Magazine article The Catholic World

Sports: Shaping Our Stories and Our Myths

Magazine article The Catholic World

Sports: Shaping Our Stories and Our Myths

Article excerpt

The reason Dick Sparks, the editor of this issue, asked me to write an article on sports goes back to a conversation we had while driving back from a conference in Washington. In relating a childhood story, I situated the story by saying it happened in the summer of 1963 - the summer Mickey Mantle broke his foot while attempting a leaping catch against the fence at he old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Three months later he returned in dramatic fashion by hitting an 8th inning pinch hit home run to beat the Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Dick figures anyone who can recall an event like that thirty years later must have more than a passing interest in the game!

Ask any sports an and he or she will easily recall a significant moment n their rooting history. The event itself, might have made a singular impression on them. Or it might be tied to a meaningful time in their own lives. (My wife and I met in the summer of 1978 - the year the Yankees were 13 1/2 games out of first place in August and eventually won the pennant on the famed Bucky Dent home run. We were expecting our first child when Bill Buckner of the Red Sox muffed the ground ball which kept the Mets live in the 1986 World Series.) And therein lies the cultural importance of spectator sports. The sports fan is linked to something greater than himself or herself. For the past several years, in several fields of study - psychology, sociology, religion, culture - extreme emphasis has been placed on the importance of myth - a story which helps to shape an individual, a family, or society. It is a story which is always true and sometimes really happened. It is a story which helps an individual or a group situate themselves in history. Joseph Campbell describes the power of myth this way: "Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone's education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what's happening to you. With the loss of that, we've really lost something because we don't have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don't know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don't want to give up."(1) Sports in American culture, a culture which often denigrates the mystical and historical, can, for some people at some time, take on the power of myth.

Scott Turow, writing in the New York Times in May, 1993, during the New York Knicks-Chicago Bulls playoff series, put it like this:" . . . win or lose, it will be a more rewarding experience to be a Bulls fan. Because we have Michael [Jordan]. And because rooting for him brings fandom to its essence. The Greeks had their gods. In America, we have sports, where reality is tortured like molten metal into the shape of myth. Basketball - or any other professional sport - is at astonishing remove from the lives most of us know. Just the size of some of these guys on a street corner is enough to start the gawking.

"Few environments are more unreal than this Land of the Giants, where they play against the arbitrary and unyielding authority of the clock, and clean winners and losers emerge as they seldom do when we're at the day job. The point is life at the limit, to determine the ultimate in human capacity. That is why nothing beats being there, sitting in the stadium as an eyewitness, or why, when we root, we are far more daring with our hopes than we are anywhere else, except perhaps the religious sanctuary. …

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