Not much time to post this week. Getting ready for vacation, writing curriculum and other pastoral stuff have kept me occupied.
But I have noticed this: It has been a tough week to be a sports fan.
+ A cloud still hangs over Barry Bonds’ chase of Major League Baseball’s record for all-time. Another BALCO chemist testified that Barry used a substance called “the clear” to gain strength and avoid detection.
+ Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted on dog-fighting charges and suspended by the NFL. The details of dog torture and killing that have emerged have been sickening.
+ NBA referee Tim Donaghy has been implicated in a gambling scandal. He is accused of working with organized crime figures to pay off his own gambling debts and of even betting on NBA games he officiated-calling into question the integrity of the sport as a whole.
+ At the British Open, golfing legend Gary Player alleged that some players on the PGA Tour have been using performance enhancing drugs. No one jumped on this, but the suspicion has been raised. Is the pro bowling tour next?
+ And most disturbing for me (a cyclist), the Tour de France is again reeling under a spate of doping allegations. Several major cyclists-including almost certain winner Michael Rasmussen of Denmark-have been removed from the race.
As I read these reports, I have gone from quizzical (what in the world is going on?) to incredulous (I can’t believe this is happening again) to angry (these spoiled-brat pro athletes just make me sick) to withdrawl (maybe it’s just not worth watching anymore) to sadness (the simple joy of sports and heroes is gone-and may never return)
Of all the emotions, I think sadness is the one that will remain. Sadness for the loss of what was and what may never be again.
It’s been obvious for years that sports has morphed into a role in American culture that it was never meant to bear. Sports-whether pro or college– now define our calendars ( see Super Bowl frenzy or March Madness or October baseball playoffs) It shapes entire communities, who are often defined by their team and its performance more than the everyday people who live, work, learn, play and raise families there. It provides an identity for people. It creates celebrity superstars by fiat -whether they deserve it or not (Anna Kournikova, anyone?)-and gives the impression that they are to be treated differently simply because they can run, jump, throw, hit better than ordinary folks. It has astounding economic power. It shapes conversations, language, advertising, fashion (shoes, shirts with team logos or superstar names, etc.), food (‘Is it in you?”) media (ESPN and clones, Madden ’07 for X-Box, etc.) and a thousand other things. Sports is big business and a primary shaper of the American culture.
That’s why there is such pressure on teams and athletes to win, perform, come through, and deliver. That’s one reason (not negating basic human depravity) that cheating or ignoring rules seems to become more prevalent.
Here’s where the sadness comes. While I don’t want to look at the past through too-rosy glasses, it seems that as “sport as business and culture-shaper” has grown, sport as simple pleasure in athletic strength, prowess and performance has declined. It seems that sports figures as hero to wide-eyed children are less prevalent (though watching rare moments like Shaquille O’Neal’s dealings with overweight children gives some glimmers of hope) It seems that sports has, in many ways, stopped being fun. It’s serious stuff – even for kids, who rarely play baseball or soccer or basketball with the other kids on the block until the sun goes down in the summer because they have year-long training and games with uniforms and scowling coaches –just like the pros.
That’s sad. It’s sad for the loss of a simple joy. But it’s also sad because it speaks volumes about who we are becoming as a people.
When people depend on sports to have a life or when sports becomes bigger than life, sports becomes an idol. An idol-something we reverence and trust to shape our lives and give identity. But here’s what we don’t seem to realize. We make sports that important-by watching and buying and attending and obsessing. What if you replace the idol words and references in the following with a favorite sports icon or team?
How foolish are those who manufacture idols. These prized objects are really worthless. The people who worship idols don’t know this, so they are all put to shame. Who but a fool would make his own god- an idol that cannot help him one bit? All who worship idols will be disgraced along with all these craftsmen-mere humans–who claim they can make a god. They may all stand together, but they will stand in terror and shame…Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood and draws a pattern on it. He works with chisel and plane and carves it into a human figure. He gives it human beauty and puts it in a little shrine. He cuts down cedars; he selects the cypress and the oak; he plants the pine in the forest to be nourished by the rain. Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire…. to roast his meat and to keep himself warm. He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.” Then he takes what’s left and makes his god: a carved idol! He falls down in front of it, worshiping and praying to it. “Rescue me!” he says. “You are my god!” Such stupidity and ignorance! Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see. Their minds are shut, and they cannot think. The person who made the idol never stops to reflect, “Why, it’s just a block of wood! I burned half of it for heat and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat. How can the rest of it be a god? Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?” The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes. He trusts something that can’t help him at all. Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:9-11,13-15a, 17-20, NLT )
Is it possible that sports could recover its simple joy if we could just remember to tell the truth about what it is? If we could just recover what it means to just have fun with it? It’s a ball and a bat, a ball and a racquet or club, a ball passed or punted. It’s a game! It’s swimming or riding a bike or Frisbee tag. It’s grass stains and laughter.
Sports is part of a great life. It’s just not life.