I like sports. I grew up playing basketball, baseball, football, tennis. I played all these sports very badly, but in our backyard, or the backyards of neighbor kids, or in our driveway. It was how we bonded, and it was also how we excluded. One neighbor kid didn’t play sports–he was somehow even less coordinated than I was–and didn’t want to. We didn’t mean to treat him badly, but we did. I still feel terrible about that. But we loved sports, and when we weren’t playing sports, we were watching them, either live or on TV. Or talked about them. My brother was just in town, and while he was mostly here on family stuff–his daughter’s baby’s blessing–we did fit in two basketball games on TV.
I know lots of people who can’t stand sports, who especially can’t stand televised team sports. I am, in fact, married to one of those people. I get that. We sports fans can be quite sadly fanatical in our devotion to the teams that have earned our allegiance–that’s where the word ‘fan’ comes from, after all. I hear from people from time to time who tell me they like this blog, and usually they add “except for the baseball ones.” I get that too, which also doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing baseball ones.
But why? Why do we attach ourselves do devotedly to something as artificial as a professional sports team? Or college team. In fact, isn’t inter-collegiate athletics somehow worse? Doesn’t big-time college sports detract from the educational mission of high ed? Doesn’t it divert resources that might be better used to hire a new math professor, build a new lab, construct a theatre rehearsal room or dance studio, pay TA’s properly? Are we seriously seriously, pretending . . . no. Wait. Stop! I like sports. I’m arguing for them.
It’s good to care about something.
The great New Yorker writer, Roger Angell, used to make this argument; that caring deeply is a basic human good, even if it’s for something silly. In fact, lots of things we care a lot about are silly. Once we silly human creatures have got the Food, Sex, Shelter thing down, turns out we have plenty of time and brain-space for silly stuff. And full-blown life-long infatuation with a sports team is, turns out, mentally healthy.
It’s a shortcut to bonding with other people.
So this past weekend, our family spent some time interacting with my niece’s husband’s family. I found myself spending some time conversing with my niece’s father-in-law. Seemed like a nice guy, and we chatted a bit. Then he mentioned being a baseball fan. And we went from ‘awkward family party conversation with a stranger’ to ‘my gosh what a cool guy how much fun were we having?’ We got along immediately. I know the guy now, know how he thinks about something important to both of us. And it was something safe, not something really volatile–politics, religion.
There’s a theological angle to it, a celebration of human potential, of human beauty.
The human beauty we’re talking about here. . . has nothing to do with sex, or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body. There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. We can just quickly mention pains, sores, nausea, odors, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits–every last schism between our bodies and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help to be reconciled? Crave it? It’s your bodies that die, after all.
Great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch, to move through space, to interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things the rest of us can only dream of. But those dreams are important.
David Foster Wallace “Federer both Flesh and Not.”
And as a Mormon, I believe that the human body is magnificent, not sin-filled and vile. I believe that bodies enhance and enable spiritual capacities, not stunt them. There is not Mormon equivalent to the heresy of ‘the mortification of the flesh.’
BYU is in a basketball tournament right now, the NIT (National Invitation Tournament), and one of the announcers last night was Bill Walton. Walton was one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, sort of a hero of mine. He’s also a dreadful announcer. Too talky, too interested in long stories about his own career, and not, like, the ballgame right there in front of him. He was a former teammate of Danny Ainge and we got to hear many stories about what a great guy Ainge was. And so on. But then he talked about Kresimir Cosic. Cosic was a genuinely brilliant player, for BYU and later, for the Yugoslavian and Croatian national teams. And Walton stopped himself, got a little choked up, trying to describe the beauty of Cosic’s game.
This happens sometimes. You remember a Willie Mays, a Joe Montana, a Wayne Gretzsky, a Magic Johnson, and your eyes get a little teary. What they did was so beautiful, it still takes your breath away.
It’s good to care about things, and to care about beauty. And of course, I get that same feeling when I hear a great tenor sing, or a great dancer dance, or a great actor in a great role. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, praiseworthy . . . So watch this kid,twenty years old, from Africa, already a college graduate. Watch him soar: Victor Oladipo, from Indiana. Meanwhile, the NCAA tournament is on-going, and baseball season soon to start. Go Hoosiers, and go Giants.