Sense and Nonsense: Spirituality and Sports

Sports hint at the relationship between God and creation

Opening day at the Giants’ Candlestick park was the day after the Georgetown Hoyas won the NCAA basketball championship. Some kind soul had put on the Xavier Hall Bulletin Board for the taking a $5 bleacher ticket (Section 54, Row 14, Seat 1), five seats from being out of the stadium, in other words, but the difference between being in and being out of a stadium is almost mystical. So, looking at the free ticket, I said to myself, “Schall, you know opening day at the ball park is a national event, and you have been around on this earth, lo, these years, and you have never been to one. Time is short and besides, Washington, where you usually live, has no `Senators’ anymore.” So with this, I went.

The afternoon was very warm, even hot in San Francisco, in what can be the coldest ball park in the big leagues. The Cubs were in town for the opener. Fifty-four thousand fans showed up. Four young men sat next to me in Row 14, Section 54. One politely apologized to me in advance for being a loud Cubs fan; and as the game proceeded, he was funny enough to hold the myriads of Giants rooters at bay, especially as the Cubs won 5-3. Baseball has its own language — without which you can probably not understand this country, “You’re blind, ump!” “Take a walk, McMaster.” And at $1.75 a cold bottle, I estimate that enough Millers were sold that afternoon to float a navy destroyer at dry dock in nearby Hunter’s Point.

Often, I think, aescetic types argue that spirituality and sports are opposed to each other. Yet, when you are around 54,000 cheering, yelling fans at Candlestick, or watch on TV, with practically half the country, big John Thompson skillfully coach the Hoyas to victory, in spite of press criticism, you begin to suspect that something very close to the human spirit is going on down there on the fields and up there in the stands. At every ball game, something final is decided. Watching, we begin to wonder whether perhaps this is not a foretaste of our own lives, which exist so that we may decide something, something important. There is something human about it all. What is it that John Thompson said? “The press can do more than God if you listen to them. I’ve heard inarticulate people talk to the press for years and they never became articulate.” (San Francisco Chronicle, April 2)

Sports have to do with being good and of praising what is good because it is good. Sports fans know their heroes are not “gods”, in spite of what the press thinks of itself. But sports fans know that the players are heroes in a way. Sports betray corruption at times too, no doubt of it. Indeed, the corruption of sports by money or crime seems especially awful because the delicate life of sports need not be at all.

I take it for granted that not a little of an average man’s (and woman’s) life will be taken up with a beer watching a ball game of some sort, or with memories of playing in one. This is, to my mind, not a sign of the fall of civilization, though it is possible to fiddle while Rome burns. The question, of course, is this: what is the natural fascination with sports? What does it have to do with the meaning of our existence and relationship with God? I cannot imagine that the Cub rooter next to me at Candlestick Park on Opening Day, 1984, while drinking five Millers, was particularly worried about such a query. Nevertheless, this game was for him and his friends worth coming to, watching, cheering at, laughing at, and agonizing over when his team was behind. It was worth doing on an April afternoon. At least one thing in the lives of such fans was worth doing just because it was there. They were not going to “get” anything out of it except perhaps a sunburn in the hot sun of a lovely spring day.

Just as our normal spirituality should attend to natural things, like the rain, sports for many people, perhaps most normal folk, should be a part of their spirituality also. We Americans may prefer baseball or football, while most of the world watches soccer, and there is everything from tennis to swimming. Jim Kline and I went over to Buck Shaw Stadium to watch the Santa Clara Broncos play Cal Poly in baseball. On the very next field, you could also watch Santa Clara play Cal-Berkeley in lacrosse. All of these sports demand that we expend energy and mind to play well. They present us with something fascinating that need not be at all. And they are even worth doing even if we are not the best, though we want to watch someone play “the best,” even if we play like we have two left feet. We could, perhaps, have a world in which there were no sports, but that would demand a creation not made in the “superabundance” of which Aquinas often spoke.

No one, of course, denies that sports playing or watching can be abused, like anything else human. But the biggest “abuse” of sports is probably the attitude that they are mere frivolities with nothing to do with the meaning and dignity of our lives. There are, no doubt, “higher” things than sports. Yet, these higher things are somehow like sports. Aristotle knew this. Sports hint obscurely at the relation of creation to God and of God to creation. Ultimately, we may “need” God, but I suspect, when the chips are down, when we are “face-to-face”, as St. Paul said, we will discover, to our surprise, that the fascination of God is closer to our fascination with our games than to almost anything else, except to our friendships and our conversations, both of which spill over into what we do together and talk about. I remain one of those who reads the “Green Sheet”, the sports page, first. I make no apology. It is an act of spirituality looking obscurely for the highest fascination of what is.

  • 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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