Krista's Journal: Rediscovering the Joy of Play

June 30, 2005

I grew up in a state where football was closely associated with the meaning of life. I rejected the sacredness of football, and was never really exposed to gentler options like baseball and soccer. When we set out to do this program, which we dubbed "Sports and Religion" until Joe Price suggested a lovelier title, I thought I could predict some of the critical, cautionary conclusions our radio hour would come to. I was wrong, and glad to be so.

Up to now, here's what would come to mind, for me, if I put sports, religion, and morality in the same sentence: overly competitive, overly commercialized excess. But there is excess and vanity in every aspect of human life, Joe Price reminded me. Such is the human condition, and religious institutions know this as intimately as major league football. Nevertheless, at the heart of the ball games and matches and races that energize our culture, he says, there is an essential human need for play. That is a source of joy, and of virtue before vice. We celebrate it for the sake of our humanity.

Conversation with Joe Price is an interesting mix of straight-faced academic analysis and sudden dry wit. He has spent 40 years watching sports and analyzing his and others' experiences of being a fan. He has also read and studied widely. He alerted me to whole genres of beautifully written literature that interpret sports as a vehicle for both meaning and virtue. They delve far deeper than lip service to sports as character-building, team-oriented activities. There are books by theologian Harvey Cox and legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson. There is a confessional treatise written by the philosopher Michael Novak in 1976. He was having mid-life thoughts about setting his love of sports aside for more mature pursuits. But he ended up concluding that a reverence for play was part of the goal of growing up.

I've been sending this passage from Novak's book to friends and colleagues all week: "Play, not work, is the end of life. To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to labor in the Kingdom of Means. The modern age, the age of history, nourishes illusions. In a Protestant culture, as in Marxist cultures, work is serious, important, adult. Its essential insignificance is overlooked. Work, of course, must be done. But we should be wise enough to distinguish necessity from reality. Play is reality. Work is diversion and escape."

It seemed a good sign — and perhaps a vindication of the deeper conclusions of the program — that as my producers and I dug into this, we had great fun. We collected movies and documentaries and music and news clips. We found Mario Cuomo and Susan Sarandon and Nat King Cole supporting Joe Price's ideas with other expressions of reverence towards sports, both serious and whimsical.

All in all, this is one of the most light-hearted programs we've produced. Nevertheless, it has affected me just as our more serious programs do. It has chastened the cynic in me that has been closed to the enormity and enthusiasm of sports in American life. I'll take in some baseball this summer and look for baseball's metaphysical possibilities as suggested by this week's voices, such as "justice" and "community" and a "grace of order." But I'll also be looking within to rediscover the simple, profound pleasure of play.

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is C. Milo Connick Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College in California. His books include From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion.