What's to Learn from Team Sports?
Process Theology, LeBron James, and the San Antonio Spurs
"Everybody's in the same circle and they believe in it; they're not
all seeking a lot of glamour. It's the way to play the game."
In the Best of Worlds
In the best of possible worlds will there still be competitive team sports? Will high school teams in small towns compete with one another, railing against their rivals as if the future of the world depends on winning the homecoming game? The answer is Yes.
Good luck if you want to rid the world of competition. For my part I don't think it is possible or even desirable, and I suspect that sports offers a way of channeling the competitive impulse in healthy ways. Along the way it provides opportunities for people to enjoy satisfying forms of harmony and intensity, which is part of what makes life worth living. Life is not about meaning alone, it is also about full aliveness or joy. Sports provides opportunities for self-transcending joy. These moments add beauty to the divine life and to human life.
At least that's what I want to suggest shortly with help from process theology. I know that there are many criticisms of sports, and that some are entirely justified. They can be contexts for meanness, cruelty, arrogance, and ignorance. Life is about more than sports. Still sports can play an important role in life, and I want to make a case for competitive sports, and the joy they can bring, in the best of possible worlds.
Playing in the Circle
But first let's go further. In the best of worlds will there still be professional sports? Let's get specific. Will there be the NBA?
I hope you will watch the tribute video to the San Antonio Spurs on the left. It's about how the Spurs embody the art of team basketball, and at one point somebody in the video says of the Spurs:
Everybody's in the same circle and they believe in it; they're not all seeking a lot of glamour. It's the way to play the game.
It seems to me that playing in circles is the best way to play the game of life, too. In this sense team basketball -- for girls and boys, women and men -- is preparation for a much more important game that is always with us. Thankfully, there are many other ways to prepare: volunteering time and energy to help others and parenting, for example.
Celebrity culture notwithstanding, the purpose of life is not to seek all the glamour but rather to play in the circle: beginning with your family, your neighbors, your friends, your community, your nation, other nations, and the greater web of life. Ultimately, you also need to play with those against whom you compete, which is the heart of true sportsmanship. Team sports provide one context in which people can learn to play in a small circle, so that they may be able to play in larger circles. In combination with many other factors, team sports -- well played and with a sense of sportsmanship -- offer a kind of ethical education.
Getting over Yourself
There's a spiritual side to this education, too. Part of it is the joy of sports activity itself: being taken out of a world of self-preoccupation into a world of spontaneity or pure flow, which the Daoists call wu-wei or spontaneously self-creative action. It takes a lot of hard work and practice to be able to enjoy these moments, but in the moments themselves something transcendent is touched in the very act of playing on the field or court. It's like playing music; in the moment at hand, evanescent as it is, the infinite becomes finite. This experience is not reflected upon as it happens; it is instead felt and lived in the immediacy of the moment, as a kind of spiritual joy.
But there's also an element of spirituality in the very act of being on and with a team, even if the moments of private joy are absent. After all, in playing on a team you have to, in the words of the Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, get over yourself. You have to realize that the game is not all about you.
In addition to the moments of joy, the heart of genuine spirituality entails awakening to the fact that you are not one-over-many or one-beneath-many but rather one-among-many or one-with-many. Being one-with-many goes beyond narcissism and collectivism into what process thinkers call relationality: being a person-in-community.
A person-in-community enjoys a sense of individuality without falling into the cult of individualism. Or, to approach it from the other side, he or she enjoys a sense of community without being suffocated by the relations. Call it individuality without individualism or, conversely, fellowship without suffocation. Trinitarian minded Christians might speak of it as a third way: a spirit guided way. This third way is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he spoke of the ideal society as a beloved community. A beloved community is a community of people who take care of each other, respect each other, empower each other, delighting in their differences while enjoying a common destiny. At their best, team sports provide their players, and perhaps also their fans, with a small but significant taste of beloved community.
Beloved community highlights what one process philosopher, Robert (Bob) Mesle, calls relational power. According to Mesle this power has three qualities: (1) active, intentional, openness, (2) self-creativity, and (3) the strength to sustain mutual relationships.
It means being willing and able to go back and learn more, to sustain engagement with ideas, experiences, and people, especially when those relations are challenging in some way. It is so easy to avoid growth and change, to dodge conflict, to resist the new. This step leads right back to the start in a spiral. We try to become more actively and intentionally open, and more self-creative. Having walked a mile in another person’s moccasins, we are in a better position to enter creative dialogue with them, and walk further with them.
A true team -- the Spurs, for example -- shows this kind of power when they are on the court and, so I hope, when they are off the court, too. They are open to one another; they are individually empowered with a spirit of self-creativity; and they stick with each other in a sense of mutual support. They challenge each other and do not resist the new.
Relational power, then, is what Coach Popovich wants of the Spurs. He coaches them into being team players, into learning the arts of relational power, including being open to challenges and changes.
The players that I'm having the privilege to coach have been incredible. The fact that they allow me to coach them as I've been able to coach them surprises me almost on a daily basis. It's a great group of people who, I always say, have gotten over themselves. They come practice; they play the game; we win; we lose; they go home. They do it wonderfully...Win or lose they do it with class, and they do it the right way.
