The sound of sports is a curious, yet remarkable thing. The 2010 World Cup was characterized by bad officiating, yes, but even worse—the vuvuzela, that omnipresent plastic horn that is apparently indigenous to South African football (its name is believed to come from the Zulu tribe….makes me wonder if the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras will hand these out in addition to the coveted, bejeweled coconut). Sports Illustrated raised what I believe is a scary, yet fair question: Are vuvuzelas the new soundtrack of soccer? And should we dare ask, other sports as well? Apparently the Florida Marlins gave out 15,000 of them to their fans; I doubt that they are alone. As a mere television spectator, I never became quite used to the constant, nagging buzz. For those in the stands however, take note: Phonak a Swiss hearing aid company registered the horn’s sound at 127 decibels. This is 42 decibels louder than what’s considered safe over extended periods! I hope that the sound of sports would enhance the game, not hinder it.
The 2010 Masters brought more than its fair share of talk and media hype. Whereas many people wanted to discuss the choice language of Tiger Woods during the golf tournament, I wanted to know: Did CBS sports find a way to attach a microphone to the head of golf clubs? The sheer volume of the ball as it was hit off the tee reminded me of the sharp sound of the basketball hitting the rim, as heard during the NCAA basketball tourney. Why do we enhance sound in sports?
Sound can even affect the outcome of a game. In football, the home team has a viable advantage because the vocal participation of home fans can prevent the opposing team from hearing their signals. For example, Jimmy Clausen, former Notre Dame Quarterback had to take not one, not two, but four time outs in order to communicate the play with his offense; Michigan Stadium was that loud. When the Irish failed to execute for a first down, the sound of silence was nowhere to be found and the Wolverines celebrated their victory.
As with the vuvuzela, so much of the sound we hear at athletic events is just filler or noise. It can be distracting to the point that we may lose sight of what is taking shape. The challenge, however is to listen to determine and appreciate what is really unfolding.I recently attended a boys’ volleyball game at the high school where I teach with a friend whose nephew is a talented player on the rival team. It was a memorable evening for several reasons. What struck me most about that evening is not what I saw, but what I heard. The gym was flooded with the sound of the cheers and raw spirit of both teams until the bitter end. After every rally, every serve, even during plays, players communicated out loud with one another. They clapped, they pumped each other up, and their verbal support was active and authentic. You could not leave that gym unaffected by their spirit.
In a similar way, many people attend Adoration because prayer before the Blessed Sacrament has a profound effect on one’s spirit. When I learned that top Oakland A’s baseball prospect Grant Desme seeks this traditional devotion on a weekly basis, I asked why. Does it affect your spirit and if so how? His response wasn’t what I expected. He said “I go because it’s taught me to listen, to simply listen.”
This past Lent, I decided I would undergo a different type of practice. Rather than raising prayers of supplication—asking God for what I wanted, I set out to simply listen. I sought to hear what God might want to share with me. I committed to focusing my prayer in this way and found it takes patience, even courage to hear God’s word. We each yearn to hear God’s voice clearly and answer “Here I am Lord,” but in the bustle of daily life, many times, God’s voice is one that gets drowned out. I had to pay attention; it is one sound that I to train myself to hear. Once I was able to sort through the noise of my own distractions, it’s not as if I heard God call the audible. However, my time in prayer with the Lord reminded me of attending that volleyball game, I did not leave unaffected. What I heard, struck me. No wonder we say “Your words oh Lord, are spirit and life!”
I think it’s important to recognize the value in listening; it’s an art, a skill, a gift. In sports is an invaluable dimension of the game and in prayer its integral to building relationships with God. Elijah, a man zealous for the Lord, heard God’s voice not in the fire, or the earthquake but in the whisper of the wind (1 Kgs 19:18). We may find God’s word in unlikely places, at unlikely times. We just need to listen, and frankly the vuvuzela may make this difficult. However, if we do, I am convinced we can’t leave unaffected by God’s spirit.