I’ve been following the Colts to greater or lesser extents since they moved to Indianapolis in 1984. I was seven at the time. Yet the last Colts game I watched from start to finish in my own home was the last Superbowl, and before that I hadn’t watched a game in Georgia since 2005. Moreover, I do not plan to watch any more for some time. Being a reader of newspapers and a listener to radio, I am aware that last Sunday, the Colts lost to the Patriots by four points in perhaps the most anticipated regular season game that NFL fans can remember. People have already asked me what I thought of it, and they looked at me in utter surprise when I told them that I didn’t watch.
I realize that spectator sports are more personal and bring forth more emotions than Christology or philosophy do, so I tread carefully as I proceed.
Fanatic and Spectator, Football and Baseball
It’s hard to remember the details of the Colts-Pats game generated this line of thought; the NFL seems to schedule a matchup between the two every season, and in the post-season they often cross paths. But I do remember that Mary was pregnant with our son Micah, and I remember the Colts, as they often do, got off to an awful start. As the network replayed another Colts miscue, for whatever reason, I started to look at myself looking at the game. I realized that in a couple months (it must have been the post-season), I was going to be the object of my son’s gaze, and I realized that if I continued doing what I was doing, that son was going to be gazing on someone who stomped, cussed, screamed, and generally acted like a 27-year-old man-child, not because anyone had done anything to him but because a 28-year-old quarterback hundreds of miles away had thrown a football and someone with a different-colored uniform had caught it.
That thought floored me; here I was, on the cusp of assuming a role of life-altering importance in another’s life, and I was becoming the least exemplary figure I’m capable of being because of little men running around on a television screen.
The next summer, I was in Washington, Pennsylvania. We were visiting Mary’s family, letting them see Micah for the first time, and my brother-in-law came across some Pittsburgh Pirates tickets. These were no ordinary Pirates tickets, though–Mike, because of his job, often has access to amazing Pittsburgh sporting tickets, and that night Mike, my father-in-law, Mike’s father-in-law, and I parked fewer than a hundred feet from PNC Stadium, walked into an air-conditioned room where gourmet chefs prepared wonderful food at deluxe buffets, and after our supper sat eight rows behind home plate in cushioned leather seats where ushers served us all the complimentary ballpark food that we could eat.
I enjoyed that ball game not only because I engaged in nine innings of systematic gluttony (I’d eaten my fill at the restaurant, not knowing that hot dogs and pretzels were going to be free, so I wouldn’t have to buy any, but that did not stop me from ordering something every couple innings–I can’t handle free food) but because the Pirates were playing the Marlins. In other words, the Cubs were not involved. In other words still, I could watch every pitch, every at-bat, every play in the infield rationally, appreciating the speed and precision with which the best ball players in the world executed the movements that make a game of baseball. And I ate way too much. Way too much.
Towards a Minor League Experience
As I thought on these things, I realized that as a boy, I had only occasionally gone to Wrigley Field and Market Square Arena (home of the Pacers), and I had never (and as of yet have never) seen a Colts game in the Hoosier Dome. Instead, most of my experience with live spectator sports had been at Busch Stadium, Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Indians. (They now play at Victory Field, one of the nation’s great minor league ballparks.)
The wonderful thing about minor league sports is that nobody really hates anybody else. All the guys on the field are playing the game, not for some fictional amateur “love of the game” but also not because they want to murder the other team. These young players play because they’d like to advance to the next level and make a living of it. So the players respect one another, knowing that their real competition is both on the bench next to them and on the other team’s bench. And when I watched those games with my father next to me, we never called for the pitcher to hit a batter, never wished injury on an opposing player, never even experienced enough inner disturbance that either of those would occur to us. We were watching baseball, a good game. We contemplated as we rooted. We were spectators (derived from verbs for looking) rather than fanatics (the root word of “fan”).
By no means do I think that all of our lives should happen at arm’s length. We should love spouses and children and neighbors and enemies fiercely, not in exercises of detachment. And we should weep for those on whom Fortune has turned her wrath and cry out for God to strike down their enemies, not make theories about their suffering. Such things are biblical; we should be Psalmic people when real life is on the line. But that’s not what spectator sports should be about.
I propose that a Christian’s experience of spectator sports should always be a minor league experience. Athletics are good in their own rights, practices in an Alasdair Macintyre sense. Professional baseball and basketball and football players (to name the three spectator sports most prevalent in my life) at minor and major league levels combine bodily fitness, sensory awareness, and a truly intellectual (that is to say, not readily apparent to the untrained eye) grasp of space, time, and strategy to play games in ways that most of us will never acquire. They do not replace our own need to move and to play, but they do provide a genuinely good object for contemplation.
But in a culture that televises everything and makes everything a television show, it’s hard not to take athletic competitions as struggles grander than they should be. Entertainment companies, television networks and sporting venues among them, make big money off of athletic competitions, and they know full well that they make more money when they can play up rivalries between teams, be they college teams or more openly professional organizations. (Aside from the players’ not getting paid, what’s the real difference between the NCAA Division I and the NFL? But I digress.) So they produce the telecasts, write reams of commentary, and cast contests between athletes as struggles between the souls of cities. In this decade, my own soul has been on the line every time the Pats and the Colts played. Last decade it was the Pacers and the Knicks.
If you doubt that, spend half an hour looking at Colts and Patriots fan sites, especially the entries from the last ten days. You’ll see sexual insults, accusations of cowardice, name-calling usually reserved for presidential campaign years, and people writing all kinds of awful things about people they’ve never met. Perhaps some people find such things amusing, a light diversion. I no longer can.
I do not mean to set up spectator sports as something that Christians shun universally, and I’m not even sure that everyone is as susceptible as I am to the dissipation that comes with a close game. But in my own house, I have left the television turned off when it’s just me, my nuclear family, and the Colts game. I’ve got a son to play with, books to read, papers to grade. There’s always something for me to do with those three hours.
I still watch games with my father and old roommates to be social, and I still love to go to minor league baseball games, but when my son’s watching me, and he’s always watching me, I simply cannot afford to watch a spectacle whose drama makes me a spectacle. If the game this Sunday was the greatest ever, that’s exactly why I couldn’t watch. I’ll just have to wait for minor league baseball to start up again.