I know. It’s a strange question. But there’s a reason.
On Wednesday, May 2nd, legendary linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his home, of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. He had been part of the 1994 San Diego Chargers team that made it to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the 49ers. Seau, it has been grimly noted, is the eighth member of that squad to die before reaching his 45th birthday. Yes, the eighth. He was 43.
There was no suicide note, and the motives are as of yet uncertain. But as Washington Post sports columnist Jason Reid observes, Seau’s death eerily mirrors the death of another NFL player, Dave Duerson, who also took his own life last year with a bullet to the heart. Before pulling the trigger, Duerson specifically texted his family to ask that his brain be given to researchers studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a type of brain trauma caused by repeated blows to the head, and resulting in everything from confusion to symptoms of dementia, depression, and a loss of impulse control. As you might imagine, CTE is frequently found among football players; several of those afflicted with it have committed suicide.
Reid insists on posing an inconvenient moral question: “How much responsibility does the football-loving public share in the physical devastation endured by players?” Characterizing the game as “controlled mayhem,” he likens football to a modern-day gladiatorial contest, and wonders aloud to what extent the bloodlust of the fans and the lure of profit are complicit in the deaths of players like Seau. This is not mere finger-pointing on his part, for Reid includes his own mea culpa:
My work as a beat reporter, and now as a columnist, helps glorify the thrill of a violent sport, and perpetuates the economic engine that fuels it. I still can’t shake the unsettling feeling that it’s wrong for me to contribute to something I know inflicts so much pain on others, some of whom I count among my friends.
Reid proffers no solutions, and admits that he plans to continue to watch the game: “But that doesn’t mean I’ll feel good about it. Or that I should.” (Read the full column here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/junior-seaus-death-should-force-fans-to-ask-uncomfortable-questions/2012/05/12/gIQAFJfGLU_story_1.html.)
Question: is there a particularly Christian way to think about this tragedy and its implications? Many responses are possible, but let me offer one point of view, and circle back to the question of heaven.
I’ve said before that football isn’t really my game of choice–basketball is. Frankly, I’ve never done more than bang around in the driveway with my son when he was younger. It’s been a while. But I miss that time with my son. And I miss the syncopated rhythm of the dribble; the unique sound of the ball hitting the bottom of the net; the satisfaction of nailing a clean shot from 25 feet out.
Now, I have to be content as a fan watching the big boys play. And obviously, it’s the highlight dunks that bring the crowd to their feet. But there are dunks, and there are dunks. It’s one thing, for example, to watch a young Vince Carter take flight from the foul line, floating weightless through a perfect 360-degree turn before finishing at the basket. That’s the NBA equivalent of ballet.
But it’s another thing to watch Blake Griffin dunk over…well, whatever unfortunate soul happens to be in his way. Indeed, Griffin’s dunk this past season over Knicks center Timofey Mozgov was so aggressive, it spawned a new verb: now, nobody wants to be “Mozgoved.” And that can be taken as merely a specific example of another basketball coinage, namely, to “posterize” someone: v. t., to humiliate another player by dunking on him in such a spectacular fashion that it warrants its own poster, forever immortalizing that player as the poor sap on the losing end of that play.
In other words, there are two things we seem to love about sports. One is the celebration of skill and athleticism, the plays that generate pure jaw-dropping wonder. In basketball, it may be the pinpoint no-look pass or the zero-gravity dunk. In football, it may be the impossible field goal, the perfect long bomb over the outstretched arms of the defense, or the speedy wide receiver nimbly eluding capture. And all of this, of course, in the final moments of an elimination game.
But the second is the celebration of aggression and domination: the testosterone-fueled chest-thumping after sacking the opponent’s quarterback or taking the legs out from under a receiver; the “monster” dunk over a larger player. It’s this element of both games that has recently given us the ironic spectacle of an NBA player named “World Peace” being suspended for elbowing a player in the head, hard enough to cause a concussion.
Will there be football–or for that matter, basketball–in heaven? It’s not an entirely facetious question. The Bible suggests that Christians should anticipate a bodily resurrection, and life on a renewed earth. I don’t suppose that there’s any intrinsic reason why sports themselves will disappear.
But the question is, what aspects of sport will survive into that future? I imagine that there will still be joy in being able to play, to excel at running, jumping, and throwing.
Just not for the purpose of establishing dominance over someone else.
Paul, of course, uses athletic metaphors to speak of the Christian life (e.g., 1 Cor 9:24-27). But the lesson is about goal-oriented self-discipline, not about beating someone else. The goal, the prize, is about heavenly glory, not earthly conquest. We are called to discipline ourselves to the pursuit of that prize.
So what do we celebrate about sports, now, in this life? I hope the things we celebrate most are the things that are most likely to survive into the future that God intends.