Saturday, June 21, 2008

On Tiger Woods, the “Pele Speech” and Divine Encounters - What is Right and Wrong with America

I have been meaning to sit down and right about the 2008 U.S. Open since the playoff ended on Monday, but as happens to so many of us, work and the real world keep us from having the time for our hobbies and from reflecting on the mediating experiences of our life.  But, I cannot fail to comment on what I think of last weekend’s events.

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Now, let’s be clear up front.  I am no golf fan.  When I was younger I was an ESPN addict like so many early 20 something males, but then after surgeries left me with more pain and less energy, I began to turn towards studying what is usually considered more important or at least deeper things – history, philosophy and of course theology.  I played golf in my teens and early 20s. Heck, I even played 18 holes the day of my wedding (night wedding), just so I did not have time to get nervous (it worked, and I got to play with my brothers and dad, and had the best game of my life to boot).  Of course, I played everything, from basketball to hockey (football not so much except flag in the park with friends – hey I am only 5’6” 120lbs after all).  Sports is a great conduit to experience friendship, competition, and the challenges of life and disappointment (both as a participate and a fan), but once one gets married, has children, goes to graduate school, leads a team in business, well, sports takes a back seat both because of the scarcity of time and the fact you have now found other venues for life.

As a theologian and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, I have often wondered about what attention sports should get in our lives.  Isn’t it just wasted time, chaff that leaves no meaningful and permanent mark on the world?  There is certainly an element of that.  When the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in January 1998, I cried, I leapt for joy, I shouted, I watched the parade, I bought the video and then….well, I realized that when the next season started they would no longer be champions (okay, it ended up they did win it again, but you know what I mean).  Championships comes and go.  So yes, there is the sense that these things are, if not chaff, at least non-tangible (intentional chosen phrase there).

In my earlier days I would have and did consider that as a reason to leave sports behind and set my attention to things more permanent.  But, I was wrong.  The great 20th century French thinker, Jaques Ellul in his book, The Presence of the Kingdom warns us about the dangers of trusting in and turning only to those things which are “efficient.” When our lives become mere calculated responses to a set of inputs, we are less than human (my interpretation of Ellul).  Or as one of my own generation, Jedediah Purdy put it in his book For Common Things, the economic value (what we can get out of something) is not the only value.  Our lives as God has created them is a mix of tangibles and intangibles.  Friends, family, children are of course both.  The work we create, because of course work is not an outcome of the Fall from grace but one of the gifts of God that help us understand who we are and what we are capable of if we seek the good instead of the easy.  But there are the intangibles – those sets of experiences and joys that help us see how large life can be, how great God is, and how important we all are to each other.

Which brings me back to Tiger on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  I don’t follow golf, but if Tiger is playing in a tourney, I follow that tourney.  I knew he was coming back from major surgery, and having had the same surgery when I was involved in semi-competitive running, I knew that tourque and drive would be very difficult for him this past weekend.  I figured that he had no chance on winning, but still followed because…well, he is Tiger, and I figured he could do it if anyone could. 

Those two long puts on Saturday – unbelievable.  Had to watch the replays Sunday morning while getting ready for church because there was a part of me that figured I had dreamed it.  Then the 12 footer on Sunday to tie and go to the playoff.  It was not the hardest putt of the weekend but his response to making to Monday, the way he pumped his whole body and with it the crowd…wow!  I ran through the house to find my wife so she could see it.  The Monday.  It was not great golf, but it was great drama.  And in the end, again against the odds, he did it. I had to work Monday, but found time to be home to watch the final two hours.  How could I not.  In the past my wife and I have taken off work to go see the first of the day showings of movies we were excited about – The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, Narnia, etc.  So, great drama always sucks us in. And great drama it was.  Here is what one reader of Jay Nordlinger’s Impromotus column at Nationalreview.com wrote to tell him about Monday:

Dear Jay,

While passing through LAX Monday afternoon I saw something I don’t remember ever
seeing in an airport before: a throng of people gathered around a TV set in the corridor
connecting the terminal to the baggage-claim area so large it was blocking the flow of
foot traffic through the corridor. And there was something else: They weren’t just
casually watching the TV, they were in rapt attention. Not eating, chatting, looking at their
watches, but completely absorbed in what they were watching. You could have heard a pin
drop. I saw the same phenomenon at another TV set farther down the corridor, and also at
a third. My first thought was that there had been some natural disaster somewhere or,
worse, an assassination. With some effort I worked my way closer to the TV and saw what
they were watching: Tiger Woods in his Open playoff.

In that moment I saw the folly of much of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing about the Obama
campaign. About America’s institutional racism, and about how we’re too bigoted to elect a
black man president. I saw scores, maybe hundreds of people — most of them white, most
of them male — mesmerized by the sight of their idol, a black man. And Tiger’s not their idol
because he’s a great golfer (Barry Bonds never got this kind of adulation) but because he’s a
great golfer who’s also a decent, family-oriented, hard-working, good-humored human being.

Jay’s correspondent is right on so many things – how that moment brought us together, how it transcended race, how it made everyone feel stronger as a country in ways no politician can I believe.  It was a spiritual moment.  And one things about Tiger’s race.  He of course is only have African-America and the other half Thai.  He calls himself an American.  That is great by me.  It does not mean that we cheer for him because he is half-black or in-spite of his being half-black.  Its all part of the package, and we cheer for the man Tiger Woods.

