Near the end of the movie “Field of Dreams,” when James Earl Jones’ character explains the movement of time and history as guarded and guided by the movements of baseball, not everyone buys it. I did, because I like the game and the movie (which is one of my favorites). But to claim modern history as being ruled by the sport is, I admit, a bit of a stretch.
Still, most of us like sports. We like to play it, watch it, wear it and talk about it, especially at this time of year. Baseball’s “fall classic” is underway, and football can make for colorful and fun afternoons.
Many people like sports simply because it’s great, surprising fun. The drama of being one pitch away from victory can be wonderfully thrilling and amazingly exhausting. Ask fans of the ’86 California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels who were one pitch from winning the American League Championship Series from the Boston Red Sox and didn’t, or the ’86 Boston Red Sox who were one pitch from winning the World Series from the New York Mets but didn’t, or the ’04 New York Yankees who were one pitch from winning the American League Championship Series but didn’t (yes, you do notice a recurring Red Sox theme here). Whether your team won the “big one” or didn’t, you were glad to have been along for the ride.
As I’ve thought about the popularity of sports, and why so many people devote themselves to it, I think they do so more for the psychological benefits, both positive and negative, than the physical or mental. If you are a “people person,” you gain a sense of community from the “event” of sports, a sense of being with others, celebrating common victories and consoling each other in shared defeats. Sports imparts identity and opportunities for accomplishment, if only vicariously.
Sports give the person a chance to say “we” in an era of overindulgent individualism. Too, it sometimes overrides self-identity in unhealthy persons who identify too much with team to the expense of relationships with other people. In some, sports can be turned in harmful ways to emphasize and express dichotomies of power/powerlessness, winner/loser mentalities and violence, but I see that as abuse of the best of what sports can offer and not the core of its intended or original value.
As I’ve thought about the psychological value of the game, I think some people like sports for another reason. When you play sports, when you are “in the game,” you are in one of the few places in life where everyone knows the rules and must play by them, where there is a clear beginning and ending of action and timeline and where the rewards for focused behavior and success are immediate. Especially in our time of national anxiety, of floods and hurricanes, of so many people under stress and in distress, involvement in something with focus, limits and guaranteed conclusion must seem like a blessing and oasis for the spirits of people.
I understand that, I think, as much or more than most. As a pastor, I see people “in process,” often at their most vulnerable. I see people living in the midst of worry and anguish. I see people who are stuck, literally and figuratively, in the middle of spiritual “night” and praying for movement toward the dawning of the Lord’s presence and best will for their lives. It’s hard to be stuck in the midst of time and the times. It’s deeply frustrating to discover “life” doesn’t always follow neat, predictable patterns and rules. It hurts to discover while you were “playing by the rules” others were not, to your detriment and disillusionment. It’s tempting to want to step out of the difficulty of process for any promised respite of a conclusion.
Maybe that’s what sports gives some people. That’s fine, as far as it goes. As Christians, though, we can enjoy sports—in its proper place and priority—and celebrate the reality that, more importantly, life in the Lord Jesus Christ can transcend the temporary satisfaction of earthly victories or the illusory sense of identity with the team that tends to dissipate when everyone has gone home and the stands are empty.
In Christ, we have One who will never leave us, who will help us mature into persons who can handle the paradoxes, unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of being a human being, and who will carry us through the process toward the goal of eternal life in the presence of God.
Robert W. Guffey, Jr. is pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn.