We meet Fridays and Mondays. My friend Chris is a 30-something who seems to love sports almost as much as he loves his wife. He plays a robust game of soccer, two-hand touch football, and softball.
Chris has a neat sense of humor. He smiled when I suggested, after the Boston Red Sox had failed to make the 2006 playoffs, that St. Paul could have had Sox fans in mind when he said, "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3, 4, New Revised Standard).
Chris followed up later with an impetuous, heartfelt e-mail. "We thrive," he wrote, "on sensationalism as entertainment to the point where we don't even recognize the true accomplishments anymore.... It's the little accomplishments as individuals – and as teams – that make up all the good that is sport. Sport isn't about world records, winning dominance, or money. It's about love for the game."
Right on, Chris! The sporting year 2006 provided all the evidence we need. Let's put behind us the head butt that thudded around the world on Italy's way to World Cup victory in Berlin. Let's move past the Tour de France, which slid into a sort of ravine when failure to pass a drug test changed the complexion of this year's event. And a sideline-clearing brawl in US college football.
Let's think instead of the life lessons – many of them spiritual – to be learned from athletes whose careers have blended fortitude with hard-earned skill, perseverance, and unselfish participation.
Think of Tiger Woods, winner of 12 major titles in golf, who, after the passing of his father, Earl, failed even to make the cut in the US Open. This was heartbreaking for Tiger. "My father was always on my case about thinking my way around the golf course and not letting emotions get the better of me," he said. How sweet it was that Tiger adjusted his thinking in time to win the British Open at Hoylake in England in July. Now he could truly say, with tear-dampened face, "This one's for you, Pop."
Think of someone else we lost, Wally Hayward, a South African ultradistance runner who broke multiple world records and ran the 56-mile Comrades Marathon at age 80. Wally didn't believe in highfalutin diets and drinks that many runners use. He was interested when, during an interview, I shared Mary Baker Eddy's words: "Divine Love is our hope, strength, and shield. We have nothing to fear when Love is at the helm of thought, but everything to enjoy on earth and in heaven" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896," p. 113).
Think of the New Orleans Saints football team, homeless after Katrina wrecked their Louisiana Superdome in August 2005. After a season of courage and team spirit in borrowed stadiums, fan support helped them open this season with some of their best games in years.
And how about tennis player Andre Agassi, who at almost the moment the Saints were marching back into the Superdome was succumbing, graciously, in four sets in the third round of the US Open to a player 11 years his junior, in his last appearance there.
My mind went back to my first meeting as a sports reporter with Andre 19 years ago, at Stratton Mountain, Vt., when even as an impetuous 16-year-old he was just as happy to talk about his reliance on God as he was to discuss tennis. Even then he showed just as much spiritual substance in his demeanor as he showed speed and two-handed ferocity on court.
No, sport isn't really about dazzling statistics, creaming the opposition, or assembling teams of millionaires. It's about life's deeper lessons, along with love for the game – and for one another. And, I might add, letting love be constantly at "the helm of thought."
Adapted from the Christian Science Sentinel.