In Troubled Times, the Sports World Offers a Necessary Salve
Did you feel it?
Lionel Messi dueling Kylian Mbappé, shot for shot, goal for goal, in the World Cup final.
LeBron James becoming the N.B.A. scoring king and Patrick Mahomes winning the Super Bowl.
The South Carolina women’s basketball team: undeterred and undefeated.
Tiger Woods — two years removed from a devastating a car wreck — birdie, birdie, birdie at the Genesis Invitational.
The passing of Pelé. Damar Hamlin standing for the world to see. Tom Brady waving goodbye.
For sports fans and even casual observers, the past three months have offered a kaleidoscope of redemption and resurrection, of pain, loss, frailty and sublime athletic excellence. Three months, showing, once again, how our favorite games can affect us.
Did you feel it? The soulful, spiritual nature of what has become one of our great faiths — sports. I’m a religious agnostic who is critical of much in the sports world, but I sure did.
“When you are seeing the greats play at their peak and bend the limits, it feels like a spiritual moment because you are being transported,” said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. “You get so caught up in the moment. You are not thinking about your phone, your ego or your job. It’s just this great game in front of me, that great player and the drama of it all.”
Soni knows a thing or two about the games we love and the spiritual side. Not only is he a religious scholar, he’s also a longtime fan of the Los Angeles Clippers, which means he endures countless miseries but finds a way to retain hope.
What to Know About Super Bowl LVII
Kansas City’s down-to-the-wire victory over Philadelphia gave the team its second title in four seasons.
- Patrick Mahomes’s Moment: The Kansas City quarterback dazzled in his team’s comeback win, capping an N.F.L. season plagued by shocking injuries and turnover among football’s most recognizable names.
- Eagles Come Close: Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts scored four touchdowns in a performance with only one blemish, but it was a big one.
- A Crucial Penalty: Did a referee’s call in the final moments of the game unfairly cost the Eagles a Super Bowl win? The answer depends largely on what colors you wear.
- Looking Ahead: With the 2022 season in the books, here are the topics that will be the talk of the N.F.L. even before the next season starts.
“Watching greatness, LeBron, for example, or Messi, it’s like you’re just in the pure moment of the unfolding of revelation,” Soni said. “It’s much the same as people described standing in front of the burning bush. Or the way being in a house of worship can take our breath away. Or, when we are looking at an incredible sunset.”
Sport is not better than any religion. But it is a form of religion. To crib from the former baseball commissioner Bartlett Giamatti as he once described baseball’s ethereal effects, it possesses “a purchase on our souls.”
This isn’t exactly new. Our long-ago ancestors conceived of sports as having a divine purpose. Often, games were part of religious rituals meant as offerings to the gods or ways to communicate with spiritual powers. Stadium venues have long been compared to cathedrals, and modern-day athletes to modern-day gods. None of that is off the mark.
But in our time, with its division and angst — and with more of us dropping from the fold of organized, traditional faith — perhaps the need for sports as a salve is more significant than ever.
As I thought of this column, I reached out to contacts from my time covering faith as a beat. I called on a minister, a rabbi, a Buddhist monk and an imam.
My idea of the spiritual includes the exquisite awe sparked by jaw-dropping human excellence — no God required. So I also spoke to a baseball-loving former pastor who left the pulpit when he became an atheist.
They all had favored teams, or players who had turned them into rabid fans. They all said they felt the hallowed pull of sports at peak form.
Mark Borovitz — rabbi emeritus at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles and a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan who grew up idolizing Jim Brown — drew a parallel between Mahomes at the Super Bowl and Moses and the story of the Exodus: a stirring leader guiding his people through travails, helping them “constantly move forward as a community, no matter the obstacle.”
The rabbi noted how the stories of this month’s Super Bowl would indeed be passed on for generations — like “modern parables.” And mega events like the World Cup or the Super Bowl? Attending those is similar to a spiritual pilgrimage.
Beyond the back-and-forth dramatics on the field, what struck me about attending this last Super Bowl was the unity I witnessed among fans of all kinds. I expected to see more anger and division, and even some fights. Instead, I saw Eagles fans, Kansas City fans and supporters of teams who were not playing, all walking, eating and cheering together.
When Rihanna sang from that airborne platform at halftime, she held sway with the power of an evangelist. It seemed as if all of the 68,000 fans in attendance were swaying together for a while, transported from their troubles.
All is not pristine, of course. As an example, consider Woods. Like so many of our athletes, he was once held up as an example of purity and magnificence. Then came the revelations — his manifold flaws in full view. Even now, as he nears 50, there is a side of him that seems confoundingly juvenile, as we saw this week when he pranked a playing partner with a sexist, frat house move: Here, take this tampon, you play like a girl.
Our favorite athletes have feet of clay, just like the rest of us. They are far from perfect; same for the sports they play or the leagues they are a part of. Scandal seems to go hand in hand with all religions.
“There is an underbelly to sport that cannot be denied,” said Gotham Chopra, a filmmaker who, with the backing of Brady and Michael Strahan, runs the media company Religion of Sports. “It’s like the dichotomy of faith, and the thing is, you don’t have to believe it. You show up at the Super Bowl or the World Cup, and you see it. The sacred and the profane.”
The underbelly is a reminder that nothing in our world is pure.
Luckily, as we’ve been reminded these past few months, the greatest of our athletes and the greatest of our games, however flawed, also have a knack for transcendence that stirs the soul.