Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Non-Violence and Competition

A few weeks ago I had someone ask if my commitment to non-violence and rejection of nationalism affect how I view sports (which are something I view a lot). I'd never really put those things together before, but there's a chance these things are analogous. My personal development in these philosophical and theological (not to mention political) directions have corresponded to my development away from specific rooting interests. I connected them theologically in a different way in a previous post, but this is something a bit different.

I've never been drawn to the violence of sport. I don't watch football for the hits; in fact, I never watched football until I started playing fantasy football and, if I were to stop playing fantasy football, I'd watch the NFL an awful lot less. Like most teenage boys, I had a brief flirtation with professional wrestling, but even then I knew it wasn't real; I was more intrigued by the physical punishment those guys take purely for dramatics. I'm similarly curious about boxing and MMA, so I watch occasionally, but not for the violence.

This is probably most indicative of how I watch sports: for the individual perseverance. I enjoy most the testing of one person against the limits of their ability. One of my favorite events to watch is something they rarely televise anymore: adventure racing.* These are multi-day team races where four people have to orienteer through rugged environment using rock climbing, biking, kayaks, and any number of other modes of transportation to complete courses often hundreds of miles long.

I like cycling, skiing, and track quite a bit. Yes, these are competitive sports where people try to beat each other at almost a base level of competition, but the real drama is individual, it's competing against one's self, the record books, and the limits of human possibility. I suppose there's some connection between this and my commitment to non-violence - a belief that victory doesn't have to come at the expense of another - but at this point, I think it would be disingenuous to claim a correlation. I might just be naturally predisposed to both non-violence and individual competition.

The nationalism bit is a little more overt. In the US, football, our #1 sport, has committed so deeply to wrapping itself in the flag. Sporting events, but especially big football games, like the Superbowl, have taken on a national identity, whirling our love of national superiority, consumerism, and celebrity culture into a frenzy of consumption. There is no more common venue for the liturgy of nationalism than a football game. It is a core part of our civic religion and it does create some separation with regards to how involved I feel comfortable being.

I used to be more conflicted about the violence inherent in the game itself, but there really does seem to be a cultural shift towards safety. I don't believe someone's choice to make a living in a dangerous way entirely absolves societal responsibility, but I don't think it's automatically a societal condemnation either. That's an unsettled issue at present, but I know I get less an impression of Romans watching gladiators kill themselves for sport than I used to, which, hopefully is a step in the right direction (although, I acknowledge it could be exactly the opposite).

I do think the nationalism thing becomes an issue only when its connected to the cultural or political zeitgeist. The team I follow most closely is the US Men's National Soccer Team (USMNT) - but soccer has never embodied the US cultural ideal the way football does. Despite being our most popular youth sport, people still make fun of the ties, the small stature of many players, and the tendency to be knocked down rather than fight to remain on one's feet. As soccer permeates the US, I'm not sure it will ever feel like a "national" sport.

When I say I'm opposed to borders, it doesn't mean we have to get rid of countries - nations often help preserve and uphold cultural and historic traditions that define a particular people from a particular place - I just mean that no one should be treated any differently because of where they reside. My rejection of nationalism is a rejection of power games and competition, not cultural identity. You don't have to be better than someone else to be proud of your own history and traditions.

As I said, this does align pretty closely with the way I watch sports. My greatest memories are of individual achievements. I cried when Tiger Woods won the Masters, again when Tony Hawk first landed the 900; one of my enduring memories is watching a young Simon Ammann announce his presence to the world with a double gold in ski jumping at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City (still one of the least likely Olympic accomplishments in history). Hard working individuals accomplishing things beyond their perceived ability is why I love sport - it's why I choose to follow NCAA Division III basketball over its more prominent bretheren and why I can hardly stand to watch regular season contests in the NBA, NHL, or MLB - those pros just rarely go all out unless absolutely everything is on the line.

Even those few moments of communal euphoria I've experienced in relationship to sport have been more about experiencing something unique than about defeating an opponent. I recall waking up in Boston on days when Pedro Martinez was pitching for the Red Sox. The air was different; there was a palpable, joyful tension permeating existence. He won a lot, but I don't remember wins, I remember the feeling. The same one driving back to Boston late on a snowy night after the Patriots won their first Superbowl. I'm not a Boston sports fan - those aren't my teams - but the enjoyment of accomplishing what was thought impossible was beautiful. I remember watching Vince Carter hit his first career game-winning shot to beat the Celtics in Boston. People were still euphoric, having seen what everyone thought at the time to be the birth of a new superstar.

If anything, my enjoyment of sports has been influenced by my theology because of my strong belief that everything we do, from the mundane to the exceptional, points to a greater truth. We all long to live in those moments. Some take them from defeating an enemy or flouting their superiority; I tend to find them in someone being as completely human as their capable of being.

*Crazy enough, I was at the barber a couple months ago, and met a retired ESPN cameraman who had covered the first X Games Adventure Race, which I remember watching. He said the cost to cover those things is astronomically high and no where near cost effective for the few people who will tune in - which explains why you can't see coverage of them on TV anymore.

No comments: