Why We Sport
The ball is merely an excuse.
The ball is merely an excuse.
This idea dawned on me in my front yard as my seven-year-old rounded home base, heading for first. Yes, you read that correctly. We were playing whiffle ball—the baseball of small-lotted suburbia—and he dreamed out loud of getting two home runs in one at-bat. I realized that I didn’t care. It was just the two of us playing, and I had no need to win. At 6:52 on a fall evening, I only had one agenda for our game: exhaust this boy. So if he wants to run in a large diamond-pathed route twice every time he hits a ball with a bat? Fantastic. Knock yourself out, as long as it wears you out.
The ball is as much an excuse, I realized, as are the rules and the score. Whether the result is counted in runs, goals, points, touches, or games; whether the penalty is out of bounds or delay of game or balk or facemask or a double fault, we made it up out of thin air. All of it.
As I stared into the oblong holes that make the ball whiffle, a bell had sounded that could not be unrung. If this ball merely provides an outlet to drain my son’s energy, what permission is it giving others? What else is it an excuse for?
In short, why do we sport?
Answers abound—exercise, community building, boredom relief, a non-lethal way to express our tribalistic and competitive instincts; the list could go on.
The one that nags at me this football season is that sports, at large, are our effort to bring order out of chaos. And when I say chaos, I don’t mean the unfocused energy of a child or the messy family room that his haphazard expending of said energy creates. I mean the dark matter of the universe that we are pretty sure exists but have no ability to explain. In Genesis, it is called tohu va-vohu: that which is formless and void. In the ancient Near East, it was typified by the sea, that tempestuous, unpredictable, life-threatening reality that humanity couldn’t live with yet couldn’t live without, and within which lurks Leviathan (elsewhere called Rahab)—the untamable, multi-headed serpent monster of the deep that may strike seafarers at capricious will.
The chaos is often held at bay by our admirable, accumulated work as Homo sapiens to bring order to our world. We do this by determining which foods to eat and which to avoid; how to apply certain medicines to certain maladies; who to incarcerate and who to include in society. We fiddle with the dials of how much order to impose. Somalia has very little order and North Korea has a whole lot of it, yet few non-natives of these lands seek to move there. But even at our best, when we get the recipe just right with this much personal freedom and that much governmental oversight, the chaos still looms.
Silvia’s family moved to the United States to escape the chaos of a country run by cartels. By the time she joined our church there was so much sunshine in her face that you wouldn’t know the horror her family left behind. Silvia brought order everywhere she went, whether to the disorganized lives of her friends or the financial records of her clients. Of all the brides-to-be I have led through pre-marital counseling, Silvia had her ducks most admirably in a row. Then, one Saturday night, as she and her fiancé worked on their wedding playlist, she became disordered in her words. The paramedics finally concluded that she had experienced a brain aneurysm. I performed her funeral the following Saturday. There was no making order that would stop her medical incident. We flailed in the chaos.
When I see the pharisaical intensity with which referees, coaches, players, and fans analyze a football play—did the offensive tackle flinch before or after the defensive end crossed the line of scrimmage?—it makes complete sense. Of course, we want to create boundary lines and agree upon rules of engagement and declare winners and losers and hold our breaths as we await the outcome of this showdown. On any given Sunday you will find us bringing order out of chaos. And the only excuse we needed was a ball.
This year’s Super Bowl promised to be an epic matchup. But in the back of my mind stood Damar Hamlin and the moment chaos pulled the veneer off the game in Cincinnati. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the Super Bowl. As a fan of both quarterbacks, I had hoped to see a great game and knew I would probably grouse about a passer interference call or whether or not the ball broke the plane as much as the next person. Sport gives us a glimpse of order and the feeling of joy that comes long with it. But all along the way, Damar and Silvia and the dozen other stories of chaos in my life were there to remind me that this sport cannot stop the chaos.
At its best, football or any other game we’ve concocted can point us upward to the Son of God—the Word through which chaos was ordered, who speaks “Peace! Be still!” to Leviathan’s storm, who crushes the serpent’s head through his death and resurrection. In the new creation he will bring about, the sea will be no more. Chaos will be forever vanquished. There we will play safely for the sake of play in the land of our father.
And we may not even need a ball.