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In the spirit of the game: though cheating and corruption can be par for the course, sports also have the capacity to reveal the fullness of human possibilities.

"I am an avid sports fan and a Christian theologian." I feel like an alcoholic confessing my addiction at a 12-step meeting. There is so much to criticize about professional and college sports in our culture, particularly from the perspective of Christian faith, that it is hard for me not to feel guilty about my passion.

I know well that sports like football and hockey are inherently violent. I realize that the multi million-dollar sports industry can distract us from pressing social problems. I am concerned about a society that offers the highly unlikely promise of sports stardom to disadvantaged youth as the only way out of their constricting world. I am even more concerned that too many pampered, surly prima donnas are being offered as role models to today's youth. I share the conviction of many that the idea of the "student-athlete" in college sports is becoming oxymoronic.

The problems associated with competitive sports in our culture are real. Those of us who profess to be thoughtful Christians are well aware of these realities, and yet we still find it difficult to resist following our favorite teams and individual athletes. The past several years have made things particularly difficult for many fans. The steroids controversy that had been bubbling just below the surface for almost a decade blew up in major league baseball last winter with admissions of steroid use by Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, and others. And then there was the ugly violence exhibited in the brawl between athletes and fans at a Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers NBA game and an equally ugly brawl among college football players at the conclusion of the Clemson-South Carolina football game.

As a fan, one can only hope that these serious issues concerning money, drugs, and violence in sports will eventually be addressed in a comprehensive and equitable manner. In spite of these problems I would like to make a case for the place of sports in our culture. There are, of course, obvious health and social benefits to participating in sports, whether that takes the form of a daily jog, a weekly round of golf, or going up against some fellow weekend warriors on a local basketball court or hockey rink. But I want to argue explicitly for the value of spectator sports and suggest, in fact, that there is a transcendent dimension to spectator sports that helps explain sports fans' profound passions. I want to propose, in other words, a spirituality of sports.

I remain convinced that sports--both amateur and professional--reveal not only our societal dysfunctions but our transcendent human capacity for greatness. For many of us there is a genuine spiritual dimension to our passion for sports. I do not mean simply that sports can become a kind of civil religion, true though this may be. It is easy to remark on the obvious parallels between sports and religion. Both have their rituals, both can encourage a dangerous sort of zealotry. Both are susceptible to corruption. One is reminded of author Jim Bouton's wry remark regarding both baseball and religion--"Great game ... lousy owners!" I mean that there is something in sports that reveals the truly transcendent dimensions of the human spirit.

Let me begin by citing two examples: the 1995 and 1996 Masters golf tournaments. Golf is a peculiar spectator sport. Unlike most other spectator sports, only those who have tried to play the game can really appreciate the athleticism and mental tenacity required to succeed. Even the unschooled spectator can appreciate the athleticism of basketball great Michael Jordan. Golf offers a different and peculiarly voyeuristic attraction to the spectator. In no other sport is the fragile equilibrium of the human psyche so publicly displayed.

It is now more than 10 years since Ben Crenshaw entered the 1995 Masters Tournament with few expectations. Although he had won the famous green jacket more than a decade earlier, his recent play hardly distinguished him as one likely to be competing on Sunday for the championship. Moreover, Crenshaw came to the tournament with a special handicap. His revered golf coach and father figure, Harvey Penick, had died just days earlier, and Crenshaw had served as a pallbearer at the funeral. Crenshaw began the tournament still mourning the loss of one of the most important figures in his life. He later admitted it was hard to concentrate on the tournament itself. Tom Kite, a college teammate of Crenshaw and fellow participant on the pro tour, was also a student of Penick and later wondered whether his miserable performance at the 1995 Masters was due to the same distraction.

Yet, over the next four days, Crenshaw drew on unexpected resources to elevate his play. The sports world watched as Crenshaw took the lead and was able to sustain it during that nerve-racking final round, When he sank his final putt on the 18th green he did not sprint around the green high-riving the gallery in the tradition of Hale Irwin, nor did he thrust his arms triumphantly in the air or turn immediately to embrace his caddie--Crenshaw crumpled before our eyes, doubled over and began sobbing, and in doing so took everyone watching to that private place where grief and courage and triumph intermingle.

