Sporting Grace

My wife says I watch too many ballgames on television. I tell her it’s an important part of my spiritual life. She rolls her eyes and laughs. Not without justification, I have to admit. Sometimes I watch sports with all the spirituality of couch potato with a bet on the game.

But at other times it’s a profound spiritual practice.

Recently, as I geared up for March Madness and Opening Day like some people prepare for Easter or Passover, I needed a way to convince my wife. Right on schedule came an e-mail with a video attachment. It was a news broadcast about an autistic teenager who inspired shock and awe – in the good sense – during a high school basketball game in Rochester, New York. Jason McElway is a special ed student who served for two years as the manager of his school’s team. He took care of equipment, made sure the players had clean towels and handled other mundane details just to be around the game he loved. He was also the team’s most enthusiastic rooter. To reward Jason, the coach gave him a uniform for the last game of the season. He wasn’t supposed to play, but with about four minutes left, the coach sent him in. He missed his first two shots, then nailed a three-pointer. Then another. And another. With each basket, the crowd went crazier. He ended up scoring twenty points, including six shots from behind the three-point line. For the uninitiated among you, that’s a four-minute performance an NBA star would be proud of.

By the end of the brief video, my wife was simultaneously weeping and grinning like a child seeing snow for the first time. So was I, and I’d already seen it.

A spiritual practice? To me, anything that inspires wonder is spiritual. As is anything that uplifts the soul, proclaims the dignity of the human spirit or affirms our capacity to rise above obstacles, shatter boundaries and transcend limitations. Thanks to TV and the Internet, Jason McElway lifted millions of souls above their everyday worries and trivial pursuits. Anything that does that even for a few minutes deserves to be called a spiritual practice.

Of course, not every sporting event is as wondrous as Jason McElway’s shooting streak. But many come close: a pitcher throwing a perfect game, Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points, Mark Spitz winning seven gold medals. Some transcend sports altogether and rise to the level of mythology: the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets, Jesse Owens humiliating Hitler, Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Of course, some performances are so miraculous as to make you feel you were watching a sea part its waters or listening to a burning bush. Others elicit the same kind of awe as magnificent art—the Taj Mahal, Fred Astaire, a Van Gogh—or a stunning natural landscape. Watching Michael Jordan defy gravity, for example, makes the legendary mind-over-matter feats of yogis and fakirs seem plausible.

Feats that go beyond physical prowess and bring to bear strength of will and nobility of character elevate the spirit in a different way. Acts of courage, fortitude and self-sacrifice in athletic competition bring a lump to my throat, much like the spirit-driven works of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa. Watching great teamwork takes my breath away and brings to mind the importance of community in spiritual life; when teammates interact with friction-free harmony, virtually psychic communication and selfless execution, I gasp at what humans can accomplish when they let go of their egos, tune in deeply to other souls and strive for common goals instead of individual glory.

Ah, but all those noble moments add up to a small portion of the sporting life. What about the other aspects of being a spectator? The heartbreak, the competition, the monotony, the obscene emphasis on winning at all costs? That’s where watching sports really becomes a spiritual practice. It’s a testing ground, much like the challenges of everyday life test our capacity to carry into action the grace of prayer or meditation. In that context, the old cliché that sports are a metaphor for life takes on new meaning.

Common to every spiritual tradition is the recognition that the satisfaction of ordinary pleasures and material achievements is transient. Well, so is the elation of victory on the playing field, because tomorrow your team might lose. Even the best ones go down about a third of the time. Your favorite player got four hits? Scored 30 points? Passed for the winning touchdown? Next time around, it might be an opponent. Your team is in the lead? Enjoy it while you can. Nothing lasts forever, and sports are a great reminder of that. They’re also a reminder that pain and sorrow and disappointment don’t last forever, not even the curse on the Red Sox. Today’s losers are tomorrow’s champs, and today’s champs are tomorrow’s chumps. Because these ups and downs are vivid and sometimes precipitous, sports are a great reminder that we need seek contentment within us, not in the outer realm of impermanence. They’re also a great curriculum for learning how to deal with uncertainty and change, because nothing changes as quickly or as unpredictably as the score of a game or the fortunes of a team.

For more than 30 years, I’ve been working on spiritual virtues such as non-attachment and letting go of concern for the fruits of my actions. Few things in life measure my progress as concretely as watching an important game whose outcome I care about. Sometimes, as I get caught up in rooting, I think, “Haven’t you learned anything?” But other times, perhaps after a major loss, I think, “You’ve come a long way. Once upon a time you’d be depressed for a week.” And sometimes, I have the blessed experience of what the Bhagavad Gita calls “equanimity in loss and gain,” as I gleefully watch a tense game while feeling perfectly at peace inside. Admittedly, that’s a lot easier to do when I have no loyalty to either team.

Skeptics might say that sports are too vulgar to be called spiritual, and that watching sports (as opposed to playing them) can in no way be compared with sublime activities like worship or prayer. They have a point. But I think anything can be spiritual, depending on what you bring to the occasion. You can walk on the beach at sunset just to strengthen your leg muscles. Or to impress a date. Or to get a lovely photograph. Or, to celebrate the sublime glory of God’s creation. You can dance because your spouse insists on it. Or to show off. Or because it’s an ecstatic expression of your spirit. You can have sex to dominate another human being. Or to feed your ego. Or to gratify a physical urge. Or as a sacred act of love in a holy union.

Similarly, you can perform religious rituals outwardly while your inner landscape is so dark and dreary you might as well be in a bowling alley. As someone once said, sitting in a church doesn’t make you spiritual any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. It all depends on what you bring to it. As William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing that stands in the way.” If you bring to sports a spiritual intention and a fully attentive mind, a game is more than a game; it’s a step on the soul’s ladder of progress, win or lose.

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Philip Goldberg Written by Philip Goldberg

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