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I’ll get to less-obvious reasons that I still embrace the church of sports, despite the many many problems and flaws. But first….

The video above shows one of the most exciting come-back moments ever in baseball, when the New York Mets won the World Series in 1986 in the bottom of the 10th, in what seemed to be a no-brainer win for the Boston Red Sox. This last-minute win was a breathtaking. eye-popping conclusion many of us will never forget.

Not only was it great to see our (finally) amazin’ Mets win the entire Series, but this was a moment to remember for anyone who thinks their own game is lost. These Mets never gave up, even when the odds were stacked against them. It’s not about the odds, they might tell us. It’s about knowing, in any moment no matter what anyone tells you, you can still change things around for yourself – and for your team.

The Darker Side of Sports

Of course, sports has a darker side, too. We’ve seen the reputations of once-admired sports heroes turned on their heads by the discovery of their use of performance-enhancing drugs, most notably in baseball, football, cycling, weightlifting, and the Olympics. As if this hasn’t left enough of a taint, add to that the whole question of violence and the long-lasting effects on the brains of football players, boxers, even soccer players who block the ball with their head, coupled with the lingering question about what values sports are really teaching our kids.

Fast forward to April 2013 and the very recent firing of Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball coach, Mike Rice, after a video of his verbally and physically abusive performance during a practice session went viral. Sports as a whole is once again under scrutiny.

Let’s be real. While I am not trying to excuse his behavior in any way (coaching shouldn’t be an all-encompassing umbrella making serious anger management issues acceptable), this is not the first or last time a coach has used aggressive language and behavior. Bobby Knight, for many years revered as one of the most winning American basketball coaches, was certainly no model of civility. Not even close. Nor was he in favor of rose-colored-glasses optimism. In fact, he wrote a book called The Power of Negative Thinking.

But despite the book’s title – and whatever you might think of Bobby Knight’s methods – his book has some good advice about making things happen for ourselves. He suggests strongly that we need to understand that it’s not about just waiting for prayer or positive thinking to come fix our problems. Not that prayer or positive thinking aren’t important to many people (especially when getting through hard times), but Knight advises that achieving your dreams is about planning, determination, believing in yourself, learning from mistakes, and lots of hard, focused work (hopefully in tandem with others) toward whatever goals we set.

And, as wonderful as winning is, he reminds us it’s also about learning from defeat.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says. “I watched the guy that hits a home run, and he comes across the plate, and he points skyward, like thanking the Almighty for the help to hit the home run. And as he does that, I say to myself, ‘God screwed the pitcher.’ And I don’t know how else you look at it. I’ve always felt that the Almighty has a lot of things to do other than help my basketball team.”

And even if the Almighty helps you to a victory, Knight says, it can be harder to learn from victory than from defeat. “I think that we don’t want defeat, we don’t want defeat in sport, we don’t want defeat in life,” he says, but we need to examine what defeats us. “Let’s address those things that are going to bring about a loss, rather than simply those things that are going to bring about a victory.”

And these are indeed things sports can teach us and our kids. Accompanied, hopefully, by some adult behavior that doesn’t confuse things like “winning at all cost” and abusive treatment of teammates / players, with the greater lessons and delights sports can bring us.

What Sports Gives Us Besides the Obvious

We all know there are lessons to be learned from sports. Challenging ourselves. Setting our sites on things greater than those even we believe we can accomplish. Seeing how to handle winning – and losing. Learning to get along with people who are different from us. Knowing the difference between competitive fervor in the moment and lasting hatred. And of course the sheer joy of being in the zone when you are actually in the game, and it’s just you and the moment.

But there is also a sense of community. A truly wonderful thing that transcends political party or class or even gender preference. Both as a player and a fan. As a player, you of course have the community of team. But you also have the larger community – all the fans out there rooting for you, joining with you, for that brief moment in time, as you shoot for a basket or swing at a ball or run the field or kick a winning goal. Those moments, and their accompanying emotions of joy and fear and anticipation and elation or, yes, momentary devastation, are at the heart of what it is to be human.

And, although I admit I am not a rabid fan of any particular sport at this time, when I do sit at home and watch (whether it’s a single sport – Go Mets! – or perhaps some Olympics event), I am joined with strangers all over the country and perhaps the world, strangers I may have little in common with, but who join me in watching and hoping and cheering on a person or team. And, just for those precious minutes, we are all lost in time together. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain, but, once experienced, one you never forget.

And when I used to hang out and watch local teams play good old-fashioned softball, I also got to meet a new community. Folks I would never have met otherwise. Folks I got a chance to know at a different level, simply because of the love of the same game. And with whom, despite the multitudinous differences at times, I actually got to find common ground above and beyond the game that brought us together. And that was priceless.

The Church of Baseball

And then of course there’s the movie Bull Durham, and Annie Savoy’s (Susan Sarandon) wonderful church of baseball speech (please excuse the visual quality):

I think that about says it all. Unless you want to check out the Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) “I believe…” speech on your own. Now THAT really says it all.

What do you think?