Anybody who knows me very well is probably aware of the fact that I’m not much of a sports buff. A good bit of this, no doubt, stems from my childhood when I suffered from asthma so badly that I couldn’t run down the block without turning into a wheeze machine. Needless to say, I didn’t make much of an athlete in games like football and basketball, which require a lot of running.
I was watching the Mavericks play against the Milwaukee Bucks this past Tuesday night. It was a tight game up to the end, but the Mavs took victory in the final minutes as they so often do. And, at the end of the game, there was clearly a winner and clearly a loser.
That’s when it hit me.
Given the fact that I don’t really care all that much for sports, I’ve often wondered what the attraction is for those who devote endless hours to watching football, baseball, basketball, hockey, or whatever the sport of the season might be. But, as I watched the Mavericks sweep past the Bucks on Tuesday night, and as the final buzzer sounded, it occurred to me that this was the reason people like sports – there’s always closure with a clearly defined outcome. And it’s not a conclusion you can always see coming.
Sports define life in very simple terms. Games may be full of intricate rules and esoteric John Madden terminology, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the simplicity of one winner and one loser. Everything is tied up in a neat package when the game is over.
I think we like sports because they provide us with something we don’t often see in real life – a clear, unmistakable result (think about the last couple of presidential elections!). Life tends to be messier than sports in terms of the payoff. Our relationships go bad. Our businesses go belly up. Our children don’t turn out quite like we had hoped. Such clarity isn’t always available in real life and winners don’t always end up on top.
As Steely Dan used to sing, “They’ve got a name for the winners in the world; I want a name when I lose.” There’s more gospel in that song than in many of the sermons I’ve preached over the years.
Of course, in other ways, sports are exactly like life. There are twists and turns along the way. People drop the ball and someone else runs away with it. Injuries are incurred, sometimes life-changing ones. One second there’s ecstasy; the next there’s agony. And, as was the case on Tuesday night, the Mavs came from behind to pull off a late-game victory, reflecting the reality that, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Or, as Frances Mayes said in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, “Unthinkably good things can happen, even late in the game. It's such a surprise.”
I think Jesus would agree with both Yogi and Frances. Faith doesn’t always give us the clarity that we get in sports. Life doesn’t hand us ready-made winners and losers. But, the beauty of sports is certainly – as it is in life – that the outcome we think is locked in stone (or etched on a scoreboard) isn’t always the one we get, even if we have to wait until late in the game to see it turn around.