Super Team Aren’t Fair, But Neither Is Life and That’s Ok

For five nights this June, I carved out time to watch the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers play in the NBA Finals. This was the the first time two teams faced each other three years in a row. Going into the Finals, the Warriors had swept their way through three rounds of the playoffs. The Cavs almost did the same. While many of us hoped for a close Finals, the Warriors dominated 3 of the first 4 games. They then closed out the series in the most watched non Game 7 in ABC history.

As it stands, the Warriors now have bragging rights in the current NBA rivalry. Much of this is due to adding Kevin Durant to their already loaded roster last summer. Durant joined the team after losing to last year’s Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. He received a fair amount of backlash for doing this. But, it was clear that he was joining a team to win a championship, and now, he’s done just that.

Switching teams via free agency to win a championship isn’t new in the NBA. One could debate whether this is a soft move or a boss move. Ultimately, it helps illustrate the tension in sports in general, but basketball in particular. Basketball, more so than other team sports, sits in the tension between aspirations to individual greatness and the need to rely on teammates.

Outside the sports world, each of us feels this tension to some extent. We desire to be self-reliant, yet we find ourselves needing our community. We want to do it ourselves, but we fall short and have to ask for help. It was not good for the man to be alone, but that’s often how he wants to succeed in life. We aspire to success, but there are no real self-made men.

There is a two way relationship between sports and life. In a way, they both shed light on each other. To study sports is to engage in anthropology because they are a deeply human embodied activity. Sports are trans-cultural and trans-historical. Dynamics that are true of us as humans are going to emerge in our sporting events.

We sit in awe of the athletic prowess of our game’s greatest players. But those same players value winning above theatrics. Players can strive to be the best in the game. But it won’t feel fulfilling unless they win championships (and even then, it is not ultimately fulfilling, e.g. Tom Brady).

Sports need a community of greatness to win championships. They are no solo winners, regardless of appearances. Michael Jordan is the best player of all time, but he won 6 championships by having a team and a coach good in their own right. His coach, Phil Jackson won 5 more championships without Jordan. One of his teammates, Steve Kerr, went on to win championships with the San Antonio Spurs, and has now coached the Warriors to two as well.

In contrast, Lebron James has never been coached by someone who will win a championship without him. At the same time, his stat line is ridiculous. He averaged a triple-double in the Finals. Last year, he led all players in all offensive categories throughout the 7 game finals. This year, his stats in the Finals were the best 5 game stretch of his career.

On paper, and even in game, watching Lebron James is like watching the Secretariat of basketball. His athletic endurance and ability just shouldn’t be possible. He probably hasn’t even peaked as an athlete yet, which is encouraging to me because we’re almost the same age and I don’t think I’ve peaked in the gym.

Yet, lacking the necessary teammates during his first stretch in Cleveland, he couldn’t secure a Finals win. He made the move to go to play with the Miami Heat (in the ill-fated Decision). He won two championships in three years there, but with a much better team (the so-called Big Three). He then decided to come back to Cleveland and has taken them to the Finals three years in a row now.

His current team is the best cast of surrounding players he has had. Kyrie Irving is going to be one of the all time greats. Kevin Love is an All-Star in his own right. But the depth drops off a bit from there.

The Warriors have two league MVP’s in their starting lineup (Steph Curry and Kevin Durant). They have two more All-Stars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They also have a former Finals MVP in Andre Iguodala (who got that award in part because of how much he shut down Lebron two finals ago). There’s a good bit more depth, and their starting 5 is going to go down as one of the top 5 best.

Many people don’t like the idea of a super team. Especially when it is formed because Kevin Durant chose to join a team that beat him in last year’s playoffs. At the same time, it is hard to not enjoy watching them in flow. Unfortunately, when that happens it means there is no real competition happening. But, it is a level of athletic greatness we only see in a given NBA team once a decade. In a game where a super team will always beat a super star, it means the Warriors are going to continue asserting their dominance as long as they can keep their roster together.

As I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, I realized this wasn’t new. From 1980 to 1989, here are the teams that played in the finals:

  • Los Angeles Lakers
  • Houston Rockets
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • Boston Celtics
  • Detroit Pistons.

