Monday, 3 February 2014

Recovering my religion? why sports provides meaning

Readers may remember I ended the last season on a somewhat despondent note.
 I had started this  blog as a way to chart my fandom of rugby over the 2013 season. What would it mean, I wondered, to think seriously about rugby and how it operates for fans over a season that began in  a southern hemisphere summer in  February and ended, for me,  sitting in a hotel lobby in Baltimore as a winter storm front gathered and the temperature plummeted below zero, attempting to follow the All Blacks' game against Ireland on my smart phone.  There was no coverage of this game in America and no Irish bar in Baltimore was showing rugby.

I was there for a conference of scholars of religion from America and around the globe. I was struck, as I always am in America, by how sports is so much more part of the fabric of society than it is in New Zealand. American Football especially, but also baseball were often topics of conversation. Serious, high-powered scholars saw no discrepancy between an avid interest in sports, visceral partisanship in support of a team and the ability to undertake high level intellectual work. Similarly, colleagues from further afield would talk soccer- and  the Australians and English would talk cricket - in ways that made New Zealand and New Zealanders seem one dimensional.

Today is Superbowl Sunday and that means finding a parking spot at university on this Monday morning was easier than usual. For all the Americans stay away from work and watch the game in a combination of exilic identity, sacred ritual and patriotism. Superbowl Sunday is a sacred day, a sacred ritual and  has become perhaps the prime example of civil religion.  In a similar fashion the recent Ashes series acted as civil religion drama for Australia whereby  the nation reaffirmed its sense of postcolonial identity and independence.  Central to this was the redemption of Mitchell Johnson  who demonstrated that what makes sports meaningful is the possibility of the unexpected and the improbable, the overcoming of fallibility by the most fallible. Sports at its best is where we can observe  the full range of what limited, fallible beings can do and not do. Triumph and failure, character and limitation, the constant dramas of expression that are offered to all of humanity are here expressed in a contests as much within and against oneself as against an opposition.

Similarly I find myself obsessively watching  grand slam tennis and the Tour de France. The doping scandals in the tour does not, on reflection diminish the central drama of human fallibility and character- rather it is central to it. For central to the tour is the test of character that raises the questions of what is possible, what is the limit of possibility and how does such decision get made?

This is what  we like about sports- those central contests that mimic in drama, within set space and time, that is in ritual,  the contest to exist that sits central to our life and our societies.

If central to everything is, ultimately, finitude- the knowledge of and opposition to our end and the desire to provide meaning of self and of self to others in the face of this, then sports is, in the end,the contest of self and the drama of a society against finitude.

 The 2013 season was one in which I was forced to seriously think about rugby, seriously, in a way I never had to before. Did I want this sport to dominate my life, to dominate my existence in this way?
 Could I actually become a tribal being?  What would doing so do to me- and to those who share my life?  What I discovered is that for all the apparent centrality of rugby to New Zealand, most of the time it occurs as a peripheral activity and drama for most- especially Super Rugby. The problem is Super Rugby, its format and length of season, its lack of drama and increasingly,  lack of meaning.
For  there are now two types of fans- fans of the game and fans of teams and fans of the game are increasingly alienated by the way the game is being being organised and marketed. For we all know, deep down, that Super Rugby is a failed competition that struggles to hold our interest across a year.

 So for 2014 I will be continuing this blog- and searching still to answer those questions  of meaning that rugby in New Zealand throws up for debate. There was a time  last year when I came close to becoming a rugby atheist and often was a rugby agnostic- both positions I never thought I would come to.  But,  having come though that dark night of the soul, I find myself looking forward, critically, expectantly, to this coming season, aware that perhaps that central drama of doubt is what makes rugby meaningful in the end.

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