Baseball, Tiger Woods, March Madness, and the American Soul

By Diana Butler Bass 04-08-2010

I'm not much of a sports person, but I have to admit that April 5 was a remarkable day for sports -- especially sports and religion. With baseball's opening day, Tiger Woods' spiritual transformation, and the miraculous NCAA championship game, one only needed to watch American sports to see that the national soul is alive and well.

Opening day of baseball is a tradition that binds Americans to our ancestors, a spring celebration where we are reminded of great heroes of our past, thrilling games our forebears played, and a slower way of life in community. In stadiums across the country, we recreate these memories by reliving them ourselves and passing them on to our children. On the first day of baseball, we enter into a living tradition -- stories shared in community that possess the power to inspire us and make us act differently. Even if baseball can be a troubled institution (with overpaid players and drug scandals), baseball as a living tradition grounds us in communal identity and reminds us that we are part of story about sportsmanship, games, and being American that exists through generations.

At his press conference, Tiger Woods testified to the power of spiritual practices in one's life with a kind of humility rare in any media event. He appeared transformed, with softened visage, completely different from earlier attempts to address the press regarding his truly scandalous behavior. He took responsibility for his actions, apologized to everyone in a deeply humane way, and expressed regret for his actions -- including sharing a touching story about missing his son's first birthday that brought tears to the eyes of hardened media skeptics. Throughout, Woods demonstrated the power of spiritual practices to change one's life: in his case, the practices were from both the recovery movement (AA and the like) and Buddhism.

The Duke-Butler game underscored essential wisdom of faith. While some people think that faith is about miracles, those of us who are part of faith communities know that doing your best -- working toward a goal -- is the greatest miracle of all. Some people wanted the Cinderella season, the ultimate "Hoosiers" Hollywood NCAA championship. Instead, we got two teams pressing each other to the max, never losing heart or grit or hope, and playing hard to the very last second. Duke didn't win by overpowering might; Butler didn't win by supernatural assistance. Duke won by winning a game, and Butler didn't really lose. Although only one got the trophy, they both won by pursuing a purpose with single-focus and passion.

Tradition-Practice-Wisdom is the spiritual triad that forms a way of life in community -- the definition of soulfulness. We are incorrect when we see faith as nothing more than the institutions that claim to be in the religion business, just as we are incorrect when we identify sports as nothing more than a business. We are correct when we understand faith -- or sport -- as memory passed from one generation to another, as practices that change us, and as wisdom gained through pressing toward a goal. Yesterday, for those with eyes to see, our sports gave us a vision of the American soul. Even those who aren't big fans cheer when games reveal what is good and hopeful among us.

portrait-diana-butler-bassDiana Butler Bass is pretty much a postmodern progressive. She also blogs at The Huffington Post and is the author of A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

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