What is important about Coach Popovich is that he coaches in a relational way, too. Yes, he leads them and takes them to task. But he respects them and they know it. And he cares about them as persons, not simply as players. He knows that losing is a part of basketball and life, just as winning is a part of basketball and life. At his best he offers his players life-lessons and not just basketball lessons. He is basketball-savvy but also life-savvy.
In fact, Coach Popovich wants the players to be coaches, too. He knows that he cannot do it alone; just as God cannot do it alone. At least this is what process theologians believe. They believe that even God's power is relational not coercive, beckoning but not coercive, prodding but not unilateral. It takes a coach to make a team, but it also takes a team to make a coach. Still more deeply, it takes a team whose members coach each other in appropriate and helpful ways.
But then there's the question of competition. Don't competitive team sports require a battle between us and them? If we are on a team, aren't we trying to beat the others? Don't we even try to dominate the other team? Is this the best of worlds?
The process theologian, John Cobb, thinks so. He knows the world as it exists today is in dire shape: unspeakable violence, global climate change, obscene gaps between rich and poor, political collapse, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, and the narcissism of consumer-driven culture. There's no getting around it. The world is not a happy place; it is not as it needs to be.
Accordingly, in Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet and Five Foundations for a New Civilization, Cobb offers the image of a better and possible world: one that is a community of communities of communities rather than a violent competition between nation-states. As Cobb envisions this healthier world, he proposes that there is a place for healthy competition; and he finds local team sports, and sports leagues, as offering an image of what it can be like. Here is how he puts it:
Hence the goal must be not only to have strong, healthy local communities, but to have also communities of communities. We can see something like this in the world of sports. Consider the high school teams of small towns. The citizens of those towns feel a strong sense of identification with their teams and root for them vociferously. But the teams that compose a particular league also gain some of their identity from their participation in that league and want it to be strong and healthy. Also when wider concerns are in view, those who root for their teams show their concern for the other towns that support the other teams. The rivalry among the teams is contained in a context of sportsmanship, and the teams learn the importance of respecting their rivals.
Let's say that Cobb is right. Let's say that in a world that is a community of communities of communities, there will be healthy rivalries among communities, and that the world of sports provides an image. Amid these rivalries there will be times of winning and losing, and it is important that the winners be magnanimous and the losers be gracious, because they have respect for one another. Cobb calls this sportsmanship.
You see sportsmanship after the Spurs won the NBA Finals; they were good sports. They applauded the Miami Heat. And you see it in the Miami Heat, too, as they applauded the Spurs, too. Hear the words of the best player in professional basketball, Lebron James, as he praises the Spurs:
That’s team basketball and that’s how team basketball should be played. You know, it’s selfless. Guys move, cut, pass. You’ve got a shot, you take it, but it’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual.
Many of us grow weary of the hyper-individualism of glory-hog basketball, whether high school or collegiate or professional. We tire of chest-thumping athletes whose need to be flattered trumps their capacity to be team players. Truth be told: we grow weary of a world in which hyper-individualism overrides human capacities to live humbly, in community with others, in strong and kindly ways. We think the world would be a better place, and we would be better people, if we played life like the Spurs want to play basketball. To repeat: "Everybody's in the same circle, and they believe in it, and they're not all seeking the glamour."
Moreover, if we are religiously-minded, we suspect that this is the way God sees things, too. At least this is the case if we are serious Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists. We envision the divine mystery at the heart of the universe as a calling, deep within each self, to transcend egotism in the interests of a more loving way of living in the world.
Who knows? Perhaps some of the Spurs are even process theologians. I fantasize that some of them read Part V of Whitehead's Process and Reality before each game, where Whitehead speaks of God as an inclusive love whose image is not that of a conquering Caesar but rather that of a gentle Galilean. And perhaps, like good Whiteheadians, they know that, as games unfold over time, the exact outcome is not predetermined or even known in advance. Not even by God. At least they act this way on the court. Even when they are losing they keep trying, and the other teams do as well. Implicitly, all basketball players are open theists, trusting that the game is not really decided until it is decided by the players themselves. Even God awaits the final score.
Whose side is God on?
By now God has realized that the San Antonio Spurs won the 2014 NBA Finals, beating the Miami Heat. Perhaps God saw it coming, at least as a possibility. But now it is part of the past for God and for the world. There is a timeless side of God, but when it comes to human history, God is deeply and divinely temporal.
So whose side was God on? As a process theologian myself, I think God was on the side of the Spurs and the Heat, and that trophies are short-lived. How quickly trophies become souvenirs, replaced by people seeking new trophies. Much as I was rooting for the Spurs, I suspect that the real victory came after the game was over, amid the hugs, with the grace of those who won, the magnanimity of those who lost. This added real glory to the ongoing Life of the universe. It is in the hugs afterwards that a kind of self-transcendence is seen that is closer, and deeper, than any victory. It is in these hugs that players sense the wideness of the circle. No fingers needed to say "We're number One." Much more important is the sense that, when push comes to shove, the circle of life is more than all of us. Everybody is number one in God's eyes.