On the seesaw of games and life

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, February 27, 2015, at 3:18 pm

It was disorienting when I heard the news last week about Chris Bosh, the star center for the Miami Heat, who is out for the rest of the season with blood clots in his lungs. A player missing time with an ailment isn’t uncommon. In fact, just this week we found out that Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls would miss the rest of the year with a torn meniscus in his knee (the man can’t catch a break), but that wasn’t disorienting to me. Why not? What’s the difference between the two situations?

I’m a proponent of watching sports in an impersonal way, separating what happens on the field or court from players’ off-field personas and lives. I recommend that others watch a game for the game’s sake and consider anything away from the game on its own merits. Such a mindset allows us to appreciate the magnificence of sports while thinking rightly about human lives and issues, but without confusing them.

If you’ve tried to do this, though, you know it’s a seesaw battle of the heart. On the one end we swing into obsessive fandom where a player or team’s performance shapes our emotions and moods. With this comes adulation or vitriol, depending on a game’s outcome. We hang on every action, every rumor, every comment in the media. On the other end we swing into aloofness, viewing the players as entertainment machines who exist to please us with their performances. We dehumanize the athletes and lose human connection to them because they mean nothing to us but a few hours pleasure.

A player’s knee injury is a shame, but not the kind of shame that makes one’s heart miss a beat. Invested fans will see their hopes for the season dashed while the rest of us bemoaned the loss of a great entertainer. We wonder how the injury will affect a team’s postseason prospects. But “blood clot” isn’t the kind of phrase you toss around in a conversation about a team’s playoff chances. It’s the kind of phrase you discuss with gravity as you wonder if a person will be all right and ask about the long-term prognosis. When we hear that a player’s life is at risk, our fandom seesaw suddenly balances in the air—no more swinging.

Sports aren’t a life or death matter, but people with real lives play them. On our seesaw of fandom we too often forget this and get too close to the one end and too far away from the other. Then a circumstance occurs that drags us to the middle of the seesaw where we can see more clearly the balance between games and life, between investment and entertainment. We would do well to remember this place. We will inevitably drift back toward our respective preferred ends, but that middle place is important because it’s where we gain the perspective and reality we need to care about those things (people, life) that matter more than games.

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

Read more from this writer