When sports become a matter of life and death

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, August 21, 2015, at 11:54 am

Sports can be a distraction from real life. They offer a reprieve from the pressures of the daily grind. For two or three hours we can enjoy the thrills and beauty of supremely gifted athletes competing at a level unlike any other. We ride the waves of adrenaline and nervously chew our nails to the nubs with suspense. We roar or moan with every success or failure. Then we exit the stadium or turn off the TV and reenter real life slightly out of breath but hopefully refreshed.

Sometimes this grand interruption to life is itself interrupted by real life, or rather by a threat to life. Instead of escape we are drawn into someone else’s story, a story that can be scary:

  • A few months ago, the inspiring, heartbreaking story of college basketball player Lauren Hill came to end when she lost her battle with a brain tumor.
  • Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves president and head coach was diagnosed recently with lymphoma.
  • John Farrell, manager of the Boston Red Sox, is starting chemotherapy soon.
  • Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry returned to the field this season after missing last year due to cancer treatment.
  • Leah Still, daughter of Cincinnati Bengal’s defensive lineman Devon Still, is in remission.

We all know people like this, those who share the same agonizing experience of cancer. My grandfather died of liver cancer when I was 9. My father had successful surgery for prostate cancer a few years ago. My wife had childhood leukemia, went through hellacious treatments, and was declared cured at age 18. My church lost its pastor several months ago to melanoma. My uncle is recovering from cancer surgery right now, and we’re praying they got it all. And I’m sure you have your stories about friends and loved ones, too.

When the diagnosis “cancer” is uttered, a cloud rolls in. It casts a pall and threatens life. Cancer confronts us with mortality. It is terrifying and interrupts everything. That’s why it’s so disorienting when it interrupts our favorite distraction.

We look to sports to escape and enjoy ourselves. We go there for fun. But how can we enjoy our favorite pastime when it too is under a cloud?

We could ignore the pain, pretend like it doesn’t exist, and just get on with the game. Or we could make the human connection and realize that sports exhibit realities of life that we might otherwise miss. Maybe instead of reverie we need a touch of reality, instead of ecstasy we need empathy. When I hear of athletes or coaches battling cancer, they transform from being uniformed characters into real people. I recall the terror and grief that comes from even being close that diagnosis.

If all sports does is to provide a means of escape, we’ve missed something. It reveals aspects of life and links us to others’ stories we might never have known or cared about. Instead of an escape from life, sports can serve as a catalyst for a more caring, meaningful one.

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.

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