What a special time of year!
Major League Baseball offers its pennant races, and our Phillies remain in the hunt. The NFL begins another season, this time with our hometown squad as reigning Super Bowl champions. Saturdays are once again game days thanks to college football, and the Friday night frenzies have returned on the high school level. Even the PGA Tour is making a local appearance this week at Aronimink Golf Club after an eight-year hiatus.
As one canon lawyer justly pronounced, this is the best two months of the year for sports fans.
But the appeal of the games goes beyond the fans. Athletics at every level occupy people’s time, interest, and energy like no other activity. As a cultural phenomenon, the spectacle of sports approaches that of religion in its power to raise us above the mundane morass of life in this world and provide us with a super-natural spark that inspires joy and hope.
Sport is spiritual. As Jesuit educator Mark Bandsuch claims, athletics “offer insights into the experience of the transcendent, the excellence of human ability, the impact of beliefs on actions and morality, the benefits and responsibilities of community, the role of ritual, the importance of language, the sacredness of houses of worship, the importance of history and tradition, and the dynamics of discipleship.”
Yes, all that in what appear to be just games!
But the games we play (or enjoy watching) reveal more than mere personal interests. Leisure is the basis of culture, as Joseph Pieper wisely argues. And, as St. John Paul II astutely claims, “The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God.”
That approach leads many to see a real connection between sports and religion. Prayers are said before and after games, sometimes (as in NASCAR) as part of the proceedings. Scoring plays are followed by pointing credit to the heavens above. Heroic athletes are adoringly cheered as quasi-deities. And, as a quick review of the literature suggests, God is seemingly found on the gridiron (especially down South), in the corner (of boxers), or within the ballpark (an allusion to paradise).
Anyone who has attempted to master the links knows the golf gods are responsible for fortune or failure there. And everyone realizes that home (plate) is where life sets out in earnest and where it finds fulfillment upon return.
Beyond the mythopoetic metaphors, however, lies a simpler truth: sports exude a mysterious, even sacred, power. Anthropologists describe that power as ideological (having distinctive values and beliefs), cultic (evident in rituals practiced by players and fans alike), and historical (in the revered records and long-standing traditions). Psychologically, that power is enthralling in the seasonal melodrama, enchanting in the display of abilities, and ecstatic in the outcomes, whether a win or a loss.
Sports also display key features of a religious sensibility. They reflect our desire for transcendence, for going beyond the limitations of mortal existence to achieve feats of glory. They reveal our immanence, in as much as they entail an endless quest for perfection, through the repetitive honing of techniques and skills that, of themselves, do not guarantee success. Therein, sports disclose the essential finitude of our lives, where frustration and failure are ever-present realities.
Still, sports also hold out the possibility of beatitude, with hopeful aspiration for all at the start of the season, joyous fulfillment for one team at the end, and a persevering faith among the rest who confidently croon “wait ’til next year.”
Perhaps this view offers too much religious romance. After all, in the final analysis sports are just games, no matter how exorbitantly financed.
But to the masses, those games mean much more. Whether as athletes or coaches, officials or staff, employees or fans, sports occupy a significant place in daily life and, thus, have the potential to influence how we view the meaning of human existence. Ultimately, that meaningfulness resides in the realm of religion.
Granted, God may not care who wins or loses. But God does care about being human, about overcoming fear and frustration, about redeeming failure, about cultivating virtue, about fostering friendship, about loving others. As a hockey-playing bishop (Most Rev. Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois) once wrote in “Holy Goals for Body and Soul,” those cares connect athletics and religion.
For fans of faith and sports alike, they are truths that will always be in season.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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