Saturday, February 24, 2024

An Additional Lens for Sports Fans: Art But Make It Sports

This question is going to sound ridiculous. Hear me out. When you go to a game or watch sports on TV, what are you looking for? Obviously you aim to see an athletic contest, a victory and a defeat, a display of talent, athleticism, grit, good sportsmanship, and so forth. But what else do you pay attention to? A specific athlete? the star players? I would argue that what captures our imagination reflects who we are and is worth further consideration. Though I have long believed this to be true, PBS Newshour brought this to light in meaningful and unique way.

Part of me thinks it's amazing that anyone goes to games anymore. Between the cost, the time and effort, let alone the comfort of my couch and the high def of my TV screen—it is just so easy to stay at home. Another part of me is amazed at how many people do in fact not only go to gamea but watch them on TV, live-streamed and more! Clearly, sports offers us something more than entertainment. It is not a mere diversion. So what is it that we are seeking? What are we finding?!

If you are a coach, it's hard not to pay attention to how other coaches comport themselves before, during and after the game. How do they talk to their players? How do they respond to bad calls? to mistakes their athletes make? As someone related to referees, I can't help but take notice of the zebras on the gridiron and the hardwood. Do they move the game along? 
How often are they talking to athletes and to coaches? For my friends in the dean's office at school, I know they are always looking at how other student bodies demonstrate school spirit—both in what they say and how they say it. And, as a teacher of Sports and Spirituality, I am perennially on the hunt for moments of grace, inspiration, selfless play, undeniable sportsmanship, respect, stories and more. This blog has been in the works since 2009 because I have found it. 

But I never find it on my own. Quite often friends, family, fans and colleagues share ideas, examples, stories and situations that might resonate with my vision of sports. For example, on #SuperSickMonday, the day after Super Bowl LVIII, a colleague shared a segment from PBS Newshour about an artist who pairs photos from sports games with nearly identical paintings from history (often religious). According to their social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, and a website), Art But Make it Sports aims to "turn Art into Sports (and vice versa) | “Everything I didn't know I needed" - follower testimonial | No AI used | See inspiration? DM/tag us." This digital media project was launched in 2019.

I strongly recommend that you watch the video for yourself.  (Here's the link. Hopefully it gets you to the time stamp, but if not, the piece begins at 48:55). The curator, LJ Rader admits "I try to see things through a sports lens, even if it is a piece of fine art....trying to figure out what could that moment of art be in sports? What could I compare it to, image wise, that might make someone look at it and say "Yes. Yeah, I get it. I can see the parallels here?!" 


Rader admits that people are not used to seeing art and sport talked about (and put together visually). I have to admit, I hear the same exact thing when I mention sports and spirituality. His reasons for the connection he finds between the two aren't much different than mine. However, the spiritual life is often abstract and needs to be made visible and concrete. And yet, Rader enjoys the challenge of connecting abstract art with sports, as well.

I have told my students that one of my goals is to include a work of art (usually a painting or a sculpture...sometimes a photographic image or a song) into every class. Why? Christian Wiman, the author of "My Bright Abyss" explains it well. He writes, 

The purpose of theology, the purpose of any thinking about God, is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning — by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings — more irreducible and more terrible and thus ultimately more wonderful. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is. 


Art But Make is Sports has not only made my job a whole lot easier, it has provided an additional less for how I see each game. 

Photo Credits
All images art from Art But Make it Sports.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Analytics Aside: Five Lessons from Super Bowl LVIII

I woke up Sunday morning with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I said to myself, "it's Super Bowl Sunday" and this one is special. Why? It's not every year, that your team is in the NFL Championship game. I loved hearing from friends throughout the country with text messages like "Thinking of you today!" and "Go Niners." I went to Mass in my Niners' gear and took note of how many others in the congregation did too. I found my way to the grocery store and was delighted to see extra staff on hand as people got the goods for the second biggest feast day in the US (Thanksgiving Day is #1). I put on my CMC jersey. I packed my Super Bowl snacks and arrived at a super spirited party, knowing the next four hours plus would not be easy. Sadly, that premonition proved to be true. But not all was lost at Super Bowl LVIII. I gained a few insights and life lessons. They are not about questionable calls. You won't find much by way of analytics. Regardless, I think these are a few worth sharing.  

"Super Bowl" is two words and a proper noun.
As a teacher, you have certain tools in your toolbox. The words of William O'Malley SJ, the author of "Building Your Own Conscience" have served as one of the better ones. He writes,  "The first step toward wisdom is to call a thing by its right name. Then you'll handle it as it deserves." I would like to add that writing and spelling it properly are important too.

