The Spirituality of Sports and the Common Good

By Adam Ericksen 04-30-2013 | Series:
Baseball runner's foot, Lauren Simmons /

Baseball runner's foot, Lauren Simmons /

Editor’s Note: Jim Wallis’ latest book On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good is sparking a national conversation of what it means to come together on issues that traditionally divide the nation. Bloggers Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins are having that conversation here, on the God’s Politics blog. Follow along, and join the discussion in the comments section.

In his post “Lattes for the Common Good,” Tripp states that working for the common good starts in mundane places, like a coffee shop. These are the places where we practice neighborliness. Here’s Tripp’s brilliant point:

I wonder if one of the things that we can think about in terms of the common good is learning to practice neighborliness in the inconsequential moments so that when we face the bigger political difficulties of our shared life — when we start talking about the common good in the larger sense around some of the other issues like violence, and fear, and money — that maybe if we've already built up habits we can have these larger conversations with greater ease.

Jim Wallis says something very similar in his book On God’s Side. When it comes to the common good, Wallis states, “I have never seen the real changes we need come from inside politics. Instead, they come from outside social movements” (295).

According to Wallis, for those social movements to make any real change in our politics they must be based on the biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, On God’s Side begins with a reflection on the Golden Rule. And, as Tripp says, “learning to practice neighborliness” is learning to practice loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

But there is a tension in Wallis’s book that, for me, is unresolved. That tension is clearly seen when Wallis talks about baseball.

Wallis and I share a love of baseball. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest – so I developed an extreme devotion for the Seattle Mariners. But the Mariners were horrible. Every year I had to bear the shame of losing. Loss after loss after loss. Soon I began to wonder, “What’s the point of being a Mariners fan?” It was then that my uncle told me the Golden Rule of baseball fans everywhere.

“If your team is losing, you can always hate the Yankees.”

This leads me to the problem I have with sports – and with politics – when it comes to the common good: both adversarial. We are always against them.

Wallis coaches his two sons’ Little League baseball teams. The teams have been very successful, but, according to Wallis, winning is not the point:

Though we have had winning teams, we have never stressed winning as the primary goal or made competition our driving energy. I’ve always had just three simple rules on our teams: first, have fun—which, after all, should be the whole point of Little League; second, always be good teammates …; and third, learn to love the game of baseball and become better ballplayers … As far as teaching kids the lessons of the common good, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better chance to do that than in coaching baseball. (258-259)

I like Wallis’s three rules, but I think there is an important one missing when it comes to the common good. If the common good is for everyone, then how do we treat the team that loses? And if we happen to lose, then how do we treat the team that beats us?

Like my beloved Mariners, when I played Little League baseball, my teams lost – a lot. After each game, in the name of “sportsmanship,” we resentfully lined up to high-five the team that beat us. Our coach instructed us to say things like, “Good job,” and “You played great!” But I hated this ritual. I hated walking past the boys on the other team enthusiastically smile in victory, while tears nearly streamed down my face after yet another defeat. As our team shamefully walked back to the dugout, we heard the other team laugh and cheer as they celebrated their victory.

Sports and politics have a lot in common, including this important fact: losing sucks. This, frankly, is inescapable. There will always be winners and losers. Yes, we can learn important life skills, like humility and resiliency, from losing. Learning how to lose graciously is an important part of sports and life, but learning how to win graciously is just as important. So, when it comes to real change in our culture – including sports and politics – I think we need to add a fourth rule to Jim’s list:

Win or lose, practice loving your neighbor, especially your neighbor on the other team.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Baseball runner's foot, Lauren Simmons /

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