The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit.
by Michael Novak.
Basic Books. 357 pp. $10.95.
In his latest book, The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak—theologian, political commentator, spokesman for the new ethnicity—attempts an especially difficult task: to do nothing less than become the definitive advocate of sports and sports fans. His reasons for writing this book are in part personal—“To linger over a book on sports is, for a philosopher, almost too much pleasure; for a theologian, sinful. But delicious”—and in part ideological—“All around this land there is a faith without an explanation, a love without a rationale. This book is written to fill a void among the faithful.”
Novak maintains that “Sports is, somehow, a religion.” Like religion, sports is built on cult and ceremony; on ascesis; on a notion of fate. Sports embodies “the almost nameless dreads” which religions make explicit. For Novak, the symbols and arcana of sports are themselves explicable in religious terminology and religious imagery. Thus, “Seven seals lock the inner life of sports.” These seals are sacred space (stadia, for example); sacred time (“the time of the heroes in sports are tokens of eternal life”); the bond of brothers (“the contests of sports . . . are eucharists”); rooting; agon, or inspired struggle; competing (“some people, one-sidedly Protestant in temperament, approach sports as a means to an end”); and self-discovery (“when desire and event thus meet as one, there is a harmony in the self rarely sounded, a chord, a melody, for which one cannot always find the notes. The music when one finds them is ineffable”).
Novak concedes that sports is “not the highest form of religion . . . and Jews, Christians, and others will want to put sports in second place” (emphasis added), but “when human beings actually accomplish [victory in sports], it is for me as if the intentions of the Creator were suddenly limpid before our eyes: as though into the fiery heart of the Creator we had momentary insight.” Or again: “He who has not drunk deep of the virtues of football has missed one of the closest brushes with transcendence that humans are allowed.” Playing sports thus gives a glimpse of eternity, “a foretaste of the eschaton,” an opportunity to break the ordinary bonds of mortality. Non-believers, and those who absent themselves entirely from sports, seem to Novak a “danger to civilization.” In fact, he says he has never met a person who disliked sports who did not seem to him “deficient in humanity.”
Not surprisingly, in view of all this, the world of ordinary human life, of work and the commonplace, is devalued by Novak in comparison with the transcendent realm of sports. Because sports is “the real thing,” “play, not work, is the end of life.” Work is an opiate, a substitute, “the diversion necessary for play to survive.” Nor does Novak shrink from the inference that the attention and energy of mortals should be redirected: “To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to labor in the Kingdom of Means.” According to Novak, economic crises, nations, and elections come and go, but sports remains “the basic reality.” Besides sports, “work, politics, and history are the illusory, misleading, false world.” “Let the world burn, these realities endure.”
In addition to elaborating upon the thesis I have been quoting from, Novak provides the reader with “Sportsreels”—portraits and flashbacks of heroics in sports—and odds-and-ends observations tied more or less to his central theme, such as the cultural, ethnic, and regional contexts of different sports. But present on every page of this book is Novak the lover-celebrant of sports. The reader is constantly reminded that Novak himself is a “jock,” of the world of jocks, and that his involvement in his subject is total.
The Joy of Sports has descriptive passages that capture well the feeling of sports playing and sports watching, but the book lacks the measure, restraint, and control that typify the good playing and watching of sports. Novak is a commentator of enormous ability and insight, but from time to time he becomes excessive and self-indulgent. Novak himself offers a model for the kind of informed and sympathetic writing about sports that is appropriate to the subject by reprinting the sportscaster Vince Scully’s play-by-play COMMENTARY on Sandy Koufax’s fourth no-hitter and first perfect game in 1965. In the passage Novak quotes, Scully succeeds in combining an obvious enthusiasm for what he is observing, a cherishing of detail and texture, with control and restraint, the self-limitation that is the mark of mastery. Scully is involved in the game but does not misname or exaggerate it or lose sight of his own or the game’s mortal dimension. He is among the best of announcers because his accuracy, clarity, and precision serve to highlight the texture of the important small things that make up the game; he is concerned for measure.
In a recent issue of Harper’s, Novak wrote of the dangers that lurk in certain illusory promises of liberation, which he called “the great escape”:
There is a pervasive tendency in Western thought, possibly the most profound cultural undercurrent in 3,000 years . . . in which liberation is imagined as a breaking of the bonds of fitness. Salvation comes as liberty of spirit. “Don’t fence me in!”. . . One tries to live as angels once were believed to live—soaring, free, unencumbered.
The jading of everyday, the routines of weekdays and weekends, the endless round of humble constraints, are, in this view, the enemies of human liberty.
He goes on in the article, which is called “The Family Out of Favor,” to argue against this view and for the happiness to be found in the “endless round of humble constraints” that make up the everyday. To which one wishes to add: just so. We resist jading and fight the absurd by involvement in many things, including involvement in sports. But in sports, as in family life, we gratefully find not the cosmic but relief from the cosmic. In the presence of the commonplace—that which is good and enjoyable in its own limited terms and dimensions—the last thing we need is an infusion of Transcendence.