Pope Francis has issued a Super Bowl message to the U.S. and the world:
— Greg Burke (@GregBurkeRome) February 5, 2017
In less than a minute, the Pope gets at the heart of something far too many educated people often miss: the deep and transcendent meaning of popular sports. (What else but grace could lead an Argentine living in Italy to acknowledge that there’s more than one form of football?)
Writing on a political and sociological, rather than religious, level in TAI this time last year, Prof. Michael Mandelbaum also plumbed the significance of America’s favorite competition:
Football differs from the country’s other major team sports in that it has violence at its heart. The game’s basic activities are blocking (trying forcibly to move an opposing player or impeding his progress) and tackling (knocking to the ground the player in possession of the ball). Football’s violence is organized, indeed choreographed, rather than random or purely individual. It therefore resembles a very old form of organized violence: war. Football is a small-scale, restrained, relatively (but not entirely) safe version of warfare.
[…Football] preserves some of the features of war before the advent of sensors and lasers. It is, as war was in the past (and sometimes still is), a test of will and skill. The traditional martial virtues, which societies admired and individuals sought to emulate—persistence, discipline, grace under pressure and, above all, courage—still matter in football.
Mandelbaum’s emphasis and celebration of the sublimated violence in football might seem at first to be in tension with the Pope’s message. But on reflection, they are perfectly complementary: what else but the sublimated violence of sports enables its lessons of sacrifice, fidelity, and transcending our own interests for the good of others? Likewise, we build the more peaceful world of which the Pope spoke not by pretending we do not have violent aspects to our natures, but by finding productive and friendly ways to channel them.
As both Mandelbaum and Pope Francis recognize, you don’t have to study philosophy to recognize these truths; you can access them much more instinctively (and pleasurably) by strapping on cleats or cheering on a favorite team. This is, unfortunately, something lost on all too many in elite circles, particularly in Washington, D.C. Anyone who has spent two minutes in policy circles has met the kind of person who flaunts their ignorance of and disdain for football, or “sportball” in general, as a badge of honor. Bragging about your disdain for something in which the great majority of your fellow men find deep meaning in is a sign of spiritual impoverishment.
Pope Francis and Prof. Mandelbaum are but two of a legion of intellectuals, stretching back to time immemorial, who have gotten the vital symbolic and emotional needs sports play in society. If you need to be convinced academically, you can get this from Aristotle, or Dante, or C.S. Lewis. But it might be more fun to turn on the TV, grab a beer, and get into the spirit of the day.