Maybe I missed the memo, but it seems that proper nouns and the usage of paragraphs are out of fashion for writers under the age of 18. Though social media cares little for the rules of grammar, I cannot and do not let this bad habit slide in my classroom. I have told my students paragraphs are important because they help you, the writer organize ideas and the reader to understand them. Furthermore, proper nouns indicate importance and mark distinction. The Super Bowl is not "Any Given Sunday." It's the NFL championship game. Thus, its title requires differentiation and discipline.

We all watch in our own way
I attended the friend of a friend's annual Super Bowl party. The hostess happens to be an identical twin. I had no difficulty telling them apart because one twin only came down for the halftime show. A die-hard Niners fan, she couldn't watch the game with others for several reasons—she gets too nervous, the crowd's commentary can be off-putting, and she really wants to watch the game. I came to find out she is not an outlier—I know many people who do the same.

When it comes to watching a sporting event we care about, fans have their preferences. For example, good sound is incredibly important to me. I am an info hound and I want to hear the commentary. I need those around me to remain positive. I can't handle it when others rip on the players and critique with unbridled authority how and why they are messing up. I have a hard time staying calm. If you are telling me a story about something during a key play, I won't listen. Why? During a championship game—the World Series, the Super Bowl, etc. the stakes are just too high.

Over the years, I have come to terms with who I am in these environments. I hope I'm a fun and knowledgable companion—but I know I can be overly emotional, tense and on edge. While I can handle being with others, I live by the principle we all can and should watch in our own way. No apologies required.


Super Sick Monday
I went into work the day after the Super Bowl with my head hung low, licking my wounds and wishing things were different. But at least I went to work. According to the Morning Brew "16.1 million employees are expected to take off work the day after the Super Bowl, according to the UKG Workforce Institute. In all, 14% of US employees plan to miss at least some work on “Super Sick Monday,” 

Perhaps you have heard, but many believe we should observe a national holiday the day after the Super Bowl. I am down with that, and here is my suggestion / solution for how that can happen.

President's Day is observed in the United States on the third Monday in February. Why not move the holiday to the second Monday in the month? The rationale for the current date is because Lincoln was born on February 12 and Washington on February 19. While I understand the goal of honoring a day between the two birth dates, given the larger context of who and what President's Day honors, the distinction is nominal.

One third of the American people watched the Super Bowl—a number that is not decreasing. In short, a lot of spirited gatherings and house parties that involve overeating, drinking, gambling, yelling, jumping, screaming and more make for a work force that is not optimal come Monday. What do we lose by aligning President's Day with Super Bowl Sunday? Maintaining the status quo is a zero sum gain.

Tennyson had it right...
Whether you return to work on Monday or Tuesday after the Super Bowl, those of us on the losing side know it's not easy. As a Niners fan, losing Super Bowl LVIII was especially tough. Sports fans know the window of opportunity is so small. We have gotten close in recent years and this year we got that much closer.

I knew I would have to face my colleagues and recount the loss. One coworker said, "I would rather lose in the playoffs that get all the way to Super Bowl and fall short." I understood what she said. The two weeks between the AFC and NFC championship games are filled with hype. The amount of attention and energy given to your team is astounding. To lose in the playoffs means you are free of the distraction two, three or four weeks sooner.

I asked my students to weigh in on this matter: agree or disagree. They each said it is antithetical to the nature of the game to not go all the way. One student added, it's like that saying, "it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all." I responded "so Tennyson had it right. I have to agree."

What could be more American?
In Sports and Spirituality, I have a project centered around the Super Bowl called Faith and Football. A minor theme is "What could be more American?" We address what the Super Bowl—positively and negatively— reveals about our culture. Unfortunately the events surrounding the Chiefs' victory parade—an altercation that resulted in gun violence that killed one woman and injured two dozen others reflects one of the darkest truths of our society. Respect for human life is not a given. It is too precarious, and continually under threat. The fact that a public celebration ends in shooting, death and injury is beyond tragic. It is unacceptable. It's hard to say this, but given the number of shootings we have had this year one must conclude: it is American.

In Conclusion
The second that Mahomes connected with Hardman, I stood up, I thanked and hugged the host and I left. I would be lying if I told you I enjoyed the game. As much as I loved the morning and the two weeks building up to the game, once the clock started running, I was a nervous wreck. I did not enjoy the game. I was hoping for a parade on my 50th birthday. You read that right. The city of San Francisco announced—pending a Niners win— that it would host a victory parade on Thursday, February 15, 2024. School would have been canceled (maybe?!) and I could enjoy the milestone with the Gold Rush, etc. The Chiefs had their own plans.