Every year featured either the Lakers or the Celtics, and three times (but not in a row) both. During that span, the Lakers won 5 championships to the Celtics 3. The 76ers and Pistons each won one.

In the 90’s, the NBA Finals was the Bulls to lose. Had Michael Jordan not played minor leagues baseball for 2 years, they would have likely won 8 in a row from 1991 to 1998. When Jordan retired for good (more or less) the balance of power shifted west and from 1999 to 2010. In that time, the Lakers and the Spurs combined to win 9 championships and only failed to make the finals in 2006.

In our current decade, the Finals have felt like the Lebron James invitational. Yet, he has actually been on the losing end more often than not. He has played in 8 total on either the Miami Heat or the Cleveland Cavaliers. His has a 3-5 record. But, he is a clutch Ray Allen 3-pointer and a Draymond Green suspension away from actually being 1-7.

The norm in basketball is for teams with a collection of superstars to win as long as they can keep the team together. Unless a truly great player has teammates who can step up in key moments, they don’t usually win championships.

Yet, we praise the individual more than the team. We select MVP’s of the Finals and the regular season. We focus on individual stat lines, and make the most of the records of the individual. And long after they’ve retired, we vote them into the Hall of Fame. And that shows us a bit about ourselves. We admire the best, but the best is usually a group, not an individual.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this tension. The Warriors may go down as one of the greatest teams of All-Time. But they’ll mainly be remembered for the Hall of Famers who play for them. Lebron will probably continue to lose in the Finals, somewhat because he’s too nice (every great team needs a solid jerk to win, and that’s not Lebron). But, statistically, he’ll probably be the greatest basketball player of all time. Yet, he’ll be judged by having a losing record in the Finals.

Is that fair? Definitely not, but sports, like life, isn’t fair.

(Image courtesy of NYT)

How America’s Biggest Game is Mostly a Religious Festival

Football season is officially over. Much of the nation is in mourning, not just for that, but that the Patriots won their 5th championship. At the same time, even a casual fan would need to admit that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This would mean the Atlanta Falcons lost the best and worst Super Bowls of all time. Even more begrudgingly, one might entertain the idea that Tom Brady and Bill Belichek are the greatest of all time. As a Dolphins fan, I shudder at the thought.

While I mostly watch the game as a game, I rarely watch events like this as just games. Part of that is just me being analytical, and the other part is the after effects of reading a collection of essays called From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. One essay in particular, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” has some obvious connections here.

The author, Joseph Price notes,

Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political, and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life (137)

Using those categories, let’s consider how last night played out.

Religion

While we might consider our culture too “secular” for pagan temples, we don’t seem to mind giant sports stadiums. As I’ve written elsewhere,

On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.

We could add to this the elements of the celebrity presence and the halftime show. First, in ancient Greece, the athletic activities were conducted in honor of the gods. On the one hand, you could consider Robert Kraft the god of the Patriots and Tom Brady is performing for his honor. On the other hand, you could say that the entire game, regardless of who is playing, is played out for celebrities who are the embodiment of the American gods money, sex, and power. Why else are we having so many screen shots of the famous people watching? I’m watching to watch the game, not see who’s in attendance.

Second, the halftime show is certainly akin to a worship service. From this point of view, it doesn’t particularly matter who the artist is, just that the performance is as transcendent as possible, and the music involved glorifies American ideals in some way. It is simultaneously an ad for the artist and a call to worship through song, although it is not always clear who or what is being worshiped. Though last night with Lady Gaga, I’m sure you could sift through the lyrics in her medley and get a good idea. I just don’t care that much since they weren’t aquatic creatures involved.

Politics

If you’ve never thought of sports as political, you should think more. It wouldn’t make much sense why there is so much American pageantry involved in the games otherwise. A former President does the coin toss. We sing the national anthem, after a special musical guest sang God Bless America. In the civil religious calendar of American culture, the Super Bowl is the winter festival at which we acknowledge our American-ness by gathering with a group of friends and watching other people exercise and while we eat too many calories. It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.

