Sunday, January 14, 2007

Of gods and Ghosts

In this erratically satisfying endeavor known to us as sports fandom, the gamble for retribution and the hope of a better tomorrow so often also has a mighty hand in our undoing. The risks are quite understood, but they’re the reason loyalty to a given team comes to mean so much in the representation of our being. We rejoice in the fact that, effectively, our lives’ welfare rests in the fate of a band of honed athletic specimens; it comforts us to know that no matter our own destination, faith in something so entirely separate from our own lives will always exist as an escape. It’s a confirmation that if nothing else, we have at least this to give us an identity, to provide solace when nothing else might. Billions would consider it blasphemous to proclaim, but sports – its characters blessed with these mythical abilities – are very much a religion.

To rely on some supreme entity above to provide a beacon of guidance hardly seems much different than kneeling before a television set on a Saturday afternoon and relying on Steve Breaston to return a kick 50 yards and restore faith that the world as we know it is a kind and honest place. This is not to anoint a man who has most certainly done more to inspire confidence and eviscerate peril in my own life than any force in a religious dwelling has. But if a religion is merely the chosen manner to live your life, if it is to embody a suitable set of ideals, to provide hope, is that not the same as a chosen football team that might happen to symbolize the same?

If a portion of religion is a collection of tales to be wary of, or to assuage fears and doubts, was the Miracle on Ice not just a modern-day David and Goliath story? Was Rockne’s “win one for the gipper” speech not told to pay homage to a fallen comrade? Eighty years later has it not become a symbol of inspiration, of honoring someone dear to us? Does Mike Hart’s ascension from the lowly dregs of upstate New York to the zenith of our hearts not show us the power of an indomitable will? Is Lloyd not a man whose existence preaches morality before success at all costs? Is Daydrian Taylor’s hit itself not a story of self sacrifice? Does Braylon’s tumultuous transition from Michigan to the NFL not teach us to savor the present? Has Maurice Clarett not led a life like Icarus, forever damned by yielding to temptation? Is Bo Schembechler not a man of whom we are all disciples?

I had never taken much time to consider something like this before. Too many communion wafers, too much Sunday school, too many prayers, maybe. But something happened after the Title Game that made me wonder. The game had been over for a few hours, and someone on an Ohio State fan forum had written, “please god, let Ginn and Gonzalez come back.” That is precisely the way it was written – the names of the two players appropriately capitalized, while the man who he pleaded with was irreverently lumped together with other gods, gods as if by profession, whose duty it is to right the wrongs in our sacred pastime. In this case, in the case of college football, it was Ginn and Gonzalez who were divine; the anonymous god was simply the man handing out rosary beads from a kiosk.

Certainly life itself can’t be reduced to things so trivial as winning and losing, but in the simple lives we lead, this is what seems to matter. “Living and dying” with a given team has grown to be a cliché, but there is, of course, reason the saying exists at all. It is the rising and falling to those two ends which parallel religion as well. Sports are nothing if not an unmediated forum to champion one’s beliefs. Like the doctrines of a religion, so much of sport is the thrill of fighting for their honor, of defending yourself, and defending these men who you’ve convinced yourself are worth such a lifelong dedication to. Without fighting for them, fighting for your religion, you call your reasons for living into question.

To say the very least, I haven’t handled the culmination of Michigan’s season too well. Three months of unquestioned perfection are worth nothing now. With the events of January 8th as traumatic as they were – for the Big 10, and for Ohio State, whose caliber is always a reflection of the Michigan team they defeated, and vice versa – many soon pondered whether the entire season was just a foolish waste of time. And when Ohio State lost to Florida, there was Michigan, not even good enough to be regarded as the most prominent fraud in the nation. But yet, I still gaze into the bright lights of next season undeterred, and to every single one that follows. Things will change, I imagine; one day they will thrive when we need them to as much as they fail to do so these days. If it’s to be believed that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” I cannot imagine a more glorious high than the University of Michigan’s football team.


Blogger Maize n Brew Dave said...

Theology and football. Or Theology and sports in general.

I remember years ago, when I was living in Texas, that the skipper of the Texas Rangers was a born again christian who led a "clubhouse revival" of sorts. Every game a majority of the Rangers would crowd around the locker room form a circle and pray for about twenty minutes prior to the game.

Off in the corner of the clubhouse, in a t-shirt, slide pants and his jock would be Billy Ripken, smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, and looking quizzically at the mass of knelt humanity in front of him. Billy was the one voice of reason for the Rangers that particular year, and that was what ultimately got him shipped out.

When later questioned by a reporter about the Rangers' struggles mid-way through the season, as the team was dead last in the Central, Billy responded by taking the cigaratte out of his mouth long enough to mumble, "These guys need to spend a little less time with the Bible and more time in the cages."

That line is one of a million reasons Billy Ripken is second, barely second, to his brother Cal in the pantheon of greatest baseball players to ever play the game.

His irreverance and your pen make a great point. Why do we pray, plead, or beg our deity of choice to influence the outcome of a sporting event? Doesn't God(s) have something better to do than unbend a Beckham free-kick or straighten a wobbly pass from Tom Brady?

I think you posed it in a marvelous way. This "devine" rapture we feel isn't "devine" at all. It is simply hope, joy and dissapointment in it's own right. Sports are their own "religion". They bring many of the same promises and punishments. While ultimately the rewards we seak are very different, it doesn't preclude the level of emotional and spiritual investment we make in them.

We take them all on the same level of faith. Faith that our "belief" in them will be rewarded some day.

Excellent stuff Johnny.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading for a long time, and I've felt compelled to comment, but wow.WOW. You have, through your trademark wiriting style and unparalleled analysis, found a road, hidden and twisted as it may be,from Burning Bush to the Bush Push, between The Miracle in Michigan and the Miracle in Mary[:(].The a road connecting the faith of millions of fans, as passionate or detached as they may be ,to the faith of millions of worshippers passionate or detached as they may be. Absolutely fantastic material, and thanks again and again for teaching me something that I will never forget.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

I wish I could nominate this for the blogger awards, this is probably the best piece I've ever read. It brings to light so many things that I've noticed before but have been right under my nose the entire time. In the midst of all the disappoint following the end of this season your writing has managed to give hope to any Michigan fan that reads your site (which should be every Michigan).

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately your writing after Michigan losses are your best. Keep it up (the writing that is). Go Blue!

7:06 AM  
Blogger Da Braylon said...

I want to think that the 2007 season will be the year that Michigan returns to the spotlight, but I keep thinking in the back of my mind it won't happen. Defense will be dicey.

9:49 AM  
Blogger KDM said...

Excellent piece. Just reading it took me through the whole range of emotions I normally feel during a football season. I don't know that I've ever read a better summary of how the game tweaks a person's soul.


7:02 AM  
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