There’s a great sports program called “Only a Game” that airs Saturday mornings on NPR. It’s basically sports radio for the highbrow fan — you won’t find anyone identifying themselves as “Lou from Lowell” calling in to suggest the Red Sox trade Marco Scutaro to the Yankees for Derek Jeter. The stories are told from interesting angles and are well-researched, written, and delivered.
My only problem with the show, aside that I don’t get to hear it very often, is the name. Because to die-hard sports fans it’s much more than “only a game.” Such a title implies an observer’s detachment, not a fan’s passion. Yes, every sports fan when pushed (even ones who have season tickets and wear face paint) will admit that ultimately it is only a game. Perspective is important and whatever the sport, whatever the stakes, it’s never life and death. We may use all sorts of war-like images in football — the blitz, the bomb, etc. — but we all know that sports heroes don’t compare to actual heroes.
Nonetheless, in the midst of profound grief over a heart-wrenching loss by your favorite team, the perspective doesn’t matter. It’s not a question of the mind but the heart. Even though I know that the Ravens loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game is hardly the end of the world as I know it, the loss stings. The game’s emotional roller coaster ended in tangible grief, something that makes it much more than “only a game.”
I’m still nursing that slugged-in-the-gut feeling this morning. And I’m aware that even a seemingly mature, thoughtful, emotionally healthy person can experience sports-related grief. I skipped over the denial phase after watching Ravens receiver Lee Evans seemingly catch the winning touchdown pass from Joe Flacco and then seeing kicker Billy Cundiff miss a potentially game-tying 32-yard chip shot. I went straight from disbelief to anger to depression. Where I’m still lingering as I suck down my morning coffee.
For someone who lives much of his faith up in his head, it’s good to know that I can still be in touch with such emotions. The life of faith is always a balance between head and heart. We assent intellectually but experience emotionally. There’s a reason I don’t like “happy clappy” liturgy (well, many actually) but it’s not something I can do with any authenticity. Yet when the Ravens miss a field goal at the end of a hard-fought playoff game I can writhe around the floor like a fired-up Pentecostal. I’m not sure why this is but it’s all in there; it’s all part of my human make-up.
The other reason true fans don’t treat their sports as “only a game” is that their teams become part of their identity. I’m not sure it will say “Orioles & Ravens fan” on my gravestone but it will likely make the obituary. It allows me to tap into my geographical roots (Baltimore), my emotional roots (my childhood), and my spiritual roots (my late father). There’s a reason I own a stadium seat from the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore — it’s a holy relic from my past.
I realize that my true identity has nothing to do with sports teams or clubs or denominations or schools attended — it is as a child of God. Yet God has created all of us to be interconnected with one another and to be in relationship with others. One manifestation of this is our human associations and shared passions.
I’ll get over this loss — I’m not that pathetic — and so will every fan, coach, and player. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us in profound ways. And that’s the joy of being human — we hurt, we heal, we are transformed. Passion and loyalty for things beyond our personal control don’t make us delusional. They make us human.
Thank you, Ravens, for a great ride this season. And now I feel empowered to face another brutal year as a long-suffering Orioles fan. It’s been a long quarter century on that front.