The Danger of Sport As Metaphor

EveningThe dawn revealed a world held in deep fog, the snow cover having melted away in this week’s warmth. Bare ground and limbs remain.

I’ve succumbed to the mid-January doldrums, and have taken to sitting before the fire with a good book. Occasionally I journey up to the studio and muck about. I’m not much good at blocking out the events of the world, nor have I been, historically, accomplished at working with the themes of the time, so I muck.

Being mid-winter, it is also basketball season. I grew up in rural Illinois where the sport was the very center of life in the village. The mood of our small community rose and fell with the fate of our local teams. Our high school team was consistently OK, but our middle school team was feared by all those who played in our division; years in which we failed to win the state championship were considered failures. Simply losing a game was an acceptable reason for team members to stay home from school the next day.

Still, being a primarily farming community, there was an innate understanding that no matter how talented a team might be, or how hard they may have played, things don’t always work out. There was, underlying the bravado and noisy support, a deep kindness that provided a sort of social safety net to those of us engaged in the sport. (I was one of the team managers.) There was, at root, a community conviction that as important as basketball was, it was only sport.

While there was much talk of basketball, and important middle school games might be broadcast on the radio, the metaphors used in everyday life were agricultural metaphors. I remember my father teaching a Sunday evening church class using tomatoes from our garden as the central metaphor for his lesson; he was speaking to adults.

Agricultural metaphors allow for more than a little ambiguity, and a good deal of chaos. Things happen. I remember riding my bike home through the fields in back of our house one summer evening around supper time. A nasty looking storm was quickly gaining on me. Suddenly, I was riding through hail that was three inches in diameter. Fortunately, when hail is that large, it is usually well dispersed, so I was only struck a couple of times, and not in the head.

Later that evening we went to our church, only to discover the hail had broken many of the windows. We were intensely proud of our church as we had contributed innumerable hours to its construction. The we in this was both a person and a collective one, our family, and several others were intensely invested in the building and growth of that church. We stood and surveyed the damage, then took up brooms and dustpans and swept up the glass. Within a week the windows were replaced and life continued; our garden also recovered.

In agricultural communities randomness is taken for granted. A tornado destroy one farm and leaves the adjacent one intact. One field receives rain all summer while the next field over sees nary a drop. My farm wins this year and fails next; the object is to have enough good years to protect against the inevitable bad ones. There is an assumption that I will eventually need the aid and support of my friends and neighbors, and they mine. There is only stability when there is mutual support.

Living with the vagaries of Nature offers a perspective that may allude folks who grow up in the city. Given the randomness of summer storms, late frosts, and drought, one learns that personal initiative, while certainly important, is never enough; one needs a certain amount of Divine support, and a good deal of luck to bring in the harvest. Agricultural metaphors acknowledge the play of chance and fate, while sports metaphors have a tendency to settle into variations of winning and losing, and the ideology of winner take all.

Our collective culture has become one-dimensional; everyone is reduced to being a winner or a loser. The community in which I grew up is suffering; drive though the village and you notice that two-thirds of the shop windows are boarded up. The young people mostly leave town as soon as possible;  even the sports teams struggle. I gather that, like much of rural America, opiates are a scourge .

The politics of winning have left those small, human communities to struggle as best they can. They are seen simply the losers in the sport of life. No wonder folks who live there are angry.


17 thoughts on “The Danger of Sport As Metaphor

  1. I think, you are right about small villages almost die today. They don’t have much to offer young people, why these are leaving asap to get a chance in a bigger city. This is international now.
    If we wish to keep young people there, we need to offer them ways to education, job and living.
    Who wish to stay in a place with no future?

      1. I agree, Michael. I have lived in small towns in Denmark and saw, how shops died, because the locals stopped shopping there, it was more cheap to shop in big shops in the city. This is only one way to see this challenge, but locals do also need to support the small shops, otherwise they can’t survive.
        Another thing is to try to attract companies by not so expensive rents, which can help with the needed jobs in these areas.
        The public then also need to support with places for the younger people to be, so they get the feeling of belonging there too.

  2. Very nicely done, Michael. I have never been a good sports fan because I always rooted for the underdog – I wanted everyone to win. Thank you for sharing your experience of growing up in an agricultural community – how wonderful that you are able to discern and communicate the positive lessons it provides.

  3. This illustrates perfectly the spectrum of humility and hubris. When you understand your place in Nature, your inability to control it, your dependence on it, you live in a posture of humility. When you think of the world as a place of competition and control, your ego, your hubris, can become your dominant trait. It’s like that old adage about everything becoming a nail when your only tool is a hammer. Agricultural peoples and hunter/gatherers have many tools and a relationship with each one. Slave-owners/technical dependents have many more tools but often limit their relationships to “set it and forget it”.

  4. Your father teaching the Sunday school class using tomatoes is continuing the tradition-I believe that many of Jesus’ parables were tailored for a rural, agricultural people, as he journeyed amongst them outside of the big cities. That is, until Jerusalem, and then-you know.

  5. Beautifully put, and thought provoking as always Michael. What you say is so true, and the disconnect from the power of nature and our true size in the big picture of the world, seems sadly to grow each year as more people move to city living. It’s good to know our place in the world, among the random and uncontrollable force of nature.

  6. Masterfully done, Michael. You have eloquently illustrated compelling metaphors that highlight contrasting perspectives about life that underlay the types of societies humans create. Let us hope that more people learn to value the view of those who live close to the land and nature.

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