My wife says I watch too many ballgames on television. I tell her it’s an important part of my spiritual life. She rolls her eyes and laughs. Not without justification, I have to admit. Sometimes I watch sports with all the spirituality of couch potato with a bet on the game.
But at other times it’s a profound spiritual practice.
Recently, as I geared up for March Madness and Opening Day like some people prepare for Easter or Passover, I needed a way to convince my wife. Right on schedule came an e-mail with a video attachment. It was a news broadcast about an autistic teenager who inspired shock and awe – in the good sense – during a high school basketball game in Rochester, New York. Jason McElway is a special ed student who served for two years as the manager of his school’s team. He took care of equipment, made sure the players had clean towels and handled other mundane details just to be around the game he loved. He was also the team’s most enthusiastic rooter. To reward Jason, the coach gave him a uniform for the last game of the season. He wasn’t supposed to play, but with about four minutes left, the coach sent him in. He missed his first two shots, then nailed a three-pointer. Then another. And another. With each basket, the crowd went crazier. He ended up scoring twenty points, including six shots from behind the three-point line. For the uninitiated among you, that’s a four-minute performance an NBA star would be proud of.
By the end of the brief video, my wife was simultaneously weeping and grinning like a child seeing snow for the first time. So was I, and I’d already seen it.
A spiritual practice? To me, anything that inspires wonder is spiritual. As is anything that uplifts the soul, proclaims the dignity of the human spirit or affirms our capacity to rise above obstacles, shatter boundaries and transcend limitations. Thanks to TV and the Internet, Jason McElway lifted millions of souls above their everyday worries and trivial pursuits. Anything that does that even for a few minutes deserves to be called a spiritual practice.
Of course, not every sporting event is as wondrous as Jason McElway’s shooting streak. But many come close: a pitcher throwing a perfect game, Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points, Mark Spitz winning seven gold medals. Some transcend sports altogether and rise to the level of mythology: the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets, Jesse Owens humiliating Hitler, Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Of course, some performances are so miraculous as to make you feel you were watching a sea part its waters or listening to a burning bush. Others elicit the same kind of awe as magnificent art—the Taj Mahal, Fred Astaire, a Van Gogh—or a stunning natural landscape. Watching Michael Jordan defy gravity, for example, makes the legendary mind-over-matter feats of yogis and fakirs seem plausible.
Feats that go beyond physical prowess and bring to bear strength of will and nobility of character elevate the spirit in a different way. Acts of courage, fortitude and self-sacrifice in athletic competition bring a lump to my throat, much like the spirit-driven works of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa. Watching great teamwork takes my breath away and brings to mind the importance of community in spiritual life; when teammates interact with friction-free harmony, virtually psychic communication and selfless execution, I gasp at what humans can accomplish when they let go of their egos, tune in deeply to other souls and strive for common goals instead of individual glory.