Sports. It’s a worldwide pastime. Every day, there is some kid in Kenya kicking a soccer ball and some boy in Belfast bouncing a basketball. Sport brings the world together when it seems nothing else can. The Winter Olympics showed us this last month. For seventeen days, nations from across the world converged on Turin, Italy in a fellowship of fighting for glory.
What is it about watching sports that is so exciting? Why do I get so emotional seeing some random athlete from who-knows-where win a medal in a sport I only watch once every four years? What makes me scream uncontrollably and join a pulsating crowd on their feet when I’m at a college basketball game? Why do I get goosebumps every time I watch one of those clichéd, by-the-book Disney sports movies? (Yeah, I liked Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played and Glory Road—and I’m not ashamed!)
For many of you, sports is a given. It’s just a part of life (a mighty good part). And to write an article analyzing the ontology of it—I’m sure it must seem a little needless. But there is something in the essence of sport—competition, winning, defeat, etc—that strikes me as being something of a microcosm of who we are and what we can (and cannot) do in this life.
I have to say (and this might be roundly contested) that I think March is the best sports month of the year. And I have no problem that my only reasoning for this can be summed up in two words: College basketball. Even when there are months like October which simultaneously feature baseball, basketball, and football, among others, March Madness for me is uniquely and rapturously THE sports event of the year.
The NCAA tournament is three weeks of raw, “expect the unexpected” amateur athletics at its best. Rankings, hype, politics, commercialism … it all means little during the glorious processional of 64, then 32, 16, 8, and finally four teams giving it all to feel the inexplicable joy of being on top.
But what is this “being on top” anyway? To win—to be “a champion” or #1 of something … at best these are temporary titles, right? Muhammed Ali was “the greatest” … but only for a time. The “Magnificent Seven” of 1996 Olympic-gymnastics headlines were America’s sweethearts … for about a year. How many of us can even remember who won the Super Bowl the year before last? So many Wheaties box stars, Heismann trophy winners, Gold medalists, MVPs, buzzer-beating heroes … but all stars eventually flame out. If they’re lucky they’ll leave behind a hall-of-fame plaque or some framed Sports Illustrated cover above a little boy’s bed.
Sport is perhaps the most ardent reminder of life’s temporality, but that’s okay—it’s all in the game. There are few things in life that are as fleeting as sports (just look at Olympians, they rarely get more than a handful of lifetime shots at a Gold medal), and yet there is very little that can bring us such heart-pounding adrenaline and lump-in-throat emotion. It’s here for a moment and gone forever; So much of it is about reminiscing about “the glory days” and triumphs past. Watch Friday Night Lights for a beautiful meditation on the bittersweet evanescence of sport. If you win it’s golden, but then it’s just a ring, medal or memory. If you lose it’s regret for what might’ve been or motivation for working harder. Either way, the goal is clear—winning in the moment. Feeling the glory.
I think for athletes who play sports, and to a lesser extent the fans who watch them, competing for a “win” is really just an existential defense mechanism, much like art. I’ve always believed that art is, at it’s best, our distinctly human method of reflecting upon and reaching outside of our fallen condition. In the face of our impermanence we get anxious, and playing for the moments when time stops and things like clarity, purity and joy are glimpsed—that becomes our game plan. When art is transcendent—when you feel that cathartic “goosebump” feeling—that is when we come closest to touching the kind of glory that only eternity will know.
And when you think about it like that, sport is not that different than art. We resonate with sports because it is in our human condition to compete (just ask Cain and Abel). We resonate with art because our hearts contain the push to create. In both cases we are looking to transcend our incapacities and touch what is just outside our reach. It is the symphonic climax—the flash-bulb fireworks of energy spent, blood, sweat, tears and years of training coalescing in a moment of long-sought redemption.
Can sports bring us closer to God? Sure. There is much in the character of sport, like art, that reveals our search (or at least, our need) for God. But like many things that have a spiritual aspect or potential, there is also the temptation to make it an idol. Nevertheless, I think God gets a kick out of sports—the quirky way humans have reconciled their dark and selfish inclinations in a rather light-hearted (though sometimes fiercely violent) way.
So amid the frenzied bracketology of this year’s March Madness, don’t expect God to favor one team over another. Because even though 64 teams will leave defeated and only one will carry the trophy, there will still be plenty of “holy moments” to go around. The upsets, the clutch three-pointers, the roar of a crowd brought to their feet by a showy dunk, the nasally exclamation of a Dick Vitale baby!!!… these are the moments that can enliven our weary souls. Fun to watch? You bet. … And so much more.