Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Spiritual Side of Sports

ESPN's acclaimed documentary series '30 for 30' is a must see for just about any sports fan. Each episode gives rarely seen behind the scenes glimpses of personalities and events in the world of sports from the perspectives of film makers and documentarians that are enlightening and engaging.

Take, for example, Barry Levinson's piece on 'The Band That Wouldn't Die'. If your over 40 and not from Baltimore, you know the lore regarding the Colt's move from Baltimore to Indianapolis: how the irascible and mean spirited owner, Robert Irsay, moved the team in the dead of night when he wasn't given the new stadium he wanted. This same story, focused on the Baltimore Colt Marching Band (who knew there was one?!), is a touching story of a city's love affair with its team - and not just any team - the Colt's 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants, was the beginning of professional football's growth into a true television sport. I held a sports grudge against the Colts since the beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. I held that grudge until the '80's when Bert Jones, Roosevelt Leaks and Lydell Mitchell brought them back to prominence. Yet, even I was moved at the total dedication of men and women whose love for their team and determination was so total that even after Irsay 'robbed' them of their storied franchise, they kept the Colt Band going as a non-profit, until they got a new team.

The horror stories of the Cleveland Browns leaving Cleveland for Baltimore, have their edges softened as you see how sensitive Cleveland owner Art Modell was to the Colt's Band and its members and how the Modell family ownership brought on board, former Colt players, like Johnny Unitas, John Mackey, as well as the band.

It's a truly touching story.

Probably not the Sunday post you expected, right. Well, here's the reason it feels relevant...

Modern day sports tend to bring up negative reactions: rich spoiled athletes and equally ego maniacal billionaire owners, who are only interested in themselves and their fortunes. Oh, of course, there are the obligatory charitable donations and public appearances, but in the end these are remote and disinterested figures to the vast majority of us.

'The Band That Wouldn't Die' harkens back to a day loyalties were forged with sports figures who lived in middle class neighborhoods: they were next door neighbors, fellow church members, they frequented the neighborhood bar or shopped at the neighborhood grocery store. In the off season, they were co-workers in insurance companies (sometimes even factories). They were community champions, as much, or more than they were national sports heroes.

Levinson's documentary reminds us, as corny as it is, sports actually does have the capacity to bring people together. It actually does have the ability to reinforce identity and civic pride in a city. The lessons of teamwork, of common, rooting interest, of accomplishment is indeed an important...I dare say, spiritual thing.

Nowadays, professional sports is all about the highlight reel, the endorsement contract and the movie or CD deal. There was a time in which  sports, professional and amateur, was the means by which we all were helped to transcend the mundane, sometimes even tragic circumstances of our daily lives. It was the metaphor of our struggle to overcome obstacles and emerge, eventually victorious, or to come back swinging when we lost. For those of us unable to play, it was enough to cheer. And those who cheered were as significant as those who played.

So, while somewhat romanticized, I think this is a reminder of what we all should be striving for in every public arena. There ought to be more than a self righteous 'victory at all costs' ethos that governs our politics, our business, our religion. There ought to be an understanding that what we do publically in these arenas are metaphors for our lives, not vice-versa, and that they are reminders of our hopes that as challenging as the problems and obstacles we face, winning and losing is something we do together. The fact that there is almost always another game, another election, another deal, it means that no victory or no defeat is ever final - there is almost always a chance to try again. And it is that process, that cycle, that makes us better - individually and collectively.

Just like the Baltimore Colts refused to die, we must refuse to give up. Eventually we find out that winning and losing is bigger than us. We win and lose together.

To me, there really is no better 'spiritual' lesson.

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