We in America, maybe more than in any other country in the world, are obsessed with sports. Sure, those who live in Europe and Latin America live and die by the fortunes of their favorite soccer teams – both club and country, but Americans are fanatical about sports. We will watch pretty much anything that finds its way onto television, thus making any reference to “The Ocho” (or “espn8”) not so much a joke as a future inevitability.
This hit me on Saturday as I stared at the Big 12 Championship game between the Sooners of Oklahoma and the Longhorns of Texas. As I watched future baseball star Kyler Murry lead his Sooners to a 12-point victory and a spot in the College Football Playoffs it never occurred to me that what I was doing was totally out of character for me. My approach to watching sports – other than soccer and college basketball – has always been: If I don’t have a direct rooting interest in the game, then I’ve got better things to do.
Noting my strange behavior, my wife Ann asked me why I was watching a college football game that did not involve a team representing a mid-sized Catholic university from northern Indiana. My admittedly lame answer was, “There are playoff implications. If Oklahoma wins, then I’m pretty sure they will be in the playoffs: unless Georgia beats Alabama.” She looked at me as if to say, “And…?” I had no logical answer.
Why did I care about this game, or Alabama/Georgia, or Ohio State/Northwestern? What itch did it scratch for me and for the millions of people who are glued to their sets every Saturday throughout the fall and into the first week of January? And beyond that, why does it matter that certain teams win and, sometimes even more importantly, other teams lose?
In a 30-for-30 film about the Pete Carroll era at the University of Southern California, their play-by-play announcer discussed what made for a good or bad Saturday afternoon: USC wins while UCLA and Notre Dame lose is the perfect day, whereas if USC loses and the other two win (especially if one of them defeats USC in the process) then the day is ruined.
Personally, I am a huge fan of schadenfreude. The term schadenfreude comes from the German, and literally means “harm-joy.” It describes the feeling that you get when your most hated rival loses. Not only is it fun to say, but it is even more fun to feel. In my more thoughtful moments I go beyond justifying the feelings – it’s just a game so there’s no real problem with wishing harm upon them, and I dare to ponder why I even care if, for example, USC loses in football or U Conn loses in women’s basketball.
Is it possible that our obsession with sports is less a modern-day manifestation of bread and circuses (although it is definitely that), and more a misguided search for personal fulfillment and meaning in life? After all, if my team wins doesn’t that prove that my school or city is better than your school or city, and therefore I am better than you? Don’t get me wrong, I basked in the warm glow of an NBA championship as much as the next guy and loved that the Rust Belt put its leather work boot on the perma-tanned neck of the Left Coast, but in the end did it really prove anything?
Maybe in the big scheme of things who wins a particular game, or even a championship, is of no overall concern. To paraphrase Rick Blaine in his speech to Ilsa Lund at the end of Casablanca: It doesn't take much to see that the outcome of any sporting event doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But what does amount to a hill of beans and so much more is what we are preparing for in Advent: the coming of the Messiah into a world that seems to get crazier every day. And so during the frenzy of college bowl season it is good for us to always keep our gaze focused not on our televisions, but on Bethlehem; and to keep in mind that there are much greater things than victory on the athletic field, and much worse things than defeat.
Even in victory it is important to remember the words of the writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity.” But also in defeat to ponder the line from the final page of Léon Bloy’s The Woman Who Was Poor: “Life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”