Russell F. Hirsch
Sports, Stories & Spirituality: A Trinity
It’s the Super Bowl today and people around the world will tune in. Some will watch for the halftime show, some for the ads, and some simply to mooch free chili from friends. Yet, strip away the spectacle surrounding the game and the fact remains that millions of people are invested in the outcome; millions will be captivated by twenty-two men tossing around a pointy leather ball. Even as a football fan, I have to admit there is something strange about this, something irrational, and yet the fascination remains.
Some of that fascination is undoubtedly distraction and escapism, and the glitzy hype radiating from the Super Bowl feeds into this, but the appeal of sport is of course much wider-ranging than this one event. In 2014, The FIFA World Cup final was watched by some 700 million people, probably making it the most-watched event ever. Think of that. At no time in human history have more people done the same thing at the same time.
Even Jesus watched Germany beat Argentina at Rio’s mammoth Maracana stadium
Why? Well, it’s true that sport provides great stories. Sports are essentially real-time theatre and even the actors do not know the end result. The best matches feature tension, plot twists, high stakes, daring feats, and compelling characters.
But there is a subtler, deeper level than that: In this blog, I usually talk about story structure and the resonant, even mystical underlying foundations from which stories draw their power. I believe the rules of many sports are likewise symbolic of the same ancient wisdom as stories.
In my posts on the Hero’s Journey, I reference Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and others who envision stories as having a cyclical shape. A character is thrust into a new situation and has to deal with it. Often they literally have to venture out, earn something of value, and return home. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Vogler notes how similar this is to a baseball diamond. A player circles the bases and returns home with something of value—literally—a point for their team.
Further, in the climaxes of most stories, the character must transcend the rules of their world. Consider Neo, in The Matrix. You can’t stop bullets in midair! You can’t just climb into another person’s body like that! You’re breaking the rules! Which Neo can do, because he got to the climax.
The same thing applies in many sports. Isn’t it wonderful and paradoxical how the best thing you can do in baseball is hit a home run—hit the ball out of the field of play? Hit it so far it transcends the very space where you’re playing the game!
Think of the “field of play” as the world a character must transcend. For Neo, the field of play is the matrix and he sure as heck transcends it. In this climactic moment, he taps into a seemingly divine, god-like energy that allows him to reshape his world—and we see how it bends and bounces around him!
I get chills when I watch Field of Dreams because in that film, leaving the baseball field actually involves becoming transcendent and going off into the great beyond.
There are parallel examples in other sports. In football, the field of play is very tightly ruled. In fact, it literally looks like a ruler. It has a bunch of meticulously placed lines and numbers on it, but you score by advancing the ball beyond zero, into the unnumbered end-zone, the great beyond. In soccer, the point is to kick the ball into the net, which is not properly part of the field at all.
However, it’s not quite so simple as hitting/kicking/carrying the ball out of the field of play. After all, a foul ball leaves the baseball diamond and you don’t get any points for that. You can take the ball out of bounds past the sidelines in football and soccer and that’s not going to earn you anything. So, you can’t just “go beyond” anywhere. It has to be a directed, disciplined achievement, which is reminiscent of book or film characters who run a whole gauntlet of challenges, honing their inner and outer abilities, before earning that moment of transcendence when they reach the climax and fulfill their goal. This is “going beyond” but in a more directional fashion; it is hitting the ball out of the park without drifting past the foul lines.
This is what mystics do as well. They transcend the bonds of life to tap into the “great beyond,” not in an uncontrolled and unbridled madness, but through their disciplined meditations, teachings, and practice. Just as stories–on a structural level–incorporate symbols that underlie ancient mystical and spiritual practices, these same principles emerge in sports and contribute to their fundamental resonance.
So if there’s a lull in the Super Bowl action and the snacks are running low, take heart, and engage your friends in conversation on how sports, spirituality, and storytelling all involve a disciplined pursuit of a transcendent experience!
And what transcendent pics!