I’m always on the lookout for high-minded defenses of sports, rhetorical ammunition to use against those who disparage my boyish obsessions and against my own conscience. “You’re a grandfather!” a scornful inner voice hisses. “Don’t you have better things to do? Aren’t you too old to brood when the Tide plays poorly?” (Even my super-ego refuses to admit Alabama could lose.)
The pressure has increased in the past few years, as progressivism has captured professional sports. “Football is gay,” announces a recent NFL video. “If you love this game, you are welcome here,” the NFL Twitter account adds. During last season’s “Disney bubble” finals, NBA players wore BLM T-shirts and teams painted “Black Lives Matter” on the edge of courts (though these displays disappeared at the beginning of the 2020-2021 season, when Commissioner Adam Silver drew the obvious conclusion that many people just want to watch a basketball game). The progressivism of professional sports is another sign, if any were needed, of the progressivization of American civil religion. Imagine the 2022 Super Bowl: B-52 flyovers; clever and hideously expensive television ads; lavish, boring halftime entertainment—all set in a bouquet of rainbow flags. Oh, and a football game, too.
The aggressive politicization of sports is an American tragedy. Our sports have never been entirely apolitical (can you say “Jackie Robinson”?), but the politics has usually been muted enough to allow for passions to cross class, political, and racial boundaries. Sports has always been at the heart of the melting pot. More deeply, the politicization of sports is a sign that players, team owners, and leagues know not what they do. They operate on the premise that play is trivial and can become culturally significant only if it’s infused with Really Serious Stuff.
That’s profoundly wrong, not only about sports but about human experience. As Michael Novak argued in The Joy of Sports (1976), sport in itself displays many features of religion. Men and women are made to strive for self-transcending perfection, and no other institution of American society nourishes this aspiration more effectively than sports. Strenuous play is a bid for happiness, the exuberant, free exercise of our powers. Within the bounds of the field, court, pitch, or diamond, limited by the rules of the game, athletes ascend to heights of joyful freedom. Athletic excellence has theological meaning: Performers and players strive to realize the fullest potential of the image of God. Watch Simone Biles do, well, anything, or Karsten Warholm break Kevin Young’s 29-year-old record in the 400-meter hurdles, or Steph Curry go on a three-point tear, and you’re a witness to what Novak calls a “form of godliness.”
Some disdain sports because its ambitions are merely physical—to train muscles, cultivate skill with bats and balls, and coordinate hands, eyes, and feet without attention to the “higher things” of human nature. A cynic might say the same of a pianist. In fact, athletics, like the performance arts, enlist the human spirit as much as the body. Individual athletes compete against themselves, striving to better their times, distances, scores; success comes to the disciplined and determined. Team sports, Novak observes, ritualize conflict, producing clear winners and losers in a small anticipation of final judgment. Sports are haunted by powers beyond mortal control: The fickle gods of the stadium trigger lucky or unlucky bounces; the wind pushes a pass beyond a receiver’s fingertips or the sun breaks through to blind an outfielder; a referee calls, or fails to call, a foul. As in real battles, though, the game is typically decided by spirit as much as by skill or fate. Other things being equal, the more spirited team gains momentum and wins. Spirit can overcome a deficit of talent. When a lesser team relentlessly pursues victory against all odds, Novak says, the players and fans glimpse the “fiery heart of the Creator.”
Team spirit unifies as well as energizes. Harmonious team play, argues Rupert Sheldrake, is evidence of telepathy, as players sense their teammates without having to see them. This is more than a matter of knowing the plays. It’s improvisational dance, corporeal music, incarnate beauty, the closest many ever get to the feeling of participating in a mystical body in which many act as one, animated by a single spirit, sharing an ecstasy that envelops spectators. And it’s not only a harmony of player with player, but a blissful union of team and world, which holds out the tantalizing eschatological hope that ball, players, officials, and nature might join to sing a perfect play.
The answer to my inner reproaches isn’t to devalue sports, nor is aggressive de-politicization the answer to aggressive politicization. The answer to both concerns is to grasp the truth of sports by recognizing there are forms of play than which nothing can be more serious.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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