Crenshaw has not won a tournament on the PGA Tour since then, and his age makes it unlikely that he will win another outside of the senior tour. It doesn't matter. In that remarkable four-day odyssey, the golfing world was privileged to watch as one athlete turned golf into something more than a sport; it was a canvas upon which was portrayed the untapped potential of the human spirit.

One year later another golfer of equal renown, the Australian Greg Norman, entered the Masters Tournament in a quite different fashion. Unlike Crenshaw, Norman had been playing superb golf in the months just prior to the Masters and was hailed as one of the tournament favorites. But unlike Crenshaw, Norman had never won at Augusta (the private golf club where the Masters is played every year), and he entered the tournament with the reputation as an athlete who all too often choked at precisely the point at which athletic ability yields to some less tangible quality, the capacity to handle excruciating pressure and still triumph.

Norman led the tournament through the first three rounds and built what appeared to be an insurmountable six-stroke lead going into Sunday's round.

On that final day, the impossible happened and Norman lost the lead and the tournament. As his lead began to evaporate, I remember feeling almost queasy. Watching Norman's final round was like watching someone slowly and methodically stripped naked and humiliated before your eyes. By the 13th hole, millions of sports fans began to consider the unthinkable, that Norman was going to do what no golfer in Masters history had ever done--lose a six-stroke lead in the final round.

But it would not end mercifully on the 13th hole. There was no manager to throw in the towel; the network could not gracefully switch to another sports event. For the next 90 minutes we watched the clinical dissection of Greg Norman's psyche, staring at a close-up of him as he lined up a putt. We searched his face for some psychic fault line, wondering what mental sales pitch he was giving himself. I remember half-wishing the camera would pull away and leave Norman to himself.

He lost the tournament that day to Nick Faldo. However, the most remarkable aspect of the 1996 Masters was what transpired immediately after the final hole was completed and in the several days that followed. After his historic collapse, Greg Norman did not hang his head. He did not imitate the likes of other athletes too numerous to mention who, in far less trying circumstances, behaved like the arrested adolescents they often were in response to inquiring sports journalists. Greg Norman answered every question with dignity and calmly reminded a skeptical sports media that he would indeed get out of bed the next morning, take stock of his world, and be glad to be alive. This was, after all, a golf tournament--no more, no less.

A New York Times columnist interpreted this as evidence that Norman lacked the "fire in the belly" necessary to win the big one. How odd that we evaluate determination and drive by success when these ineffable qualities are tested far more severely by failure.

Norman's ability to handle one of the most devastating collapses in sports history with class and perspective in its own way accomplished the same thing as did Crenshaw's remarkable victory. It reminded us that at its best, sports aren't just about athleticism, winning, or losing. They're a human laboratory displaying for us the mystery of who we are as humans, possessors of resources and capabilities that cannot be measured by calipers, stop watches, scales, or scorecards.

This is not to say the raw athleticism of sports does not also contribute to its spirituality. I recall a remarkable scene in an otherwise fairly mediocre sports movie, Vision Quest (Warner). The film was about a high school wrestler who decides he wants to take on a new challenge during his final year in school. He sets for himself the goal of dropping two weight classes and wrestling a boy who is considered unbeatable by his peers and is undefeated in his last three years of high school wrestling. On the night of the championship match between the two of them, Louden, the young wrestler, distracted and depressed about a failed romantic relationship, goes to visit Elmo, an old man who works with him at a hotel. Elmo and Louden have been friends for some time, and Elmo announces that he is taking off work to go watch Louden wrestle that night. Louden expresses surprise that Elmo is willing to lose a night's pay just to see a wrestling match.

Louden: "It's not that big a deal, Elmo, it's six lousy minutes on the mat, if that."

Elmo: "Ever hear of Pele ?"

Louden: "Yeah, he's a soccer player."

