We are moving toward the end of the holiday season. And what a ride it has been! So much busyness and commotion! So many events and emotions! And no matter how we might try to resist, we have to admit it. This is a time when many of us find our attention inexplicably drawn to religion. We love the ceremony, the ritual, the devotion, the sacrifice. We experience the suffering and the celebration as if it were our own. Today, this very important day, we learn who will take the title as championr of the NFC North. And those of us that dare to believe in miracles, think it could even be the Detroit Lions!
During this holiday season, I want to explore one of the more prominent religions of our time – sports.
Psychologists are concluding that sports have many of the same effects on spectators as religion. In fact, Various psychologists and scholars have begun to discuss sports in terms of “natural religion,” “humanistic religion,” and “primitive polytheism.” They point out that spectators get together to “worship other human beings, their achievements, and the groups to which they belong.” Sport stadiums and arenas resemble “cathedrals where followers gather to worship their heroes and pray for their successes.” This makes even more sense when you think about the fact that religious ceremonies used to be a source of entertainment for ordinary people who rarely attended a theater or traveled to a sporting event.
Compare attending a sporting event to attending church. Fans wear the team colors and carry its flags, icons, and mascots. There is repetitive chanting of team encouragement, hand-clapping, booing the other team, doing the wave, and the like. The singing of an anthem at a sporting event is even thought to have similar psychological effects as singing of a hymn in church.
The New Opiate of the People
Some scholars believe that fans are committed to their favorite players and teams in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives. They believe watching sports can even be a transformative experience through which fans escape their humdrum lives, just as religious experiences help the faithful to transcend their everyday existence. And it is interesting that just as church attendance has sharply dropped off, interest in watching sports has sky rocketed.
A report in Psychology Today suggests that face painting, hair tinting, and distinctive costumes satisfy specific religious goals including identification with the team, escape from everyday limitations and disappointments, and establishing a community of fans. The Washington Post ran an article in which they point out that more religious tolerance may be enticing people to join in a fan base where they can openly cheer for one side and urgently cry for the defeat of the other.
And sports psychologist Daniel Wann points out, as Karl Marx did for religion, that sports is shaped by the needs of capitalist systems, offering a type of “cultural anesthesia,” a form of “spiritual masturbation,” or an “opiate” that distracts, diverts, and deflects attention from the pressing social problems and issues of the day.
The Soccer Mom
My interest in sports is actually quite new, which may be true for you as well. Fifty years ago only 3 in 10 Americans identified themselves as a sports enthusiast. Now 63 percent proudly claim that title. Personally, I was not born with the strength or agility to be an athlete. And I was certainly never meant to be a soccer mom!
Oh sure, it’s a riot watching 5 year olds all move around the field within inches of each other trying to herd the ball into the opposing team’s net. It’s thrilling to watch them bounce up and down with glee with someone scores a goal – especially when they’re so excited for the other team – especially when they scored the goal for the other team! But that only lasts so long.
Pretty soon you’re feeling the stares at the back of head when your son is examining a flower when the ball rolls right past him. Soon you’re actually keeping track of the score and wondering why in the world the coach put that kid in that position at that point of the game. Soon you’re fighting the urge to start yelling instructions at the hapless youth on the field.
After a while you realizing that your kid’s team has never lost a match and when they play a team that has never won a match you can’t decide who to cheer for. Soon you’re telling your kid that it’s a game and it’s about having fun and developing skills, not winning and losing. But you don’t think they really believe you and you’re not so sure you believe it yourself any more.
And you go to the games where older kids play and their parents are so unhappy. “He knows better than that!” “What the heck are you doing out there?” “Let’s pretend we’re playing soccer!” And you realize that playing their best isn’t enough and that if they lose there’s a good chance the referee is to blame. And you notice that their next game is on Sunday morning and you notice that that is something that has changed in our culture.
And finally you breathe a sigh of relief that you’re child isn’t all that interested in the game after all and won’t be signing up for next season. I was never meant to be a soccer mom.
And yet somehow, I have become a sports fan. It started with the Olympics. The opportunity to watch a perfectly executed high dive or figure skating program. The awe in seeing the payoff of all that hard work, discipline and perseverance. What a wonderful feeling to watch an Olympic gold medalist cross that finish line. What a thrill to see a gymnast complete a flawless routine with accuracy and precision that holds us mesmerized.
The earliest sports were actually directly tied to religion. They were performed as liturgical acts for ensuring rain or a good harvest or for acting out the interplay of good and evil forces. The early Greek games of the Olympics were surrounded by stories of the divine and filled with expressions of human admiration of the gods.