This political element is not restricted to football, but is part of every major sporting event. It is actually part of every sporting event, it is just much more overt and amped up when it’s the Super Bowl. We have to unfurl a giant flag and have military personnel, current and former, on hand in order to honor veterans and servicemen. Not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a very political thing woven into what most people would consider just entertainment. You might also note that when a coach doesn’t want to talk too much about a big game ahead, he might default to politics more than any other topic.

Myth

This might be a bit of a stretch so bear with me. Price pointed out that the actual game of football, it is a “contemporary reenactment of the American frontier spirit” (139) What he meant by that is the football depicts the rapid conquest of territory by means of violence, which is one way to think of how the west was won. So in one sense, a football game is a mythological depiction, through sport, of something deeply part of the American psyche. It’s Manifest Destiny on steroids.

While that might be tricky to validate, the mythology of football itself within the American psyche is not. The Super Bowl is never a stand alone game. It is where legends are made and where some athletes cement their legacy as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. Especially in a game like last night, what happens on the field lives on for decades. If you watched the game last night, you’ll more than likely tell someone years from now about it and what it was like. It’s not that it is mythological in its essence, but more so in its significance.

All of this perhaps why Price concludes,

As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis (140).

And all this time you just thought it was a game right? The Super Bowl is America’s biggest game, but it is overtly religious and is one of the high points in the civil religious calendar as the premier winter festival.

As with most things in our culture, the thing is never just the thing. There’s a bit more below the surface waiting to be unearthed. And if it’s the Patriots, it unusually involves some sort of gate based scandal, so at least we all have that to look forward to.

Touchdowns For Jesus And Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports

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If you remember yesterday’s review, Lincoln Harvey ended his book on sports with suggested further avenues for exploration. Although Marcia W. Mount Shoop didn’t take Harvey’s advice to heart before writing, she is definitely tracking down one of his avenues and then some. In her recent book, Touchdowns For Jesus And Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, Shoop takes on just about every controversial issue related to sports. As a brief overview, here’s her own video previewing the book:

This book is risky indeed. But, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of football, particularly the collegiate variety. Shoop’s opening chapter is similar to the above video. The following chapter unpacks more what the idea is behind a true apocalypse. If you knew that the last book of the Bible could be called “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” as well as “Revelations,” then you already know the connection. As she explains, “Apocalypse literally means lifting the veil. Apocalypse means seeing the truth about who we are, and seeing the truth about the nature of redemption” (10). The redemption is necessary because there are demonic distortions in the world of big time sports (who knew?) and in successive chapters, Shoop looks at how that plays out in fanaticism (chapter 3), gender inequalities (chapter 4), race (chapter 5), higher education (chapter 6), and religion (chapter 7). The final chapter offers some insights for the way forward.

I found the middle chapters (4-6), which are kind of the meat of the book, the most interesting and instructive from my perspective. As male, I’m not often aware of gender inequalities in sports since I always participated as a guy. As a Caucasian, race is not on the forefront of my mind either when it comes to sports. It is in this chapter as well that Shoop offers insightful (and incisive) commentary on the NCAA sanctions against UNC’s football program that went down a couple years back. She writes with an inside perspective since her husband was on the coaching staff at that time. Much of the critiques runs over into the following chapter on the interface of higher education and big time sports. For the unfamiliar reader, it can be quite the apocalyptic unveiling of the way the NCAA functions.

In general, this book to achieve the task of unveiling very well. Part of this was the choice of subject matter, which helped me think more deeply about certain aspects of my love for sports. The other part was that it is written from a perspective significantly different than mine. Shoop writes as the wife of a football coach, who is also an ordained minister and has a Ph.D in religious studies. This combination (theologian married to football coach) is not something you come across everyday (as she herself notes). And while we’re probably not on the same page theologically for some issues, I appreciated her thoughtful analysis in many places. For readers interested in exploring the ethical dimensions further of big time sports, particularly college football, this book should be on your to-read list.


Marcia W. Mount Shoop, Touchdowns For Jesus And Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time SportsEugene, OR: Cascade Books, July 2014. 134 pp. Paperback, $16.00.

