Monday, March 13, 2006

The Appeal of Competitive Sports

The news is creeping up on me again, but I feel compelled to write on a couple of more personal items. The first involves my view on sports.

I came to a realization lately that I don't understand the appeal of competitive sports. That doesn't mean that I've never played before. When I was young, I participated in gym. We played some iceless version of Hockey, Volleyball, Tennis, War ball and Kickball. Later at school we played Football, Softball and Basketball.

Most of the sports I've played, however, were of the backyard variety. Before my dad remarried after my mom died, I didn't play much in the way of sports. My brother and I may have played tag with the neighbors or rode our bikes around, but we just didn't do much in the way of sports. After we moved, our stepbrother loved to play all kinds of sports. He would go around the neighborhood and drum up a game - and he would start with us. We played everything from 2-man teams of football on a full-sized field to 11-man teams of basketball on a quarter-court. Of course, the rules were pliable and constantly in debate. The thing was that for me this was always just something to do on a lazy weekend or summer day.

I observe sports-minded people. Spectators talk about teams, players, statistics and who won the last game. I observe athletes and they seem to talk more about the analysis of the game. I hear sportscasters talk about both. Therefore, there seems to be two venues for enjoyment of the game: the athlete and the spectator, with the sportscaster as the arbiter of information and analysis.

It may be true that some athletes are in simply for the money. They play because they can. I can't imagine just going out to the field if there is no "love for the game," so there must be some enjoyment they get out of it. They work, trying to make themselves the best they can in order to win the game. They build muscle, practice skills, and develop teamwork (if they play on a team) and go to the game to demonstrate their prowess. They pit their work against opponents who have likewise honed themselves for such moments of trial. The result is that one will emerge victorious and the other will sink in defeat - unless it's a sport where ties are allowed. The end. What kind of end is this? You either win or you lose and then you go home. There is not sense of continuity - except that you may have another game where you either win or lose and then you go home. At the end of the season, you may get to play a few more games where you either win or you lose and then you go home. If you win it all, you get fame and glory - until next season where everything and everyone goes back to square one. Nevertheless, you just go home. For more rigorous sports, you may contract a lifetime of medical problems. For less rigorous sports, you may retire quietly from professional competition.

So what is the appeal? An athlete spends considerable effort only to face opponents with whom he may have friendships or harbor rivalrous animosity. He may have a team with whom he has built close ties and friendships - but this is not exclusive to sports. Is sports a means for exerting the aggression of a fallen world in a controlled environment? if so, then "sportsmanship" would be a code of ethics founded in the need for a sinner to display self-disciplined control, that is to subject himself to the rules of the game and show honor to his teammates and opponents through his humility. Otherwise, sports are just a means for an athlete to impose temporary power and dominance over other people. It would seem that this is too often the appeal for the athlete.

For the spectator, I suspect that sports offers multiple venues of appeal. For one, many sports take on qualities of a good soap opera. Being well-versed in the history of a team means being able to dominate a conversation about that team. Another appeal is the collection of memorabilia. The autographed balls, jerseys, hats, photos, sports equipment, etc. make one confident that he has things that will be coveted by others who also value the team or athletes represented by the memorabilia. I imagine that another appeal is the vicarious sense of victory when a favorite team or athlete performs well. If the athlete is channeling the aggression of a fallen world into a controlled environment, then the spectator may do so from the stands or in front of his television screen. Unfortunately, there is little accountability for the spectator whose adrenaline rushes but doesn't exert himself in a controlled manner to release the mounting energy. It is the athlete who is performing physical feats, not the spectator. It's little wonder that so many spectators seek to take out aggression on referees or other spectators. This is likely the cause of such horrors as deadly riots at soccer (football) games in Europe. Along these lines, if one's favorite team wins, I'm sure it is particularly nice to lord it over the fans of the other team.

There is another venue of appeal for spectators that especially baffles me. That is that spectators frequently gamble on games. I could go into another diatribe against gambling, but I'll leave it only at my considered opinion that it is not a fiscally responsible practice.

It would seem that I understand something of the appeal that sports have - except that sports don't appeal to me. The appeals that I have mentioned do not hold particular sway in my psyche. This is why I fail to understand the appeal of competitive sports. There are a couple of things that I do understand that bear comparison. One is military competition and the other is the appeal of music.

Military competition has no particular appeal. There are military leaders who have been vilified as having some love of military conquest. Indeed, there may be soldiers who love to be involved in the conquering of weaker enemies. It is also true that for the purpose of survival on the battlefield military leaders seek to instill warriors with displays of bloodlust. For the most part, however, warriors do not want war. In a fallen world, it is often necessary to overthrow evil governments for the purpose of saving their victims, whether it is the enslaved population of the evil government, or their national neighbors (including the nation of the challenging army) who are threatened by the evil government.

I can understand military contention on this basis. Armies train to make themselves strong and to function effectively as a team. However, the end result is not simply that one should win or lose and go home, but that loss could result in the death or enslavement of those you protect. Even winning may result in the deaths of many of the winning army. One doesn't simply go home, but one goes home changed; and the purpose for contention is not to obtain simple personal glory, but the antithesis of glory - the price of a life paid for a much higher principle the meaning of which may be lost on many of the warriors who went to battle. The warrior kills, not for spite, hatred or revenge, but for survival. It changes a man to take the life of one toward whom he has no particular animosity knowing that if this other is not killed, the man's family will never see him again. It is for this reason that animosity is often feigned as a protection against the weight of guilt. I understand this, but there is no comparison to sports in the modern world.

Music may have a better comparison. In music, there are both players and spectators. The purpose is similar: the winning of the "game" is not a result of competition, but of amusement, entertainment or the unification of experience. The musicians work for long hours to produce a piece of music that will take only minutes to perform. While sports are competitive and music is not, both are experiences that are shared. The reason that a musician performs is to share the results of his labors with an audience that has gathered for a purpose. Music is used to unify an audience toward that purpose. For a strictly musical concert, the music may be the end in and of itself. An audience has come to hear a type of music they enjoy with a group of people who also enjoy the same music.

Music is painted on an emotional canvas using cultural pigments. The result is a picture that the musician hopes will resonate with the audience. It is a form of communication more than it is simply a shared experience. This is why someone can listen to music on the radio alone and be affected by it. The communication is clear although the listener is not directly connected with the musician. The message that resonates in the listener is, by nature, spiritual - not emotional. While lyrics may be important to many kinds of music, they are often ancillary to the spiritual landscape. Instrumentation, arrangement, style, tension and release work together to create this landscape and provide context for the lyrics. In the absence of lyrics, subtle emotional changes caused by the music in the hearts of the listener call to his mind non-visible images. This is the appeal that music has for me. I don't get this in competitive sports.

The distortion of this aspect of music is that the musician may seek glory for himself through the music. There are musicians who perform for the sake of the music itself and fail to recognize the spiritual impact of the music. There are musicians who focus only on power and seek to portray themselves as powerful through their music. Audiences stream to partake of this power vicariously. One example of this is that some display the power proudly in extreme audio systems installed in automobiles. The purpose is that the music gives the one who drives the vehicle a sense of power over others around his vehicle at any given time. It is a false sense of power and is a parallel appeal with the darker side of sports.

I still don't have any better an understanding of the appeal of competitive sports. I'm told in the Bible that I am to seek the good of others above myself. I'm also told to run the "race" of faith in a manner in which to win. Is the "race" to be won at the expense of the spiritual lives of others? If, in a sporting event, I defeat another whose faith is weak or nonexistent, will it cause his faith to fail? Can I afford to run the risk? Is running the "race" of faith more in keeping with a Christ-like life? If so, should I compete in a self-sacrificing way? What does that look like?

How would Christ compete?


Blogger Mark Pemberton said...

I'm with you on the sports thing. I do have one thing to add to the sports fan. Married to an avid college football fan, I see energy, the passion that comes from her watching a game. Yeah, I don't understand some of it, but it's her thing. I encourage it because it is one way she connects with her father (and sister). Yeah, she doesn't understand my desire to play computer games, but she accepts it because that's what I enjoy. Sure, she's definitely different that many sports fans - no drinking, no cursing, no betting, etc. I guess my point is that not all sports fans are the same.

So the question really is, in a general context, what are the rest of us passionate for? Obviously, as Christians, we should be passionate for lost souls. I continually have to examine what my passion is for because I easily stray from what I'm called to do. My desire is there, but the level of passion is low. How do I crank up the passion to the level of a sports fan? Good question. Not that I have any authoritative answers, just simple ones (ok, mostly talking to myself now). I need to spend more time in Gods Word. Ok, that's easy to say. But with only 24 hours in a day, how am I supposed to get in that time when I have 8 hours of work, a couple hours with my girl, a couple hours with my wife, sleep (sometimes lack there of) and all the extra little things that seemed to chew up time like it was gummy bears (eating, chores, driving, etc). The problem is I try to chomp off a large chunk of time. All I really need to do is start with a few minutes and build up. Some days will be tougher, other days there'll be more time. It's called discipline (ouch).

Another thing that'll boost the ol' passion for lost souls is encouragement from other Christian friends. Develop a hunger for the lost by sharing with each other a friend or two who you might want to share Christ with. Let Iron sharpen Iron.

Build a hunger for the lost! Just imagine those people whom your friends with being apart from the Father FOREVER! Have a mindset that today might actually be someone's last day on this earth. Are you just going to let an opportunity go by and possibly let them live in eternal torement? I pray that I don't miss that opportunity.

Look for opportunities. The closer you are to God, the easier it is to see those opportunities. Goes back to getting into His Word.

uhh... wow, didn't realize this is where I was headed. Oh well, God's typing, not me. Obviously He's typing TO me because I do not imitate what was just typed. Let's struggle together and build our passion together.

Fri Mar 24, 11:46:00 PM GMT-5  

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