Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective

Abstract

Responding to recent highly publicized sport scandals that so often tarnish the character of athletics, this writing defends the innate sanctity and redeems the potential of sport by exploring sport as a spiritual enterprise. Spirituality, generally conceptualized at three levels of connection (to self, others, and a higher being or purpose), is explored using 10 dominant themes of the world’s sacred scriptures. Examples of these 10 themes from the domain of sport and athletics are offered, as follows: supreme being and the mystery of sport; self and play in the zone; spiritual paths and practice; knowledge–wisdom and creativity–innovation in sport; the “good life” and the team; love and service as sportsmanship; devotion and worship through love of the game; fate and free will in “miracle and madness”; death and the “big picture”; and the spiritual sage and the sport hero.

Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective

My sport-and-spirituality venture began when I was a daring toddler chinning my way up the splendid chair-leg pedestals of my mother’s fine dining room furniture, eventually reaching the summit and setting up camp, temporarily, on the sacred heights of the table sanctuary. It was an enchanting escape, fashioning new and intriguing possibilities. Later such impulses would be disciplined by years of gymnastics training, following the singular path of a 4-in. balance beam or swinging unwittingly on two wooden spindle bars. Now, as a soccer mom, I watch as my children devoutly absorb themselves in the disciplined challenge and exhilarating excitement of sport and athletics. Life is good.

I never suspected inner rumblings among the community of believers until one night at dinner our family was discussing a recent barrage of player suspensions mounting on previous dismissals of athletes from a nearby university basketball program. My son drolly asked, “Who hasn’t assaulted someone?” His amused and also cynical rebuttal beckoned me to justify and defend the integrity of an activity to which I and many others have eagerly surrendered hours of dedicated practice; an activity leading to moments of unexpected and unrelenting joy, bewildering us with setbacks and conversion; an activity of obvious physical attributes but also imparting spiritual value to generations of players. I began to consider the message that was not being communicated from the sport pulpit to its eager and interested congregation. The spiritual essence of sport is rarely linked with the physical performance and competitive outcomes of sport in the context of popular sport promotion. Nevertheless, in its most fundamental and pure form, sport is spiritual. The spiritual is defined as that which raises the human condition to a higher level of personal awareness and interpersonal consciousness and heightened realization of a grand scheme of things.

To see the soul of sport, we must look beyond both the superficial, if spectacular, physical feats and the much-publicized aggression, anger, and greed in sport. Because sport is spiritual as well as physical, it can lead an athlete to personal transfiguration, revival of communal understanding, and redemption of life’s purpose and possibilities. The precisely executed tennis topspin, the gutsy 50-ft platform dive, the harmoniously choreographed triangle offense, the undeniable magic of the miracle game or perfect golf round can offer the deepest kind of meaning. Sport’s contribution to spiritual advancement cannot be underestimated. Just imagine where we would be had Adam and Eve tossed or teed off that shiny red orb from the Garden of Eden.

Each person’s spiritual venture involves three levels of connection: to the self (inner strength), to relationships (our undeniable union with others), and to a higher being or purpose. It is important to preserve the distinction between spiritual venture and organized religion; nevertheless, the quest for spiritual relevance is often grounded in the practices, teachings, and rituals of the world’s many religions. Religious scripture renders verbal descriptions and explanations to clarify complex spiritual themes. While the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions read differently, their messages and themes are often similar. They have been said to share 10 common themes: the idea of a supreme being, of the self, of the spiritual path, of knowledge and wisdom, of the “good life,” of love and service, of devotion and worship, of fate and free will, of death, and of the spiritual sage (Freke, 1998). This paper draws analogies between these themes and sport not to make sport a religion, but to present sport as an intriguing, insight-generating, exhilarating, and joyful means of awakening a lethargic soul, grasping an unresponsive heart, and enlightening feeble and fragile imagination to robust possibilities and convincing realities.