The spirit of the games was captured by the original Greek word for enthusiasm, en-theos, being-in-God. But the games were stopped in the year 394 AD after the Romans had transformed the character of the Olympic Games into a violent spectacle. They would not happen again until 1500 years later when Pierre de Coubertin would campaign for their renewal in 1896, believing them to have a universal appeal in their message of hope and joy.
And he was right. The games quickly became an expression of the essence of humankind in all its physical wonder: A sign of hope for unity, peace, justice and happiness.
Learning to Compete
But in these days of the 21st century, our ongoing desire for performance and the fear of shame-filled failure has led some of our most amazing athletes into depression, anger, anxiety, perfectionism, pride, and chemical dependence. And some of these athletes are the kids in our very own high schools.
The toll of winning at any price can spill over into other parts of our life and when it does we experience hostile workplaces, increased incidence of cheating, insomnia, and stress-related illnesses. We can only speculate on how much this contributes to the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault that continues to infect our nation and that is finally being addressed by the NFL through their No More campaign.
Despite what Vince Lombardi thought, winning isn’t the only thing. In fact, the drive to compete is a learned behavior. Psychologists tell us that by the age of 4 we start to learn competitive behavior as part of our acculturation process. We soon learn to experience losing as a shaming and disgraceful experience. As we get older, our success at keeping someone else from winning begins to feel just as satisfying as winning our self.
Once when my kids would race each other in the yard, the last one to the destination would say, “Wow! You’re really fast!” with a tone of admiration and respect. But somewhere along the way, a me-first mentality set it and those words of affirmation turned into accusations, “No fair! You cheated!”
It’s not a very pretty picture when school teams gather for a game and the crowd spends more time ranting about annihilating the other team than in cheering their own team on. It’s embarrassing to read about fans beating each other up after a game. It’s downright ugly when a grown man is caught on tape snatching a thrown baseball out of the hands of the kid to whom it was tossed.
But it isn’t hopeless. The fact that we can continue to acknowledge a difference between a bad sport and a good sport shows that we WANT to be a people to whom winning isn’t everything. We know that human ambition and will are not the only driving force in our life. We know that the need to win can lead to strife, jealousy and division.
A favorite annual event in our country is the Super Bowl. In fact, you could say that we are in the Advent season of the Superbowl. On the first Sunday in February, both teams will kick off. Both teams will seek victory. Both teams will have players who cross themselves or turn to Mecca and ask God to be with them as they play their game, and roughly one in five Americans is actually convinced that God will influence the outcome of the game!
But beyond that strange intersection of sports and religion, there is something truly transcendent about the game. Something that takes us beyond the limits of our everyday experience.
There is the amazing talent and ability of a 280 pound receiver leaping into the air and twisting with perfect precision in order to take hold of a ball at just the right second, to land with surety and balance upon the ground, and without missing a beat to race forward across the field.
There is the courage of the referee, the artists and visionaries that produce the commercials, the networks and team owners who are masters in the field of finance. There are all of the players behind the scenes who sell hot dogs, clean the bathrooms and who take pride in every blade of artificial turf.
Those of us who watch the game will join families gathered in homes to watch the game, friends who gather in bars, and others who sit alone and find a few hours of escape from their isolation by being in communion with the team on the field, in communion with the millions of others who will wait expectantly, maybe even hopefully, for a little half time wardrobe malfunction.
We see incredible talent when professional athletes give their all. We also witness some major blunders, reminders of the fact that in the end we are all merely human – and that peace and happiness are finally ours when we can embrace and celebrate our ordinary human state.
Moving Up or Moving Closer?
So the critical question for us as we leave 2014 behind and commit ourselves to living the good life in 2015 is not what we will do with the year that will move us up in the world, up toward the winner’s circle, up to the pinnacle of success, but what actions will move us closer – closer to fairness, closer to kindness, closer to joy, closer to be fully human.
And if sports is our new religion, we need a new list of beatitudes.
Fully human are we when we realize it isn’t up to us after all
When we rest from our desperate attempts to be perfect
Fully human are we when we fumble the ball
And it’s picked up by the opposing team
And our teammates yell at us because we took something that could have been there’s and gave it to someone else
Fully human are we when we try time after time after time to move down the line
And time after time after time we are sacked without gaining any ground
And we lose possession of the ball
Fully human are we when we call for a time out
Because we are too tired to think and too sore to move
And we just can’t do it anymore
Fully human are we when we do everything right
And the ref makes a bad call
And nothing is gained
Fully human are we when we tirelessly bring water to the bench
And we plead to be put into the game
And no one listens to our cry
Fully human are we when our judgment fails
And we make the wrong call
And it hurts
Fully human are we when we win
And fully human are we when we lose