports, then, just one big diversion from reflecting on the deep pain, brokenness and division within ourselves and our wider world?

• Do sporting events serve as an emotional scapegoat—-focusing our energetic hopes on our team while harnessing all of our anger on to the opposing team?

• Does sports resemble a form of idolatry, a consistent brand of celebrity worship? (not only athletes, but fans as well—-as we were consistently reminded by ABC and ESPN with their occasional "celebrity watch" at Staple’s Center)

• Are our teams and superstars our saviors? Do we seek to live vicariously through them?

• How affected are we by the advertising associated with sporting events: cheap beer, expensive cars, sex-on-demand and must-see-movies (this is a pop culture script that we perform)

• Is the world of sports simply a counterfeit for our real mission in this world: battling the beast (corrupt politicians/greedy corporations with their lawyers and lobbies) while agressively advocating for the real underdogs (all those marginalized by the rules and rulers of society who consistently favor the elite and wealthy over the poor and vulnerable)?

We aren't player-hatin' on sports. We see the good that comes from active participation in athletics. Sports brings all kinds of people from various races, classes and cultures together on a common mission. Sports also recruits active participants who learn teamwork, discipline, work ethic and fight obesity. But we do believe that sports has become an obsession that has become an obstacle keeping us from asking honest, penetrating questions about peace, justice and brotherhood for all.

If we truly care about this contest called life, then the morality of US adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is far more questionable than an offside call against the Americans in a World Cup match. And an American tax-code, over the past three decades, that has made the rich extremely richer and the poor and middle-class stagnant (at best), requires the kind of systemic change that would compare to giving little Butler a chance at beating mighty Duke in the Final Four. In short, we should be more concerned about lobbyists than alley-oop lobs and care more intensely about Third World debt relief than 9th inning bullpen relief. Let's focus on humanizing the 12 million free agents we call "aliens" instead of deifying the one free agent called "Lebron." If "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," then we must take up King's mantle and put sports in its place, making it a metaphor for life instead of life itself.

--Theological Autopilot

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