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At the time of his victory we only knew about the first surgery.  We knew he was in pain, and we knew he was struggling.  That alone made the whole thing powerful.  On Tuesday we learned that in addition to his surgery he had a torn ACL (which he has been playing with for almost a year, a year in which he only failed to win 3 of the tournaments he played in, and two of the others he was second!) and two stress fractures.  Even with the pain killers he took on Monday to play, how he got through any of the weekend is beyond my comprehension, and I have passed over 60+ kidney stones, had eight surgeries and defended my doctoral thesis while in a sling from my most recent shoulder operation.  With all of that, I have no idea how he did it.
And then after he won, the scenes with his wife and most importantly baby Sam.  Look, I am a sucker for dad’s being dad’s, and the way he held his little girl, the way he handed her back to mom and tried to leave and then we she did the arms extended thing (which I and other daddies surely know), stopped going to get his trophy and went back, held her some more until he got the binky in, and then calmly stepped up to Jay’s correspondent is right on so many things – how that moment brought us together, how it transcended race, how it made everyone feel stronger as a country in ways no politician can I believe.  It was a spiritual moment.  And one things about Tiger’s race.  He of course is only have African-America and the other half Thai.  He calls himself an American.  That is great by me.  It does not mean that we cheer for him because he is half-black or in-spite of his being half-black.  Its all part of the package, and we cheer for the man Tiger Woods.
At the time of his victory we only knew about the first surgery.  We knew he was in pain, and we knew he was struggling.  That alone made the whole thing powerful.  On Tuesday we learned that in addition to his surgery he had a torn ACL (which he has been playing with for almost a year, a year in which he only failed to win 3 of the tournaments he played in, and two of the others he was second!) and two stress fractures.  Even with the pain killers he took on Monday to play, how he got through any of the weekend is beyond my comprehension, and I have passed over 60+ kidney stones, had eight surgeries and defended my doctoral thesis while in a sling from my most recent shoulder operation.  With all of that, I have no idea how he did it.
And then after he won, the scenes with his wife and most importantly baby Sam.  Look, I am a sucker for dad’s being dad’s, and the way he held his little girl, the way he handed her back to mom and tried to leave and then we she did the arms extended thing (which I and other daddies surely know), stopped going to get his trophy and went back, held her some more until he got the binky in, and then calmly stepped up to congragudulate Rocco Mediate and talk about the weekend – utter class, utter patience, utter endurance.

Before why I say why this is so good, both for people of faith in general and for America, let me explain what is bad about this.  What is bad are those who were saying on Monday, “He was faking it.” And those who after it was revealed that he would miss the rest of the season that he was selfish to play in the Open because now he would not appear in the other tourneys this year.  What?  Look folks, Tiger has just given the performance of a lifetime.  He has given us a gift that goes far beyond anything a season of Tiger could.  These people are thinking strictly in dollar terms – tourneys will not get the attention or sponsors that they would have otherwise because no Tiger.  Again, when we think only about efficiency or the dollar after experiencing this kind of event, what does this say about us?  Well, let’s just say that we are a better people than that.  As for faking it, come on folks, life is not Hollywood, there is real pain, real suffering, and sometimes a few of us are able to overcome such things and in so doing life us all up.  Sickening!

This is why sports is so powerful in our culture, as a form of living art that can unite our country and unite our humanity.  It is also a sign of our “going beyond ourselves” that I believe God’s good works in us are meant to do.  Over the years I have never heard it better expressed than the what is now known as the Pele Speech from the movie Vision Quest, about a wrestler seeking to overthrow the unbeaten and unbeatable state champ in his weight class. Now, I was a wrestler in my school days, so I was particularly drawn to this scene.  In this scene the wrestler, who works part-time at a hotel, stops in to see his workmate:

Louden:  “I was at the hotel, they told me you took the night off, what are you sick or something?”

Elmo:  “Course I took the night off, dummy, isn’t this the night you wrestle shute?”

Louden:  “You took the night off for that?”

Elmo:  “Yah.  Shaved, gotta hair cut and everything.”

Louden:  “You never took a night off to see me wrestle before.  They’ll doc you for that.”

Elmo:  “Hey kid, money ain’t everything.”

Louden:  “You know it’s not that big a deal, Elmo, it’s six lousy minutes on the mat, if that.”

Elmo:  “Ever hear of Pele?”

Louden:  “Yah, he was a, uh, soccer player.”

Elmo:  “A Very famous soccer player.  I was in a room here one day, watching a Mexican channel on TV.  I don’t know, nothin about Pele.  I’m watchin what this guy can do with a ball and his feet.  Next thing I know, he jumps up in the air, flips into a summersault, kicks the ball in, upside down and backwards!  The gosh darn goalie never what the heck hit him.  Pele gets excited and rips off his jersey, starts running around the stadium waving it over his head.  Everybody’s screaming in Spanish.  I’m here sittin all alone in my room.  I start crying.  Yah, that’s right, I started crying.  Because another human being, a species of which I happen to belong to, can kick a ball… lift himself…and the rest of us sad human beings up to a better place to be, if for only a minute.  Let me tell ya kid, it was pretty gosh darn glorious.  It ain’t the six minutes.  It’s what happens in that six minutes.”

It is what happens on the stage of life – be it the workplace, the athletic field, the battlefield, or the family dinner table - that makes us experience a bigger sense of self, of humanity, and of our divine calling to glorify God and help us see just a hint of those things greater than ourselves.

Posted by Christopher on 06/21 at 11:00 PM
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Quote "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way." Karl Barth.

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