Sports: The Toy Department of Human Life

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The insightful description of sports inscribed above is attributed to the late, great American sports journalist Howard Cosell. It also serves as a perfect introduction to this column about the virtues and vices of the world of sports.

Without a doubt, we’ve entered one of the best times of the year for sports fans. The playoffs and World Series are on the doorstep; the football season, on professional, college and high school levels, has begun; hockey and basketball fans don’t have much longer to wait until their interminable seasons begin; and even the waning golf season has a few lingering events before the boys pack up their clubs and go home for the winter.

It can be an intense time of the year, especially for a black and gold Pittsburgh fan living in the midst of red, white and blue New England. I was reminded of that cruel reality a few weeks ago.

On a sparkling late-summer Friday morning, I stopped at a local bank that was celebrating, apparently, New England sports day. The office was filled with red, white and blue streamers and balloons. Large posters of New England sports heroes adorned the walls. The employees were wearing tee shirts and sweatshirts carrying names like Brady and Bruschi, Ortiz and Matuszaka.

Since I was on my way to the office, I was wearing my clerical collar. One local citizen, a couple of places ahead of me in line, turned around, spotted me and said: “Hey, aren’t you that Steeler fan?” Obviously he was less concerned about my state in life than my sports allegiance.

The bank grew silent, customers and employees dropped their work, watching and waiting for my response. (I was reminded of the scene in the Passion narrative when bystanders said to St. Peter: “Aren’t you one of that man’s followers?”)

Showing more courage than Peter, though, I put on my best “and what do you want to make of it?” attitude and responded in a loud, defiant voice, “Yes, I am, and if I knew this party was going on today I would have worn my Steeler sweatshirt.”

I thought I’d need police protection!

Again a few days later, my Steeler heart was broken when I read the front page of the sports section of the Providence Journal to learn about the Barrington Carmelite Nuns’ unabashed loyalty to the New England Patriots and how they were wined and dined in Foxboro by Bob Kraft, owner of the Patriots. The Sisters said they’d be praying for the Patriots this season. I immediately ran to the Code of Canon Law to see if the Sisters could be excommunicated for such blasphemy. No such luck. Nonetheless, I take this opportunity to remind the sisters who their landlord is!

Ah, sports can be so much fun. Of course if sports are an accurate reflection of the human condition, as many commentators have suggested, there is often a dark side too.

This summer, we’ve been reminded of the faults and failures of some of our sports heroes. There’s Barry’s Bond’s steroid-enhanced chase of the home run record. With complete revulsion, we followed the reports of quarterback Michael Vick’s involvement in the disgusting world of dog fighting. And even the previously-untarnished Tom Brady disappointed some of his fans when the sordid details of his extramarital liaisons were revealed. (Tom and Bridget receive high marks, though, at least in my book, for bringing their baby to birth, when many other couples facing similar circumstances would have chosen a far less noble option for their unborn child!)

There was also a report this summer that former Steeler running- back Jerome Bettis, the “Bus,” admitted to faking an injury towards the end of his playing career. I don’t believe it, though. Steelers don’t do things like that!

It’s undeniable that sports can bring out the negative tendencies of human nature. The fun and excitement of athletic competition is often undermined by the unhealthy interference of parents, the unruly behavior of fans, attacks on officials, excessive drinking, irresponsible gambling, foul language, and the increase of domestic abuse reported each year on Super Bowl Sunday.

While sports are wonderful, they have to be kept in perspective. This is a particular challenge in our schools, where athletic accomplishments sometimes rule the roost and completely overshadow academic achievement and other important school activities.

For the most part, however, athletic competition on both an amateur and professional level is positive and healthy. It should be applauded and supported. Sports develop positive human and Christian virtues, teach valuable lessons and promote healthy bodies, minds and spirits.

Sports should be fun – the “toy department of human life,” as Howard Cosell put it. But they have to take a proportionate place among other important realities of life. The legendary basketball coach John Wooden insisted: “What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.”

So, sports fans, as we enter this exciting and competitive time of the year, let the games begin. And to you loyal New England fans, I have only this to say: “Bring it on!”