Supreme Being and the Mystery of Sport

Some would accuse popular culture of proclaiming sport as God. Spiritual text, however, tells us that God is one, yet God is all—a profound but confusing mystery. In depicting the supreme being with a human face, theologians of many faiths have tried to draw that being nearer to us and make it easier for us to conceptualize God (Freke, 1998). Capturing this powerful image in our hearts can be profound when we recognize and appreciate the wonder of God in our everyday lives. Recognition may come in something as simple and subtle as a rainbow’s faint appearance, or in something as intense and marvelous as a friend’s first struggling words after brain surgery. Recognition of God in our everyday lives may also arise at the unexplainable synchrony of a heavyweight boxer’s feather-light, floating grace and stinging punch; or at the gritty determination of the Korean breaststroker in the 2001 Paralympic Games sleekly slithering through the water like a squid, powerfully thrusting himself through each armless stroke with the force of his legs, bracing for each poolside head-butt turn of the race. Inexplicable skills and exquisite performances in sport expose the wonder of a higher power. As the Christian Bible’s book of Matthew offers, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26, New International Version).

The Self and Play in the Zone

One demanding scriptural theme that challenges our essential nature is the perplexing premise that God is within us. As expressed in the Christian Bible, “He is not far from each one of us,” for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 27– 28). In the realm of sport, God-within-us is perhaps epitomized in the experience of flow. Also experienced by accomplished artists and musicians, flow is described by many athletes as being “in the zone”: a state of harmonious union of body and mind wherein the two work together effortlessly, leaving the individual with an undeniable feeling that something special has occurred (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan was in the zone, for example, in Game 1 of the 1992 National Basketball Association Finals against Portland, when in the first half he sank six 3-point shots. At the time, reportedly, a broadcast crew member gestured at Jordan to as if to ask, “How did you do that?” In reply, Jordan shrugged the famous shrug acknowledging the wonder and mystery of his “out-of-body” experience, the only part of which he understood was that he couldn’t miss! In flow, there is the uncanny realization that what has been experienced is an undeniable sense of peace (“Classic NBA Quotes,” 2008).

The Spiritual Path and Practice

The spiritual path is humankind’s virtuous attempt to navigate toward a life of personal fulfillment and ultimate discovery, embodied in human compassion. Scriptural texts prescribe various codes, practices, and rituals as learning guides on the sacred journey represented by the spiritual path. Within Buddhism, “the Middle Way” is the prescription for enlightenment (Freke, 1998), as follows:

There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which he who has given up the world, ought to avoid. . . . By avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge . . . to Nirvana (Mahavagga, I, 6, 17–18). (p. 48)

Sport, in its fashion, captures the essence of the Middle Way. An athlete’s success is marked by steady, relevant progress on sturdy grounding—neither surrender to the marshy swampland of lethargy nor a dash to the insecure precipice of training obsession. On one hand, those who study flow report that the seemingly effortless performances of accomplished athletes are anchored in hours of practice, careful attention, and critique. On the other hand, those who study the body’s adaptation to sport training warn of a subtle tipping point at which both strength and spirit are diminished: overtraining.

In shaping their unique paths to success, some athletes have demonstrated one extreme or the other. For example, Allen Iverson, a guard with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, apparently disgruntled with the intense requirements of the training pilgrimage, persistently and nearly to the point of being comical denies the value of practice. In doing so, he discounts not just his own but his teammates’ sacrifices as they have invested themselves in the pilgrimage. Conversely, Olympic runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton chronicled her resurrection from the perils of an unrelenting training schedule (throughout high school and college she never took one day off from running) accompanied by unscrupulous dieting, noting how excess led to plummeting performance, devastating injuries, and psychological burnout.

Surely, the provisional aspect of the journey is the delicate maneuvering and incredible grounding necessary to balance between life’s extremes. Scripturally, the curious balance required constitutes the fascinating effort–grace paradox, whose analogue in athletics is the tension between the bulging muscle of our personal efforts and the supple support of God’s grace. The spiritual journey’s ultimate mystical destination is our realization and understanding that we are where we need to be, always part of the One, and always remembering the One. The scriptures of Islam are among those that address such truth, as in for instance the Hadith of Tirmidhi, which states, “For everything there is an appropriate way of polishing; the heart’s polishing is the remembrance of God” (Freke, 1998, p. 45). For the athlete, sincere preparation for competition marks the sign of the cross, so to speak, reminding us of this silent, polishing communion with God.