I called my Dad to talk about the loss. He ended the conversation by telling me that he was already hopeful for next year. A number of our starters would return and we had that much more experience to draw from. In fact, the Niners are the betting favorites for next year already. Super Bowl LIX takes place on February 9, 2025. I'll still be 50... no need for a parade, I'll take the sixth Lombardi trophy for the Niners. Gladly. There's always more to learn, question, hope for and discover.

Thank you to the San Francisco Forty-Niners for a great season.

Photo Credits
Prayer Service
Super Bowl LVIII
Brock Hug
Pointed
Super Sick Monday

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Can We Talk About Juju?

I am a religious person and a spiritual person. I'm not superstitious (I learned the hard way on that one. Guatemala, 2007). I've never used a Oujia board or seen a psychic. Nary a tarot card or Zodiac sign will be found among my possessions. I don't dabble. BUT, I don't mess with juju. Do you? And what I really want to know is: Can we talk about it?

To be honest, I thought the word was made up. I think it's a fun word to say. Turns out, there's more to it. According to Britannica

Juju is an object that has been deliberately infused with magical power or the magical power itself; it also can refer to the belief system involving the use of juju. Juju is practiced in West African countries... It is neither good nor bad, but it may be used for constructive purposes as well as for nefarious deeds. 

Juju operates on the principle of spiritual contagious contact based on physical contact. The underlying belief is that two entities that have been in close contact have similar properties even after being separated. It then becomes possible to manipulate one in order to reach the other. 

It is thought that spiritual similarity can be created by deliberately placing two things in physical contact. The underlying belief is that spiritual assimilation and fusion will take place, with one entity absorbing the qualities of the other. Amulets, charms, and mascots are all common forms of juju. Usually worn for protective purposes, those objects have been infused with a particular type of energy, and wearing them is expected to create paths and possibilities for the wearer, as well as guard them against ill fortunes and evil spirits.

Wow. And yet, when I think how and when I reference juju...this description rings true.

For example, I am most sensitive to the juju when I gamble. If I don't like the feel of the table or if a person joins it and brings new juju, bad juju, I will walk away.

Like many sports fans, I am mindful of the juju. For example, when people ask "If we win the Super Bowl, what day is the parade?" I can hardly answer the question. I have no problem with pundits and fans making predictions, but to talk about real possibilities and plans? No can do. Bad Juju. 

Combine sports and gambling—which many of us do—and the juju takes on a life of its own. The movie, "Silver Linings Playbook" captures that dynamic perfectly. I too have blamed certain people for messing up my team's juju.

So what gives? Or rather, why give into the juju. "I Don't Want Your Good Juju" a post featured in the National Catholic Reporter, captures my question... and my answer.

Futhermore, I don't pray to roll my point on craps. I don't ask God to guide my hand in Blackjack when I decide to split the eights. I will never pray for my team to win the game—parlay or not. I will however ask God for the health and safety of all athletes. I am happy to pray that my team uses their talents to the best of their abilities and glorify God in the process. I pray for a game that is fair. Do I pray for a game that is fun? why not!

Prayer is raising our hearts and minds to God. It is fundamental to my relationship with the Lord. Prayer is communication—listening and yes, asking. But I don't see God as a slot machine who grants my wishes—as much as I might want them to come true! Prayer is so much more. It is sacred and holy. Authentic prayer is as raw and it is real. And, I believe it's worth making the distinctions. 

In short, I save prayer for the big stuff, for the real stuff. As much as I enjoy gambling and love sports, they have their place. Obviously sports enhance my life. They make it more meaningful and fun, but they don't control it (I am sensitive to the fact that others might feel differently e.g. Kyle Shanahan and his family. I think Brock Purdy is sincere when he thanks Jesus for the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl). And thus, it is in that same spirit that I can tune in to the juju and tune it out. 

I hope Super Bowl LVIII is a great game and my team plays to the best of its abilities. May the best team win and the juju be kind ;-)


And just to prove there is a prayer for just about everything, here's a Super Bowl Sunday Prayer

Dear God, As we gather with family and friends to enjoy the NFL championship game, may we recall the truths and qualities that make sports wholesome and good. May the virtues of preparation, experience, teamwork and determination be on display. Not only on the field but within our lives. Enable discernment, trust, good conduct and sportsmanship. Establish grace in both winning and losing and fill us with hope and anticipation for the new season yet to come. Amen.

Photo Credits
Allegiant
Tiffany and Pat
Jackpot

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Timely Words, Timeless Message: Thank you, Nick Bosa

Nick and his brother Joey Bosa attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—one of the top ranked football high schools in the country. Had he gone to a Jesuit high school, I have to wonder: Would he have given his affective halftime speech in Latin?


