Holiness and Helmets

A monthly editorial will always lag a bit behind current affairs, especially these days, when most of us no longer get our headlines once a day from a morning newspaper, but off the internet every couple of minutes. Yet, these past few weeks have occasioned some helpful reflections on the lives of professional athletes, and how society looks to them for examples. From Baltimore Raven’s Ray Rice’s videotaped act of domestic abuse against his then fiancée in a casino elevator to the “reckless or negligent injury” Minnesota Viking’s Adrian Peter allegedly inflicted on his 4-year-old son using a switch, there have been no less than a dozen other cases of domestic violence which quickly came to light in just this past year. For any man to hit a woman or smack a child is truly unconscionable, but when that man is 220 pounds of trained muscle, it is more than criminal.

When thinking seriously about the nature of sport, the classic text is Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, started by Johan Huizinga back in 1938. Huizinga was a Reformed Calvinist originally from Holland (a Professor of History at Leiden University), a Dutch intellectual, historian, author, and cultural critic. His Homo Ludens (in English, “the playing man”) argues that play is a formative factor in the higher pursuits of rational creatures where we see elements of sport in endeavors as different as the loftiest philosophizing, to the crassest court cases. As such, Huizinga maintains that “play”—very broadly understood—is what can make not only various contests, but even the human pursuit of justice, war, philosophy, and art beautiful. How so? Play is at the heart of true freedom, having no other end than its very own pursuit. In that way, it is never utilitarian, or for the sake of some greater goal, or material interest. It is suited to various cultures and, thus, an expression of what any given person finds intrinsically pleasant and basic to human merriment.

This is why for many men, especially, sport is a quasi-religion: it provides identity and meaning. Sport is where one’s sense of work, toil, and duty is able to cease for a time; it is what gives our drudgery a rest. Do not athletic teams and events have a way of ritualizing our seasons, our weekends, and our vocabulary? Sports figures, oftentimes, determine our dress, as well as the “art” we hang in our houses, and on the back of our cars. In this way, it is a form of liturgy. Liturgy is what brings an otherwise disparate people together to celebrate the common origin and goal of their existence; and I have known many a man who, sadly, is more impassioned, and finds more meaning, in watching a Notre Dame football game, or rooting for his cherished professional team, than he does in going to his local parish.

Athletic events continue to inspire a sense of awe, and even cultivate a sense of ownership, in those who have come to see some of their own worth in an event undertaken for no other reason than it is time-honored and beautiful. This is a sense of awe that can come about at the symphony, or at the stadium, but there is something primal and right about athletics. Sports give many of those who spend their daylight hours in cubicles, surrounded by stale air and Muzak, an opportunity, finally, to throw their hands in the air, to get viscerally excited about something, and to cheer, and maybe even cry. Like singing and dancing, and even praying, sport is a serious pursuit that is done for its own sake, able to involve anyone else who sees what is at stake.

Perhaps, this is why St. Paul chooses to use sport as a metaphor for the Christian life:

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we, an imperishable one. Thus, I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)

Seeking to be all things to all men, Paul always looked for ways to present the Faith intelligently and attractively, and he knew that a large part of the human race would find the events of running and boxing alluring and apt, because both sport and life in Christ demand our asceticism (ascesis, Greek for “exercise” or “training”), as well as our own hope for true glory.

As groundbreaking as Huizinga was, the most illuminating author on the beauty of sport is our own Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., no stranger to these “pages.” Schall has often taught us that sport is very much akin to worship, in that it is the closest thing to contemplation most humans will know:

Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that we are not sufficient to ourselves, but that what is higher than we are, is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful. Watching games, I suspect, teaches us about what was once called homo ludens, the being that plays. (“On the Seriousness of Sports,” A Higher Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988), 228-29)

Fr. Schall has spent his life calling us all back to “what is,” and, as a true son of Ignatius of Loyola, this weathered Jesuit knows that “all things are on the face of this earth to help men and women become the saints God intends us each to be” (The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius §23). Like all things, play is a creature and, thus, a vehicle to the Creator. It shows us the unseriousness of true living, where one does not need to punch a time clock, and where one pursues a goal simply because it is good.

Today’s athletes are, and should be, held to a higher standard. They are role models and examples for many, many young boys and girls. They are the figures around whom many people’s weeks and energies rotate. When Ray Rice received a mere two-game suspension for cowardly coldcocking his then-fiancée, I chose to boycott watching NFL games this year. Gladly, however, the commissioner reversed that original cowardly decision and has begun a conversation aimed not only to help many of these very big boys grow up, but, hopefully, a conversation that will help the rest of us uncover the possible dignity and beauty of sport once again.

David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.