Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sports Theism vs. Sports Atheism

In the back and forth in the comments over the McNabb post, something came up that sparked a thought.

Here’s the pertinent point for non-clickers:

... only to see the championship window now fully shut... The time to win a title is over, so IMO it's time to begin looking towards the future.
Note the introduction of a narrative – McNabb and the Eagles have had their window of opportunity shut, so the team has to make changes and move on. If they don’t, they’ll lose.

I wonder how a Colts fan, reading that, might feel. Because Peyton Manning’s window of opportunity has looked like it has been closing for years now.

Or how a Broncos fan that recalls all the years that Elway couldn’t win a ring, and had to constantly hear Marino comparisons, would think about that.

Or a Steelers fan that watched Cowher fail to seal the deal through multiple championship games at home, and a quarterback carousel that included the names Stewart, O’Donnell and Maddox.

Which is not to say that the writer is wrong, that every stay the course move works out, or that McNabb and Reid are the same as Manning, Elway and Cowher.

They might be Jim Kelly, or Dan Marino, or Marty Schottenheimer.

As Kent Brockman says, only time will tell.

But the opinion shows a certain faith in a narrative, that the games are not just random events of probability, but stories with an arc. (This, despite an era in which NFL champions have mostly appeared out of the blue, but that’s OK – any title creates its own backstory, and with speed. If the story is bad, we just don’t tell it very often, or for very long, which is why you don’t hear so much about the genius of Jon Gruden or Brian Billick any more.)

There is no logical reason to believe in a Window of Opportunity – and yet, nearly everyone does, and will argue more about whether it’s open or shut, rather than if it exists.

It is the same kind of magical thinking that would lead you to believe that certain uniforms have power – a belief that no one would admit to in public, but still, look at those Bengals uniforms.

Super Bowl winners can't look like that, can they?

That the roar of the crowd can turn a season around. That the players can feel and benefit from the fan’s excitement.

That there is a Madden Curse, or an SI Cover Jinx.

That the personal character of highly flawed individual corporate entities (i.e., the modern player, with his posse/executive staff, his PR needs, and his trash talk / branding mission statements) is as important as talent when it comes to determine winners and losers.

Extend this to the stands, and it gets frightening or silly to people who do not believe what you believe. We’re all wearing the modern-day ghost shirts , many of us are dressing up like it’s Halloween or Mardi Gras, and an astonishing number of people will pay more for the rainments if they’ve been worn in a game, or autographed. (Speaking of magic...)

You may not be fit to touch the hem of an athlete's garment, but you can buy your own replica garment in the gift shop.

But if you go completely against this kind of thing, into the realm of sports atheism, you strip the contest down to bare and ugly meat and bone. You see it, with too much clarity, as a purely commercial event, determined by mostly random chance, that has no meaning, and no good reason to care about.

Timewaste. Vice. Bread and circuses. For kids. Soap opera with a live crowd.

Everyone, whether or not they are sports fans, lives with some stories, illusions, and narrative. Even if you’re aware of doing it. (And if you think fantasy sports erode this traditional faith, not so -- it is more a transfer or a competing faith, rather than a true embrace of sports atheism. In a related matter, I know that I am going to be in my baseball league’s playoffs this year, despite the fact that my team hits less than a senior citizen in a casino. I have Faith.)

This may also be why sports seems so much more invasive and prominent now – the world is becoming more secular and fragmented, so in our need to congregate and find community, we go to the One True Church of Ball. I remember, back in my childhood, hearing priests rail against the false church of sports as being a vice (and yes, it still is).

Now, the Vatican thinks about having its own soccer team. If you can’t beat ‘em, have a God and Country Night.

FTT, for the record, espouses a kind of middle of the road / progressive sports agnosticism – we are not sure quite what to believe, but we are pretty sure that there is all some greater meaning that will become clear later. However, with that being said, we do welcome sports theists into the congregation. Testify to your Window of Opportunity.

Especially when the collection plate is passed around. (And as soon as we can find a sponsor for that collection plate, you will all bear witness to its glory.)

Now, can I get an amen?


Call Me Coach said...

Terrific post. One of my friends once pointed out to me that celebrities and entertainment are the new shrines. Another has a theory that the temple of the perfect spirit has been replaced by the temple of the perfect body. In other words, where we once venerate and emulate the souls of the pious, we attempt to copy the bodies of our entertainers. That’s what professional athletics are, a form of entertainment. The more I watch sports, the more I realize how much entertainment value factors into teams’ personal decisions. As entertainers, athletes fulfill an ideal for us that religious figures filled for our ancestors, and thus, we revere them, often inappropriately. But athletics are not like other forms of entertainment, they ARE random and predicated on factors that lie outside of the expected. To compensate, sports are put into a narrative, just like the unpredictable events of the world are put into biblical narrative. Casual fans are told all season that the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the NBA, never with an explanation that they have weaknesses. Then, chance intervenes, pitting them against the one team they can’t handle, and what follows is a slew of articles from espn about how good the Warriors are. Rather than exploring the playoffs as a complicated tale of various teams matching up with one another, we are given a cut and dry simplified tale where the best team wins, period. The confluence of religion, sports, and entertainment is fascinating and should be explored more.

Tracer Bullet said...

It's funny, I find myself trying to be less of a fan (losing my faith?). I don't know if that's becausethe more I think about getting emotionally invested in the actions of wealthy strangers whose success or failure has no real impact on my life seems sillier and sillier as I age or because I didn't realize how insufferable my fellow Eagles fans are until I moved to Philadelphia.

DMtShooter said...

TB gives me an idea for a whole new post -- just how much easier it is to root for the home team when you don't live there. Much obliged. I love you, FTT Nation!

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