How's that? As football fans know, the 49ers played a terrible first half against the Detroit Lions in the 
NFC Championship game. Trailing 24-7 at the half, one has to wonder what was said to spark the change that led to 27 unanswered points and the biggest comeback in NFC Championship history. Turns out there were a few—and the 2019 defensive rookie of the year / 2022 defensive player of the year gets credit for the ones that stuck.

According to NBC Sports BayArea, Bosa told his teammates to “do your job.” He said, “That’s all we need to do. Just do your one-11. In that first half, there were break downs. One guy each time. Obviously it’s hard for me to know exactly what’s going on, but you just got to do you job.”

Coming in to work on Monday morning, colleagues were relieved, exhausted but excited about the 34-31 win. At the lunch table, people kept talking about Bosa's message. Why? We get it. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone in the American workforce—teachers and students included—did the same?!

When it came time to share his speech in Sports and Spirituality, the motto of Jesuit High in Portland, Oregon came to mind. These three Latin words are etched into their cornerstone. They serve as the name of their alumni magazine. I would like to know how often coaches and athletes, teachers and students reference it: Age Quod Agis. Translation: Do what you are doing. 

Age Quod Agis might be even more important in 2024 than when the school was founded in 1956. The world of distractions has increased while our attention spans have not. To do what you are doing is a discipline. I could argue it is a spiritual discipline, too. 

In its most practical form, Age Quod Agis also means "do your job." Every player on the team has a specific role. Every position has its own demands and requirements. The QB need not do what the center does. The safety should not do what the defensive end is doing. However, sometimes, we feel like we have to do it all. Other times, it's easy to put our tasks onto someone else. No. Do what you are doing. Do your job. 

According to the LA Times, "rousing half-time speeches make a difference in a game’s outcome is a myth." I get it, but you and I probably name one, two or three instances when the legend stands tall. And I believe 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa gets credit for his valuable contributionHis words stuck because they were on point. That reminder was necessary. Those timely words emerge timeless. From the Roman Empire on...

Photo Credits
Nick then and now
Pillar (I took this photo!)

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Enter the Dragon—Christian McCaffrey and the wisdom of Bruce Lee

It's Saturday morning and the grind of the your weekday routine in on pause. Weekends... sleeping in... free time, it feels like a luxury. You wake up and ask yourself: Do I go to the gym? It's cold outside and warm in bed. Who wins the battle? Someone, somewhere has created a list of why you should put your shoes on, pound the pavement, and pump some iron and get going. Thanks to ESPN, I found another one.

Last Saturday, I almost lost that battle, but the day's forecast forced my decision. I made it the sixth floor and it was remarkably quiet. I'm someone who prefers a crowded, but not packed house. I like talking to acquaintances, watching how hard some people push it and reminding myself I can always do a little better. I had to look to the TV screen up above for that support.

To my utter delight, I saw within one minute two of my favorite people: Christian McCaffrey and Bruce Lee. I couldn't look away.

SportsCenter updated a story about the influence the martial artist Bruce Lee had on the mental and physical training of Broncos great Ed McCaffrey and his son Niners running back Christian. 
Their input, their realizations, connections and reflections are so good, I'll let them speak for themselves. Furthermore, this profile put CMC in a new light. While watching the NFC Championship game, I couldn't help but notice the stretching, bending, and harnessing of energy which Lee models. The master's influence lives on!

I began teaching about Bruce Lee in Sports and Spirituality when I learned about his philosophy vis a vi his daughter, Shannon—the author of Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. In an interview on NPR, she said, "for those of you who are unfamiliar with this quote of my father's, it first came into understanding around the practice of martial arts, which we will use as a metaphor throughout this book for living one's most engaged life. But most important to me, the idea of being like water is to attempt to embody the qualities of fluidity and naturalness in one's life." Released during the lockdown of COVID, I found its message poignant to our times. CMC connects it to his style of play, his role on the team and approach to the game.

Several of Lee's teachings, as highlighted on the video are worth remembering, practicing and passing on.

  • The meaning of life is that it is to be lived.

  • Defeat is a state of mind

  • If every man would help his neighbor, no man would be without help.

  • Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.

  • Water keeps moving!

  • And of course, the best: Be formless, shapeless...like water. 
    You can read more, here.

If I meet an professional athlete, I try to offer a thoughtful or creative comment. I know I can always say "I'm a big fan" or "thank you for the 2014 World Series" but I try to make a connection. When and if I meet CMC, I know EXACTLY what I will say: Be water, my friend. Given the outcome of Super Bowl LVIII, I may add something else.

If I had not gone to the gym that morning, I would not have seen this video. In this year of the dragon, "Enter the dragon." 

Photo Credits
Yellow shirt
Niners