Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sports are a Window to Us

It has always been a love/hate relationship between me and sports.  In the early days, I think my father secretly wanted athletic sons.  Mainly because he is such a good athlete.  Alas, he had to be content having sons who are artists and thinkers, instead.  Actually, he has always been proud of what his sons have become, even though they never lettered in any sport.

I used to enjoy playing B-ball until in grad school it went from a nice friendly game for fellowship and exercise to an excuse to beat each other up.  Later, I joined the church league, thinking things would be different.  Even though there was less physical aggression, I felt the constant need to apologize for every error I made.  So even in the weekly informal venue under the auspices of the church, the name of the game was still win at all cost.  I get that.  Of course, when one plays a game, one wants to win.  But certainly a situation of friendly competition for the sole purpose of affording a bunch of middle aged men a fun way to get some exercise, shouldn't become a crucible of humiliation.  Yet it always seems to go there.  I guess there are enough guys in these games secretly trying to fulfill some sports fantasy, so any impediment to their glory is summarily put down.

I have since left all team sports and stayed with tennis.  I ain't any good at that, either, but no one seems to care much.

At this point, I could easily wax philosophical about sports, but I shall restrain myself.  I will say this: team sports such as baseball, B-ball, football, and hockey--to name a few--are microcosms of human society; sports are a window to us.  And I suspect this is one of the main reasons sports thoroughly captivate us, even to the tune of billions of dollars, annually.

I recently witnessed two events illustrating what I mean by sports being a window to us.

The first case was during the end of the initial playoff game between the Packers and Vikings.  The Pack was five yards from the goal and victory.  But one of the Green Bay players responded in an unsportsmanlike manner to some trash talk and more than likely physical intimidation by his opponent, resulting in a fifteen yard penalty for the Pack and the lose of the game.

The second case occurred during a recent pairing of the Detroit Red-wings and the Calgary Flames.  No doubt precipitated by trash talk and "spirited" checking, the Red-wings player threw off his gloves and started pummeling his opponent, who, I might add, gladly and predictably returned the favor.  Despite a cooling off period in the sin-bin, the aggression persisted--although perhaps more subtly--leaving the Red-wings frequently out-manned on the ice, and at least from my perspective, enabling The Flames to defeat them, 4 to 1.

Okay, so what's the point?  After all, brawling in professional team sports is part of the entertainment factor, isn't it?  I won't go there.  The point is it is us; it is all of us.  Whether in our work place, our home, on the street, or even in our churches, if someone insults us in some way--it doesn't matter how--our first inclination is to retaliate.  We may not haul off and belt the person, but invariably we look for some way to get even.  More often than not we do it through passive-aggression, where we carefully create alliances by promulgating our own brand of trash talk.  Rarely do we actually confront the person in question; even rarer do we perhaps consider if anything they had said to us--irrespective of how poorly it had been delivered--actually might be true, or at least partially so.  No, we are hell-bent on getting our pound of flesh, with the result of escalating disunity, suspicions, mistrust, cliques, bad-feelings, and in some cases, outright violence.  Warring has been the preferred way to peace in human society for eons.  Hasn't anyone noticed the promised peace has never materialized?

Perhaps it is time to learn from our beloved sporting events that the eye-for-an-eye approach to resolving conflicts fails every time.  Jesus teaches us that the only way to peace is through the very counter-intuitive response of loving our enemies.  Such is the way of His kingdom; such is the only way to the lasting peace we all claim we want.  Yet we don't believe Jesus because His way is too strange, too foreign to our sensibilities.  Our way of doing things always fails, but no matter, it somehow feels right.  Loving our enemies seems the coward's way out.  I agree the energy barrier to doing it Jesus' way feels pretty insurmountable, but the few times I have witnessed the outcome of following Jesus' lead, the promised peace is there and it lasts.

The two players I mentioned earlier didn't need to hug and kiss their opponents in response to their insults.  No, but they could have shaken off the insults, and responded instead by playing all the better. Their opponents might continue in their taunting, but in the end they will go away feeling pretty small--especially when they see how superior skill and execution ultimately wins the game, not intimidation.

All of us on nearly a daily basis are confronted by unpleasant people.  It does no good to argue with Jesus on the basis of the very rare situation of someone putting a gun to our head.  We are far more likely to face betrayal, character assassination, and snubbing than life and death confrontations.  And as counter-intuitive as it is, we need to love the perpetrators instead of responding in kind.  We need to step back and ask ourselves what might be causing the person to act the way he or she does, and then look for an opportunity to lovingly address the real issue.  Often times the result will be life-long friendships.  And such success stories are infectious.  Others who are on the side watching these encounters unfold--and rest assured, people are always watching--will likely try it our for themselves when the situation arises.  And peace and solidarity will began to multiply.  There are no guarantees, of course, some people are just plain mean.  But if we continue to answer their evil with more evil, I guarantee the outcome will be intensified hostilities instead of peace.

You might be thinking at this point, can't you sit back and enjoy a good ball-game with the rest of us; must you be so dour?   Take heart, I definitely get into watching sports of all flavors.  I jump up and down, stomp, scream, shout, and pout with the best of them.  And I even sometimes secretly want to be a sports hero.  I'm definitely human.  But it doesn't hurt on occasion to ponder the many object lessons afforded us through sports. Because sports are a window to us.