From "Playing in the Zone" by Andrew Cooper. Copyright 1998 by Andrew Cooper. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

For those who love them, sports are indeed a matter of faith, or at least they should be. They are not important in the way medicine or politics or law are important. Their value stems from their being separate from the realm of practical affairs that we call real life. They require not belief but the suspension of disbelief--in a word, faith. In this regard, sports resemble narrative art, myth, and religious ritual. That is, they require that one give oneself over to a story in which the elements of human experience are distilled, displayed, and integrated into a pattern of meaning that stirs the heart and quickens the soul.

Sport creates a second world in which our deepest potentialities, our virtues and our vices, are revealed and cultivated within an order that raises them to beauty. One leaves the self's familiar confines to be enriched by other modes of experience. Those who believe in the importance of sports and those who believe in their triviality are equally mistaken. In matters of faith, such beliefs are beside the point.

Our ancient ancestors believed sport was a gift of the gods, something with divine purpose.

The religious nature of sport is the subject of Michael Novak's "The Joy of Sports," a work to which the present one is much indebted. Novak argues, eloquently and persuasively, that in American society sport is a kind of "natural religion":

I am saying that sports flow outward into action from a deep natural impulse that is radically religious: an impulse of freedom, respect for ritual limits, a zest for symbolic meaning, and a longing for perfection.... I don't mean that participation in sports, as athlete or fan, makes one a believer in "God," under whatever concept, image, experience, or drive to which one attaches the name. Rather, sports drive one in some dark and generic sense "godward."

Sports satisfy our deep hunger to connect with a realm of mythic meaning, to see the transpersonal forces that work within and upon human nature enacted in dramatic form, and to experience the social cohesion that these forms make possible. Whether or not we so name them, these are religious functions. But our society so thoroughly secularizes sport that we can barely recognize, let alone express, what it makes us feel. Sport is, in Novak's words, "a faith without explanation." There is, however, something inherently unsatisfying about such a state of affairs. As theologians of the Middle Ages knew, faith calls out for exposition: fides quarens intellectum,

faith in search of understanding, is a necessary movement of the soul. With the need left largely unmet, our innermost sensibility about sport remains vague and incomplete.

The historical record substantiates Novak's argument about sport's religious nature. Our ancient ancestors believed sport was a gift of the gods, something with divine purpose. Sport has its beginning in religious rites performed to win favor with the gods, to placate unseen powers, to honor departed heroes. Most important, they were a form of fertility magic. The ball games of native America, the wrestling matches of West Africa and Japan--these and other forms of ritual contest among ancient peoples were created to expedite the passing of the seasons, to bring rain, and to ensure abundant harvests.

Ancient Greece was, of course, the site of an extraordinary flourishing of sacred sport. For more than a thousand years, festivals combining religious ceremony, cultural pageantry, and athletic competition were essential features of Greek society. Hundreds of local festivals were conducted annually throughout Greece and its colonies. Major festivals, such as the Olympic Games, drew huge crowds of spectators and contestants from near and far and were a focal point of cultural life.

For the Greeks, athletic contests were offerings to the gods. They were surrounded by ceremony and celebrated in poetry. Within this sacred context, sport was a container in which aggressive passions were channeled and transformed and an area in which virtues were cultivated and displayed. Participation in sport, whether as contestant or spectator, was seen as an activity that educated, enriched, and emancipated the soul.

But sport is, by its nature, something that can be enjoyed for its own sake. Over the centuries, this function has eclipsed its sacred one. Today we understand sport as an explicitly secular activity. Attempts at finding in it something of spiritual significance usually yield little more than simpleminded moral preachments or New Age nostrums. But the sacred currents run deep, and despite ourselves, we still feel their insistent pull.

Sports may no longer be about transcendence, but they still enact transcendence. They retain their power to intensify experience and awaken within us a larger sense of being. They continue to provide forms that make present to us the primordial forces that in other times were called gods, that today might be called archetypes, and whose narratives still constitute the primary themes of art, philosophy, and psychology. This is the hidden dimension of sport, its secret life.

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