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Thanks to Cascade Books for the review copy!

A Brief Theology of Sport

9781625646170

Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St. Mellitus College, London. Earlier this year he published A Brief Theology of Sport. Peter Leithart already reviewed it, and Harvey offered a response. I’m going to comment on it here briefly, and then hopefully you’ll get a copy for yourself and read it and enjoy.

Although this book could easily be a Saturday afternoon read, it is not particularly light reading. It’s a slim volume that offers both Historical (Part 1) and Analytical (Part 2) soundings. In the historical section, Harvey runs from ancient to modern conceptions of sport in just over 50 pages. His opening chapter on the ancient conception argues that both sport and religion are universal and that inevitably they are intertwined. The following chapter details Greco-Roman understandings before turning to the early church’s response in chapter 3. As you might imagine, if sport and religion are intertwined, and early Christians were critical of the Greco-Roman religious activities, then they were also not big sports fans to say the least. Similar attitudes can be found in the medieval church (chapter 4), as well as the infamous Puritans (chapter 5), although noticeable shifts in the attitude toward sport did occur in both periods.

With the historical soundings in place, Harvey takes another 50 or so pages to complete his analytical task. In the opening chapter, Harvey moves toward a working definition of “sport,” noting that it is a sub-species of “play.” The latter is “a radically contingent, self-contained and utterly absorbing, unnecessary-yet-meaningful activity” (69). “Sport” is part of the sub-species of “games,” though is not identical to them. Games are a rule bound type of play (70), and sport is one genre of games. With all this in mind, Harvey turns in the following chapter toward the development a Christian theology of sport. Here, he draws a connection between play as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” activities and our own existence as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” creatures (84). The next chapter elaborates on this and so begins explicating a theology of sport proper. He ultimately suggests sport as a kind of liturgy of our most basic identity as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” creatures (93). He likewise makes a sharp distinction between worship and sport, and that is a point that Leithart criticizes and to which Harvey responds.

The final two chapters, still part of Part 2, offer seven avenues for further explorations and some concluding comments. Harvey suggests taking the proposal that “sport is a liturgy of the creature’s contingnecy” (101), and applying its explanatory power to the following areas of study:

  • Rules (“By mapping sport onto contingency in the way we have, we get a clear idea of the value of rules in sport.” 101)
  • Competition (“Is competition really compatible with the Christian life?” 101)
  • Idolatry (“Sport will always be a perfect arena for idolatrous self-worship. It easily slips into the pagan (self-) worship of nature.” 103)
  • Sport and war (“[O]n a properly Christian reading of creation, war would be much better understood as a fallen state of sport rather than sport being seen as a domesticated form of war.” 104)
  • Professional sport (“Our theological analysis shows that sport should not be professionalized, any more than worship should be professionalized.” 104)
  • Gender and sport (“The corrupted nature of sport is again evidenced in the undervaluing – and denigration – of women’s sports historically.” 105)
  • Good and bad sport (“By linking sport to our  created being in the context of a fallen world, we have created some space for judging between sports.” 106)

As Harvey says in his concluding chapter, “Thinking through the question of sport has helped me appreciate why I love football so much. It has helped me see football for what it is. It is a chance for me to bounce up against my meaningful non-necessity” (111). Hopefully, if you are interested in sports yourself, and football in the American sense, this will be the effect of reading Harvey’s work for you as well. His book is not the final word on the topic, but it is excellently researched and probes the topic from angles that many have not. The endnotes following each chapter provide many avenues for additional reading, since this book will probably whet your appetite for further study.

But, like sport, Harvey’s book can be read as an end in itself. That is, it can be read as a way to give you a general orientation to sports in Christian theological perspective. It can be a way for you to enjoy playing and watching sports to the glory of God, knowing that it is an unnecessary, yet meaningful activity for you as a creature to partake in. But, if you really like sports, you’ll want to explore further and Harvey’s book will help set you along the right track.


Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, April 2014. 152 pp. Paperback, $17.00.

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Thanks to Cascade Books for the review copy!