Elmo: "A very famous soccer player. I was in a room here [at the hotel] one day. I'm watching a Mexican channel on TV. Now I don't know nothin' 'bout Pele. I'm watchin' what this guy can do with a ball and his feet. Next thing I know, he jumps up in the air and flips into a somersault and, ah, kicks the ball in, upside down and backwards? The [expletive] goalie never knew what the [expletive] hit him? Pele gets excited and rips off his jersey an' starts running around the stadium waving it around over his head. Everybody's screaming in Spanish. I'm here sitting alone in my room. I start cryin'. Yeah, that's right, I start crying, 'cause another human being, of the species I happen to belong to, can kick a ball and lift himself and the rest of us sad-ass human beings up to a better place to be, if only for a minute. Let me tell ya, kid, it was pretty [expletive] glorious.

"It ain't the six minutes, it's what happens in those six minutes. Anyway, that's why I'm gettin' dressed up and giving up a night's pay for this function."

Great athletes remind us that we need not accept our own mediocrity, that the extraordinary is attainable for all of us. This does not mean, of course, that we can all imitate Pele but rather that somehow, if we are willing to summon the resources, there is an extraordinary feat lying within each of us if we would only commit ourselves to its discovery and cultivation. Athletes inspire us because in their extraordinary achievements they disclose for us the untapped potential of "the species I happen to belong to."

It's easy to forget that great athletes differ from us in degree and not kind. Tempted though we are to make them into gods, they are humans like ourselves who display the greatness of our common humanity on the field of competition. What we share--and it is vital that we not lose sight of this--is not their athleticism, but their capacity for transcendence, their ability to face and overcome difficulty.

I am reminded of a second sports film about the women's baseball league that briefly flourished during World War II, when many male ballplayers served overseas in the military. In A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks plays a once great, now washed-up baseball player who has found solace in the bottle even as he is given nominal charge of a women's baseball team. The enthusiasm, commitment, and athleticism of the female ballplayers gradually draws him out of his drunken stupor and reminds him of the greatness of the sport exhibited wherever there are athletes of either gender who give themselves over to it.

When the star of the team contemplates quitting, complaining of the difficult demands that the game places on her, Hanks' character confronts her: "Look, I am in no position to tell someone they can't go and have kids or start a family, but to leave like this, to quit ... you will regret it the rest of your life ... [Baseball] is supposed to be hard. If it were easy everyone would be doing it. The hard is what makes it great."

In a culture so often obsessed with ease, efficiency, and convenience, the committed athlete does two things. First she reminds us that what is most profoundly human in us is our capacity to embrace the difficult, to transcend our limits in pursuit of excellence. But at the same time her determination to face that which is difficult, her drive for excellence shines an uncomfortable light on the brokenness of our human condition, a brokenness that encourages us to cower in the face of difficulty and accept a comfortable mediocrity. When each of us faces difficulty--stares down our own creaturely limits and perseveres toward our desired goal in the midst of the particular circumstances of our lives--we share company with the great athletes.

The great athlete becomes for us a hero, the unseemly cousin of the saint or artist, not because of any moral or aesthetic greatness to be sure, but in the intensity of his or her determination to achieve excellence in a chosen path. In his book The Analogical Imagination (Herder & Herder), David Tracy captured this commonality of the hero (athlete), the thinker, the artist, and the saint when he noted that they differ from us in degree rather than kind. What distinguishes them from us is the intensity of their journey in self-exploration and the discovery of their hidden strength. Theirs is a courageous journey many of us fear to make.

The athlete, like the artist and the saint, through his or her particular abilities, reveals to us something of our own capacity for transcendence, for greatness, in the particularities of our lives. By means of this transcendence, in whatever form it may take--whether hitting a golf ball 300 yards down the middle of the fairway or completing a work project that exceeds one's own high expectations--we enter into a spiritual realm in company with Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Serena Williams, Roger Clemens, and Sheryl Swoops--a realm both sublime and universal.

We cannot let the defacement of sports' intrinsic spirituality win the day. For in the end it is not the freakish athleticism of the few that we cheer at sports events, it is the reminder that we belong with these athletes to the same species, creatures of God made for greatness each in our own way.

RICHARD R. GAILLARDETZ, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
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Author:Gillardetz, Richard R.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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