Like most Americans, I only care about horse racing once per year. Every year on the first Saturday in May, otherwise reasonable people don expensive-looking hats and consume mint juleps in honor of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. This year’s event featured an extra thrill as viewers were entitled to 17 extra minutes of drama until the judges (called “stewards” in horse racing jargon) decided that the winner didn’t actually win.
Connoisseurs of horse racing have all weighed in on this shocking turn of events. I am wholly reliant on their judgements, since, as I mentioned, I know next to nothing about horse racing. (In fact, the one thing I thought I knew – that the horse who crossed the line first wins – was disproven this year.)
But I do know something: as a living commentary on contemporary life, this year’s Derby delivered.
First, let’s all pause and take note of the fact that financial interests have invaded the entire sporting world on an unprecedented scale. The infamous “Black Sox” scandal demonstrated the pernicious influence of betting among players 100 years ago. Human nature being what it is, there were probably healthy wagers being taken up at the ancient Olympics (“I’ll put five drachmas down on Hercules …”).
Every year, a different scandal comes to light that makes evident the corruption at the heart of collegiate athletics (often financial or, as recently revealed, as a back-door admissions process for children of the wealthy). Alas, it seems one has to descend down to the level of beer league or beach wiffleball to find a sporting event in which some tangible good – either large amounts of money or a life lived vicariously through one’s children – is not at stake in a major way.
Yet while none of this is new, the legalization of sports betting nationwide has only increased the sense that the sporting event – any sporting event – is never just about who wins on the field. It’s about who wins at the Borgata. And of course, money also invades sports through television contracts, merchandizing deals and the economic impact of things like travel and memorabilia. That made the Derby’s disqualification of Maximum Security a multi-million dollar decision. The Fed chair wishes he had that kind of immediate power.
This increase in intensity caused by the cash at stake feeds into our hyper-technological society. Now, in an instant, the whole country gets to argue about the fairness of the result in real time with accompanying video evidence. Of course, a very small fraction of humanity actually knew what they were looking at during the Kentucky Derby controversy. And only the officials at the racetrack were actually in the position to decide.
But that did not stop a whole cadre of newly minted experts from posting their opinion for the world to consider.
In some ways, this is intensely refreshing. The number of truly shared moments in our on-demand era is quite small: major sporting events and deaths of former presidents encompass most of it. Yet the limit of technology also manifested itself. On the one hand, social media tends to make life less about what is happening and more about how I interpret or present what is happening. On the other, the very thing which technology promises to do – provide coldly objective evidence to determine the true result – is quite illusory in practice.
Human beings still have to judge the evidence, and such decisions are never so clear cut. How sad it is that instead of the event itself capturing everyone’s attention, it was a controversial decision after the race which dominated the narrative.
We’ve become used to this phenomenon in other sectors of life. Think of the armies of public policy graduates who spend their days not proposing sound legislation but yelling at each other on CNN or on Twitter. ESPN seems to spend less and less time on highlights and more time on reaction, interpretation, prognostication and, of course, troubles off the field.
As human beings, economic development and technology have been necessary to sustaining life from the beginnings of our civilization. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Yet it is equally true that our true desire lies beyond such things. Every now and then, human beings need an oasis which lifts us out of the Forum where goods are traded and disputes adjudicated.
If the logic of money, technology and adversarial public life is left unchecked, our souls become coarsened. Then life itself becomes subject to manipulation, changeable according to our own basic drives. We need humanizing areas of common life: literature, music, art. Most sports, sadly, no longer seem capable of providing this.
Yet there is still hope. Many children have the happy fortune of growing up playing catch with their dads. I remember doing this in Marconi Park in South Philadelphia. Long before the youth games that provided opportunities for adults to argue with each other like children, there was the simple joy of throwing a football or hitting a baseball. Before someone’s parents decided a kid could get some money out of some school for hitting three pointers, there were late-night games of “H-O-R-S-E” with only the moths hovering around the street light for an audience.
These feet-on-the-ground experiences possess a reality oddly missing from the Kentucky Derby or – in a different sector – the Oscars. Free-wheeling games of hockey in the basement are formative for the rest of one’s life; $1,000 tickets to an NBA Finals game cannot replace such experiences.
During this Easter Season, we remember the real, lasting impressions the Risen Lord made on people. Whether they took place before his passion – like the meeting with Nicodemus under cover of darkness – or after, like the moment he (“the gardener”) called Mary Magdalene’s name, these events left such a deep impression that they echo down throughout the centuries in the Scripture we proclaim.
These real, earthy, concrete encounters with a few number of people possess a dynamism that a gathering of a million people could not replicate. Where the Risen Lord is present – that is the truly “real world.” And he continues to make himself present in the sacraments of his church. Indeed, “the spirit blows where it will,” and the Spirit wills to renew the earth precisely through sacramental windows opened by priests, even despite our own faults.
The church’s liturgy is where she is truly herself. That is the true oasis from the dampening effect of money and the anxiety-inducing influence of technology. As the church at various levels undertakes needed reform, it helps to recall that we complicate the matter at our own risk.
While so-called “experts” get to argue incessantly about winners and losers, the Christian knows that the greatest natural joy belongs to the child shooting foul shots with Dad, and that the Risen Lord is already present in mystery where two or three are gathered in his name.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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