Sense and Nonsense: At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Last December the executive council of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The “football” in the association’s title does not, of course, refer to our ellipsoid American pigskin, but to the checkered sphere of futbol, or soccer, the game that doesn’t allow blocking. In his brief address, John Paul pointed out that “more than 200 countries and 120 million players” are involved in the Fédération, which is the governing body for professional soccer.

This version of football is the leading international sport. The World Cup in soccer probably has a television audience of more than half the globe—although 800 million people worldwide are said to watch the U.S. Super Bowl, no mean figure. Only the smallest fraction of this world audience for American football has the slightest idea of what “third down and five” means, however. And conversely, although soccer is now widely played in America, its fine points remain a mystery to a majority of American sports fans. In fact, betting on soccer does not draw big money in Las Vegas, at least not on American pro or amateur contests (the World Cup is probably a different story).

No doubt Karol Wojtyla played some soccer in his younger days. He is naturally concerned about instances of fan and player violence that have made world headlines, so he mentioned this problem when he met with the Federation’s governing body. But he commended the association for funding charitable endeavors and approved of its efforts to make the game honest. Its fair play committee helps to “build a climate of respect and understanding between people,” John Paul said. And he’s right, because international sport does promote the common good among many nations. When Brazil plays Germany in a world-class match, Koreans, Nigerians, Englishmen, Russians, and Jamaicans all follow it avidly.

“Sport is educational, because it takes human impulses, even potentially negative ones, and turns them to good purposes,” John Paul continued. “The young learn to have healthy competition without conflict. They learn that they can enter an arena in which their opponent is not their enemy.”

I am quite struck by this sage observation. These are lessons that apply as well to economics and politics. Educators regularly tell us that competition is not good for us, that it is unfair that not everyone wins a prize. But the purpose of competition is not only to find out who is the winner but who wins fairly. And it also teaches us to lose, knowing that there will someday be another shot at the prize. Through competition, we acknowledge the excellent play of others.

Yet while recognizing football’s importance to the world, the pope emphasized that it “remains a game. It is a form of play, both simple and complex, in which people take joy in the wonderful possibilities of human life. It would be a sad day if the spirit of play and the sense of joy in fair competition were to be lost.” So the “spirit of the game” needs protection, needs full understanding, he said. To truly be a game, fair play and following the rules must be part of any sport.

Plato and Aristotle both wrote about the nature of play. They understood the fascination of a game in a way few others since have really grasped. We sometimes wonder why so many human beings are captivated by a mere game. The answer, no doubt, is because the sport, the contest, rivets our attention. We behold the thing for its own sake, as Aristotle put it.

At a Mass I concelebrated in my sister’s parish on New Year’s Day in San Marcos, California, a visiting priest recalled a remark by the late humorist Erma Bombeck: “Any male who watches more than three Bowl games on New Year’s ought to be declared legally brain-dead.” Out on the West Coast I had watched more than three games before noon. I experienced the pain of seeing the Fighting Irish humiliated in the Fiesta Bowl.

The game well-played according to the rules, the contest to see who wins —this is not just entertainment. Those who speak of it as such have never really thought about it. The fascination of the game, the attention that we fasten onto the play as it unfolds, helps us understand ritual, which is play before the Lord, as Plato said. Games do not merely educate us in fairness and competition. They provide us with experience on a natural plane of what it is like to be eternally fascinated. The game, like God, takes us outside of ourselves to what is not ourselves. The spirit of the game prepares us for the Spirit itself, for what is, for what we behold for its own sake. Games are ritual’s best preparation.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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