Like a Player

By Elli Fischer
Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sports fans and religious adherents often speak the same language—of allegiance and passion, drama and catharsis, belief and faith, idols and icons, shrines and cathedrals, curses and blasphemy. When these two empires intersect, it is no surprise that there is often a struggle for primacy.

Sports needn't have theological pretensions.  Though prayer has long been part of sports culture, it can be seen as just an expression of good sportsmanship. As Knute Rockne, legendary Notre Dame football coach and author of a popular pre-game prayer, put it, "I've found that prayers work best when you have big players."

But another ethos seems to be gaining steam in American culture, one that sees the Almighty as guiding athletic performance and taking an active interest in the outcome of sporting events.  The Dallas Cowboys stadium has long had a hole in its roof, "so God can watch His team play."  It is becoming more commonplace, however, for athletes to display their faith publicly.  The iconic example is the faithful, chaste Tim Tebow genuflecting in prayer—Tebowing—as Jason Elam kicks a game-winning field goal; but it is not unusual to see athletes like David Beckham displaying Jesus tattoos, athletes crossing themselves after scoring a touchdown, athletes pointing skyward after hitting a home run (or, lately, even a single).

The idea of divine retribution in sports is also on steroids.  Ralph Branca, the unfortunate pitcher who served up Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" home run in 1951, said it might have been God's punishment for his neglect of his mother's Jewish religion (though he may not have fared much better as a practicing Jew: the most famous walk-off homer in history took place on the Fast of Gedaliah, when an observant player would have been weakened).  But compare the modern equivalent: After Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime, he tweeted, "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! . . . . THX THO. . ."

Still, the growing obeisance paid to religion by sports is not usually reciprocated.  As David Brooks recently put it in the New York Times, "The moral universe of modern sports is oriented around victory and supremacy."  As for the sports hero, "it doesn't really matter whether he has good intentions"; his "primary virtue is courage."  This ethos, Brooks wrote, "violates the religious ethos on many levels.  The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation, and surrender to God."  Brooks quotes none other than Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whose Lonely Man of Faith describes the irreconcilable dichotomy between "'Adam the First,' the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world," and "'Adam the Second,' the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper."

Other contemporary Jewish thinkers disapprove of sport not because they see some deep irreconcilability between the worldview of the athlete and that of the theologian, but simply because sports are a frivolous distraction from what is truly important.  Several years ago, the recently-deceased centenarian Rabbi Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg celebrated the occasion of the Yankees winning the World Series—not because of their victory but precisely because he experienced no joy upon learning about it.  What?  Actually, Scheinberg's celebration was logical: His lack of joy at the Yankees' win represented, for him, his finally having eradicated from his system a youthful silliness, a narishkeyt (though his feat would have been more impressive if he had he grown up a Red Sox fan).

At an American convention for Orthodox educators in 2006, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman of Bnei Brak admonished the crowd not to stoop to the level of their students by playing ball with them, as it would be undignified and inappropriate.

Fortunately for religious sports fans, there is an alternative to both the dismissiveness of certain rabbis and the solipsism of those who detect divine intervention in every last-second opportunity seized or missed.  Athletes, and sports in general, may be a poor choice of venue for public displays of religious faith; but they afford ample opportunity for the public display of virtue, religious or otherwise.  Who can fail to be inspired by the steadfastness of Cal Ripken, the grittiness of bloody-socked Curt Schilling, or the loyalty of a long-suffering fan of a pathetic franchise?  Who is not disgusted by a player who cheats to get ahead, whether through chemical substances or by slapping a ball out of an opposing player's glove?

In fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik's son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, in an article about developing a broad religious personality, acknowledges the inherent triviality of sports yet notes that moral qualities and flaws that can be evident in an athlete's effort:

[T]he world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole.  Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, team play, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc.  The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements . . . .   Within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen.  If you see someone on the basketball court who wants only to shoot and score, and defense means nothing to him, this is not simply disturbing to another basketball player, but is morally repugnant.

We see another kind of virtue when athletes place God or country before sport: in the recent refusal by the Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school in Texas, to play on Shabbat; in Sandy Koufax's decision not to play on Yom Kippur; in Gary Carter's abstention from alcohol in a hard-partying Mets clubhouse; in David Robinson's overall menschlekhkeyt, including his postponement of a Hall of Fame basketball career to serve in the U.S. Navy; and, of course, in Pat Tillman, who left a promising career in the National Football League to join the Army Rangers and paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan.

The qualities displayed by these heroes can be recognized as virtuous by the religious and non-religious alike.

Elli Fischer is a writer, translator, and rabbi from Modi'in, Israel and a lifelong fan of Maryland sports.


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