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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

The Spiritual Glories of…Football

Early in September, one or another leggy, blonde singer strutted out onto my indefensibly large TV screen to inaugurate another season of “Sunday Night Football.” I hadn’t “waited all day for Sunday night”—I’m too good a Christian to think Sunday mornings and afternoons are simply for marking time until the ball game—but I had waited all summer, that’s for sure. The start of football season is wonderful utterly on its own merits, but it also portends the slow, but well-deserved, death of the seemingly interminable baseball season.

Now football is at its glorious height, as the Super Bowl looms, and baseball is in its gratifying midwinter grave.

The pages of too many middlebrow journals have been littered with the musings of pointy-headed intellectuals about the deep things of (pardon me while I reach for the Gravol) baseball. I readily grant that baseball has inspired much more important journalism and literature than has football. After all, baseball is probably the one game that is more interesting to write or read about than it is to play or watch. In fact, so little happens in a baseball game that you can write or read while you play or watch.

Football, on the big, hairy, other hand, is an exciting, powerful, noble sport. The pace of the wide receiver. The quickness of the safety. The power of the linebacker. The strength of the noseguard. The perseverance of the pass blocker. The savvy of the quarterback. The humility of the blocking back. Ah, honorable icons all.

I used to videotape the Monday night game (back when that was the premier broadcast and contest) and watch it in sections through the week while I pedalled my exercise bike. Nothing made me pump harder or longer than the rushes I got vicariously dashing here or leaping there, nailing this guy to the turf or beating another guy long for six. (My Christian reserve did extend, however, to refusing to kneel down in the endzone after a score. That’s a bit too Pentecostal for me.)

My wife has long since given her blessing to my football watching. No, she never watches it—although every year she makes the Best Chicken Wings in the Universe for the Super Bowl party we host. But she has come to approve warmly of my football fever because nowadays when I watch it I pay our bills online and then get all my ironing done. No gender stereotyping in this home, Bubba.

In fact, I am conscientious to make sure I iron during the beer commercials, keeping my head down to avoid all of their scandalous salaciousness. Yes, I admit to having watched one once, but I never, ever have again. Really.

What has most annoyed me about the baseball writers in certain periodicals, however, is the golden halo they cast around it  as if baseball were some metaphor for Christianity.

Get serious. A bunch of guys that, when they do play, stand around most of the time, occasionally doing a bit of exercise that they laughably try to call “work,” and otherwise lounge in the comfort of their sacred dugout, telling each other favorite stories and planning how they’ll spend their vacation once the long season is over?

Hmm. Frankly, that does sound a lot like a lot of churches I’ve known.

But real, vital Christianity is much more like football. Teamwork, in which every one of the eleven men on a side has to do his job for the play to succeed. In which roles are specialized and each is needed: each works together for the common good.

It’s a game in which some get glory, and others rarely receive public recognition, but all share in the rewards of the final victory. Indeed, football offers the grace of the occasional moment in the sun to the second-string running back who scores a once-ever touchdown, even as the veteran center acquires the deep respect of his colleagues for his long record of steady dependability.

It’s only in a football game that we see players regularly huddle together for encouragement and instruction before going out again to the struggle. Where men make room for each other, sacrifice themselves for each other, and all for a larger purpose. Where obedience to the overarching strategy and particular tactics pays off but includes room for individual initiative. Where there are splendid forms of hierarchy, and interdependence, and fellowship.

How often do you see baseball players smile in the middle of the game? Why is there so much more joy on the sidelines and on the field in football? Because these are little communities who train and live and work together at a level unknown in America’s favourite pastime (and oh, boy, is that ever a good description of baseball—kinda like playing solitaire, but duller).

Sure, there are perversions of the football ideal, but they’re penalized. Sure, too many of the announcers are either tackledrunk, self-indulgent veterans or slick, know-nothing robots, but the game itself goes on nicely with or without them. Sure, there have been steroids and cocaine and alcohol and sex and cheap shots and raw deals. Welcome to real life. The football players who best exemplify the sport rise through and above this, together.

Okay, okay. So I’d better quit before this gets entirely out of hand. I was going to go on to compare football to baseball on the question of which sport requires one to “buffet” one’s body more after the apostolic ideal, but I was afraid baseballers would point to some of those awfully large linemen and snort about “buffet” as in “smorgasbord.”

All I’m asking for is this. Let’s get out of the confines, “friendly” or not, of baseball in our athletic metaphors and turn to some other, more worthy, illustrations.

(Now, as a Canadian, I just need to give a little thought to baptizing the truly Great Game…hockey.)

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