Knowledge and Wisdom as Creativity and Innovation in Sport

Where athletics and sport have the potential to score a spiritual “10” is in the leap from prescribed dictates of a spiritual code, to the realm of experiential knowledge and wisdom. When to the insights bestowed by observant teachers and ingenious coaches athletes add personal knowledge gained from playing, they are freed from limited perception. As the Hindu scripture known as the “Ashtavakra Gita” advises, “Give up conceptualizing altogether. Have no beliefs or concepts of any kind. You are the ever-free Consciousness. How can any thinking help you in any way?” (Freke, 1998). As such, the athlete is a rendering of God’s creation. The knowledgeable athlete redefines the boundaries of his or her game. Freed from defined constructs, the competitor is keenly aware of the self, with its strength and spirit, and in the innovative performances fostered by such freedom, sport’s reality is redefined.

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, the unassuming, average-sized man better known as Pelé, scored 1,280 goals in 1,360 games over a 20-year career (1956–1977) as he revolutionized the game of soccer. Of his incredible speed and balance, tremendous vision, excellent ball control, and powerful, accurate shooting with either foot and with his head, Pelé has said, “It seems that God brought me to Earth with a mission to play soccer” (Gonzalez, n.d.). Track and field star Dick Fosbury stunned spectators at the 1968 Summer Olympics as his unconventional jumping technique led him to a gold medal in the high jump. Fosbury’s “flop” quickly came to replace traditional dive-and-straddle high jump technique. At the 1972 Olympics, Olga Korbut reinvented gymnastics with feats of athleticism never before seen in the sport. Her back flip–catch off the top of the uneven parallel bars revolutionized gymnastics. Like Pelé and Fosbury, Korbut’s skill mastery fashioned new forms and meanings in the sport. This acknowledgement must be made, however, in the context of such scriptural reminders as Zen Buddhism’s cautionary note on recreated knowledge: It is only “a finger pointing at the moon but not the moon itself,” since human knowing can never match God’s greater wisdom (Freke, 1998).

The “Good Life” and the Team

Religions around the world expect a spiritual follower to live a “good life,” endorsing various codes of righteous behavior. Christians hold fast to the imperatives of the “Ten Commandments”; Buddhists adhere to the “Noble Eightfold Path.” Hindus strive to obey their “Laws of Life”; Taoists pursue the “Natural Way.” All of these faiths’ codes of behavior share in common a conviction that a good life is in the making when a person contributes to the perfection and harmony of a larger whole. But here our human vulnerabilities can be harshly exposed. Tolle (2005) translates and describes sin, the opposite of goodness, as “missing the mark, as an archer who misses the target. . . . [T]o sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly and thus to suffer and cause suffering” (p. 9). Tolle adds as well that being good requires a shift in consciousness. For the athlete, such a shift of consciousness comprises the humble displacement of self for the benefit of the team.

Athletes who pursue self-aggrandizement (like their counterparts in domains other than sport) will, the scriptures of various faiths agree, be humbled. In sport, the cost of vice is the destruction of the team and the burden of the whole, which is exponentially greater than the burden of each individual. Even as the National Football League legislated against impudence in the sport, the gods may have shown their take on unnecessary celebration, evening the score—no, raising the New York Giants’ score­—in Super Bowl 2008, after Randy Moss’s audacious appropriation of power over the universe, motioning for the seas to part after a late-game score.

Becoming a good sport suggests personal and interpersonal transformation and is necessary to be a true athlete. The concept of moving beyond the individual self to the collective team may be the most challenging aspect of spirituality in power cultures like professional sports. Tolle’s shift in consciousness is a marked change, and interestingly, the word sport can mean (in a definition employed within the biological sciences) “an organism that shows a marked change from the normal type or parent stock, typically as a result of mutation.”

Unfortunately, as is true of sin and disharmony, denying the collective is tremendously destructive to the individual, the community, and the promise of all that is good in sport. The shift from ego focus to collective consciousness in the world of sport relies on humility, repentance, forgiveness, compassion, and more (the spirit not the letter, perfect liberty). The marring and tarnishing of beauty, grace, and accomplishment is a failure of the whole. Marion Jones, in her public confession of her steroid use, asked forgiveness. She earnestly apologized for besmirching the sport that she had trained so hard for and dedicated her life to; in painfully exposing her failure, she paradoxically revealed her inner strength and goodness. Humans cannot know the individual predicaments that other humans face in their lives, and to reestablish harmony requires empathy and an unwillingness to stand in judgment. Public forgiveness was necessary to reunite Jones with the community. As Islamic scriptural text maintains, “The best deed of a great man is to forgive and forget”; or as Judaism’s Talmud phrases it, “When we know we are all one . . . forgiveness is natural” (Freke, 1998).

