Getting Excited About Sports

Is Like the Elation and Despair of Children

In this country, the usual cable tv package comes with at least two sports channels that air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is despite the fact that there are a hundred things going on that are more important…


I had the pleasure of teaching children for five years, when I was living in Asia, and I learned a lot about myself from them. I also learned how to enter into their world, to communicate with them, to comfort, and to teach them. Some of those lessons have come to mind again recently, watching parents with their children, and the similarities of their emotional life with many adults in this culture.

Children will often exaggerate something’s importance, and either get very excited, or upset. They see a coin on the sidewalk, or drop their ice cream, and react as if the most important thing in the world has just happened to them. A good parent, or older brother or sister, or teacher of course wouldn’t dismiss this- it’s real to the child, but they will sympathize with them, without themselves being caught in that view.

In a parallel way, in the US, there are millions of people who are emotionally invested in things, like sports, that have no real meaning or importance, except what they assign to them. I’ve heard many justifications for the time, energy and money that are put into games- that they build character, self confidence, teamwork, and they give us examples of greatness to admire and celebrate. All this is true, as far as it goes, but I would like to take a larger view of sports and games, and the place they have in our lives. There is a lot reflected in this phenomena.

First off, I think of the sheer number of different sports people play and watch here. Starting with ‘the big four’ – baseball, basketball, football and hockey, we also have soccer, tennis, boxing, mma, swimming, track and field, gymnastics, motor sports, college and high school athletics, and fantasy leagues. Any of these can be all-consuming for a person, but collectively they are one manifestation of what we value, and give our resources, time and attention.

If these different sports, and online gaming were different branches, then then trunk of the tree and its roots would be that we live in a consumer culture, where we are isolated from one another to such an extent that we do not register and respond to the needs of our neighbors, or our community, or world. This is, at its root, an existential, spiritual problem.

From this loss of perspective, anything, any activity at all can be made to seem important, when it actually is not – and so team owners are willing to pay athletes hundreds of millions of dollars, while teachers are underpaid, while we have homeless, and seniors who can’t afford medicine, and on and on.

It’s not just our capitalist economy and education that effects how we see the world, but that it takes place in a time when the influence of religion and wisdom traditions is in decline, and is almost imperceptible. One result of this is what could be called subjectivism, where people feel justified in whatever they do, and that it’s of equal value and validity as any other activity. What’s missing from that fiercely held idea, of course, is any sense of belonging to a larger group, where it matters whether or not we actively care for one another.

Whether we register the lives of others as important, as precious and deserving our care depends on our total education. Media and consumerism have a stake in keeping us from concern for one another. It’s our isolation from each other that makes it possible to hugely inflate the importance of some things for our acquisition, or activities, and to downplay or to completely exclude others.

No one would like to be told that what they are doing, and what they believe in and give their time and attention to is meaningless, so I caution myself to take care just here. We do need the community that sports can bring, and the joy of seeing something magnificent done by people who have dedicated themselves to their skills. The missing piece is that all this needs to be kept in perspective, which is where I see again child-like emotions. The difference, of course, is that one would think, or hope – that as we become adults, we will not react to games the same way as children. Instead, as it is now, we see a tremendous waste of time and collective resources, and this is what prompts me to write, after all.

Were it not that there are so many needs in our culture and world that could be addressed and remedied with our human intelligence and creativity, the amount of time and energy given to our games would just be a loss with no real significance, but it’s not this way, is it?

I heard of one baseball player recently who was given a contract of nearly half a billion dollars. I lose the thread when numbers get that big, and I’m left only with alarm, that there really is no limit to the time, money, energy and communal resources we will give to sports and games in this culture at this time. This only points me back again to the road we have taken to get here.

We have half a million homeless in this country alone; 40 million struggle with hunger; 30 million have no insurance; millions struggle with addiction, and many have visible or invisible mental health challenges;

Any and all of these could be remedied, if only more people had the willingness to engage them. In a ego-driven, materialistic, consumer society, even to turn in that direction though is to go against the current.

For me, it matters that adults have balanced emotional lives. Some of the reflections we can use to move in that direction come from religions traditions. Given the right conditions of time, and attention, they lead to greater strength. If you want to know what is important in life, think about it in the light of mortality. A child won’t understand this, but every young adult should, and every mature person should be able to grasp that the basis for our treating each other with respect, and for perspective is found in the very nature of our lives here.

When I think of my father’s passing, and that those I am close to and my own life here are just for this short time, it changes the value I place on what I eat, or wear, or own, and on who wins or loses what are, after all, mere games.

When I look at the needs and wishes of those who suffer, here and in other places in our world, even professional contests matter little more than a schoolyard game. I can enjoy the contest, but I’m not misled by it- not for a second. My heart does not go up and down depending on the outcome of such utterly trivial things. In that way, I am a man. I am no longer a child.

It’s a strange place to be in, to even start to address where we are as a culture, and how we got here, what is done and invested in, and even the smallest part of what is left out on account of it.

I know this will come across as critical to those rare few who can even begin to hear comments that don’t agree with what they value. Mostly then, I’ve written this just for myself. These are thoughts I’ve had for a while now, and needing the right conditions to make their way into an essay.

With March Madness (men’s and women’s college basketball) and the Masters (in golf) just behind us, a new baseball season beginning, as well as the start of the nba and nhl playoffs, the emotions of millions are once chasing after what are almost completely meaningless things. They go up, and they go down, weeping, depending on such incredibly tiny events. Meanwhile what is really significant is left off to the side, neglected, and almost invisible. I don’t expect anything I would write to matter much, except to free my own mind that much more from small concerns, so that I have more energy to give to genuine needs.

May we care for each other fully,
and embrace all those who struggle in any way

May we mature,
and from wherever we are
help all others in turn to do the same