Love and Service Seen As Sportsmanship

The most seemingly absurd association between spirituality and sport is the notion that the spiritual undertaking of love and service coexists with athletic achievement and success—victory over others. But it is the connection between compassion and sport that can be most inspiring. Sport provides an alternative impression of the clash between collective egos, the us versus them. As Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote in his book Sacred Hoops, “There has to be another way, an approach that honors the humanity of both sides while recognizing that only one victor can emerge. . . . a wide-angle view of competition that encompasses both opponents as partners in the dance.” Ultimately, Jackson (1995) compares competition and sport to battle, stating that, “The challenge of warriorship is to step out of the cocoon, to step out into space, by being brave and at the same time gentle” (Jackson, 1995). This unconventional model of competition builds not on humiliation, power, and aggression but on honor, respect, and yielding. Such mutual respect and admiration is seen in the world of sport. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, for example, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks demonstrate fierce competitiveness while maintaining the integrity of a several-year friendship.

Devotion and Worship Seen As Love of the Game

While healthy competition and sportsmanship define the promise of the sport experience, when athletes play with special reverence for the tradition and legacy of “the game,” they achieve an even higher level of consciousness. Spiritual mystics have long affirmed and expressed the sacredness of life and celestial wonders through dedicated worship and praise. In a similar way, devoted athletes may demonstrate their respect and honor for the game through gestures observed as ritual. Ritual, according to Marty (1998), comprises conscious, voluntary, repetitious and stylized symbolic bodily actions, centered on cosmic structures and/or sacred presences; sport, Marty continues, thus embraces ritual, since “Sports involve sacrifice of energy and limb . . . [and] who sacrifices without ritual?”

In Sacred Hoops, Jackson describes how he adopted Vince Lombardi’s ritual of “crossing the line.” Lombardi, legendary football coach who led the Green Bay Packers to five league championships in his nine years of coaching, asked his players to walk over the line, symbolically confirming their consent and commitment to practice every day. By creating a sacred space with Lakota symbols of balance, harmony, power, prosperity, and good fortune, Jackson similarly established a holy sanctuary within which athletes mindfully attend to the task at hand. Such rituals and symbols establish an atmosphere of mindful attention to purpose. Freke (1998) notes that Judaism’s “Book of the Secrets of Enoch” states, “It is good to go morning, midday, and evening into the Lord’s dwelling, for the glory of your creator. Because every breathing thing glorifies him and every creature visible and invisible returns him praise” (p. 111).

Fate and Free Will and the “Miracle and Madness”

While rituals may help us organize and fashion that which is so vulnerable and unpredictable in our lives, ultimately the spiritual uncertainty of free will and fate emerge. The investment of whatever amount of energy, commitment, and rite does not guarantee success. As Freke (1998) noted, “Human life is the interaction of fate and freedom of choice” (p. 120). Spiritually, we are advised to make choices pursuant to the good life; we are reminded that we cannot control the world and that God is in the driver’s seat. We can only control our responses to what befalls us. Judaism acknowledges the spiritual paradox and mystical truth that fate and human will mysteriously coincide, that life leads us along the road that we have actually chosen. Jewish spiritual text, as cited in Freke, holds that “Everything is foreknown, but man is free” (p. 36). The doctrine of karma, too, explains fate as the outcome of our previous choices. But lightning strikes, and stunning rainbows emerge from dreary skies.

There is no better illustration of this paradox than the miracles and madness of sport—unexplained victories and devastating, unpredictable losses. The United States ice hockey team’s 4–3 victory over the Soviet Union during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics has been called the “miracle on ice.” The Russian team was in peak form and comprised both mature veterans and ambitious young talent; it had just annihilated the National Hockey League all-star team 6–0 in the deciding game of a challenge series. It was unfathomable that a team of U.S. college players had a chance against such fierce competition. Certainly U.S. players’ strenuous conditioning and meticulous strategic and tactical preparation had an impact, but it has struck many experts that nothing short of a miracle allowed them to emerge victorious (Fitzpatrick, 2008). Observing such turns of event in sport, we realize we are not necessarily in control—an understanding that returns us to the sheer joy of child’s play and surrender to the moment.

Death and the Big Picture (Field of Dreams)

Sacred scripture intimates that by examining our beliefs about and attitudes toward death, we become truly free to live our authentic lives. Similarly for the athlete, the desperation of a defeat, devastation of injury, or struggle of a losing season can bring perspective, making the opportunity to play more pleasurable. Mortality certainly helps define humankind’s place in the big picture; acknowledging it as our own, we become enraptured of the pleasures of participating in life. The Shinto religion offers a scripture (Tenrikyo Ofudesaki 3.41) that says, “All human bodies are things lent by god. With what thought are you using yours?” (Freke, 1998, p. 142). Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at 38 playing a sport that most athletes survive in for only a handful of years, has achieved many football mileposts, for example most wins by a starting quarterback, most consecutive games played by a quarterback, and most touchdown passes thrown. But his physical achievements pale next to his fervor to stay in the game despite numerous setbacks. He nearly died in a car accident; was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition; lost his father and also his brother-in-law in accidents; watched his wife battle breast cancer; and saw his hometown ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Favre admits to behaving recklessly on field and off at points in his past, but we have seen him mature without losing any of his youthful love for of football. Shipnuck (2007) explains that Favre’s favorite career memories are not what might be expected:

‘The funny thing is, it’s not only about the touchdowns and the big victories. If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I’ve been down, when I’ve been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I’ve ever had, because that’s when I’ve found out who I am. And what I want to be.’

In confronting our own challenging moments, athletes and the rest of us realize a personal potential that surpasses human understanding and the typical experiences of life. We discover our innate potential and embody the full measure of life’s opportunities.

The Spiritual Sage and the Sport Hero

Occasionally there emerge from among us mortals who, like the society of saints, challenge and inspire us with their lives of transcendence. We are awakened by their selfless compassion and stand in awe of the harmony they create with all others as they accept life on its terms. They are spiritual sages or spiritual heroes, projecting what a human was truly created to be. The dutiful sport hero models the same wholeness in living. According to Buddhist scripture, enlightenment is gained when we see that suffering in life is diminished by moving from the ignorance of separation to the knowledge of wholeness, which is our true enlightened nature. As Freke (1998), explains, the enlightened have “traveled from the ignorance of separation to the further shore of enlightenment . . . concerned with relieving the suffering of others” (p. 166).

Sacred scripture variously affirms that the spiritual sage is characterized by humility and compassion (Jewish, Christian); by detached selflessness (Hindu); and/or by integrity, respectfulness, and unwillingness to stand in judgment of another (East Asian thought generally). The ethical sport hero exemplifies the same qualities. Baseball hall of fall honoree Roberto Clemente came to the Pittsburgh Pirates from humble beginnings as the youngest of seven in a family in Puerto Rico. When he died in the 1972 crash of a plane enroute to deliver relief supplies to survivors of the great earthquake in Nicaragua, his remarkable accomplishments in his sport (lifetime batting average of .371 with 240 homeruns and 1,305 RBI) were preempted by his dedication to others. According to Price (2001), Peter Williams describes Clemente’s martyr-like status as resulting from two characteristics, (a) that Clemente died without warning and (b) his ethical heroism was primarily active:

In other words he died, as he had lived, doing charitable work for the disadvantaged. In this, he was very much a hero in tune with the social activism of his time; and the response to his death, showing an awareness of this, ended by strengthening a heroic image that was already established.” (p. 102)

In offering a perspective on such a state of self-actualization, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra explains that enlightened beings cannot even think of themselves as enlightened, for this would involve the idea of a self, whereas “enlightenment is an impersonal happening, not a personal achievement” (Freke, 1989, p. 170).

As we head into the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, this discussion reminds us of the fundamental nature of sport: its surge of innocent vitality, its ingenuous dance with others, its trusting application of ourselves to the challenge. Among others, Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic speed skating medalist and three-time world record holder, has argued there is a basic human need for play, sport, athletics. Witnessing children confined to an Ethiopian refugee camp playing soccer in the dirt with a rolled-up shirt as ball, he resolved to work on such children’s behalf “until everyone believes in Olympic Aid’s motto: ‘Every child has the right to play’” (Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, 2008). The Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner (cited in Lawrence, 2005) in his writings emphasizes the spiritual force of play and sport. “To play,” he explains, “is to yield oneself to a kind of magic . . . to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine.” In tossing the apple, we play, create, cooperate, challenge, dream, and grow.

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