What I Learned From Being a Jock”  by Mark W. Harris

 September 23, 2018 –  First Parish of Watertown

 Opening Words – from Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last String Quarterback by George Plimpton,

“The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself–the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against her palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over her opponent–all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.” 

Reading – from “Jock-Strap Theology” by David Rankin

 Sermon

 My wife Andrea sometimes says to me “I don’t think you were ever a jock.” These words are usually uttered after we have crossed the street in the wake of a changing light with the specter of oncoming cars bearing down on us.  While she will hustle across, I am usually a little more reticent about breaking into a trot, let alone a fast walk. So when she says “I don’t think you were ever a jock,” it is because, as she says, “I have never seen you run.”  While it is true that I don’t run much these days, it is also true that I was once a full-fledged jock.  My credentials for this are that I lettered in four sports in high school – Football, baseball, basketball and track, and also lettered in football in college, as a freshman no less. A relative of mine once sent me a cartoon which included a take- off on the old series of articles which used to appear in the Reader’s Digest Magazine, a staple in my house growing up. The articles were called “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.”  The variation in the cartoon was, “The Most Unforgettable Unitarian Tight End I Ever Met”, and then they corrected “met,” by saying, “I mean bet.” I would venture to guess that I am probably the only Unitarian tight end that anyone ever met or bet. I say that because tight end was indeed my position, at least in high school, and the idea of the peace loving, liberal, intellectual Unitarians playing football seems ludicrous.

It does seem like sports are rarely discussed in Unitarian Universalist circles.  This is why it was amazing to see the children’s pages in the current issue of the UU World focusing on sports. I say this because I have rarely, if ever, seen anything about sport, where you use your body, and not your mind, among the stereotypically heady UUs. Sports are traditionally seen as competitive, aggressive, focused entirely on winning, and even violent and abusive. Now the picture of sports that is depicted in the UU World is that sports can be a place where runners help each other, try to do our best, and play fair. While Unitarian Universalism seems to promote the culture of New Games, where nobody wins or gets hurt, it is not the kind of sporting world I grew up in.

You may wonder why sporting culture seems to have been a problem for UU’s. Just like there are stereotypes about UUs, there are also stereotypes about jocks.  Think back to the infamous video where President Trump was talking about how he treats women, where he said because of his fame, he could just grab them by . . . you know the word. Later when he was called on this, he said it was just locker room talk.  Well, that is not the way we talked in my locker rooms most of the time, but I also think most men have known times when women are objectified and demeaned. Of course, there are parallels to the current Supreme Court hearings. Christine Blasey Ford says that when they were teenagers a drunk Brett Kavanaugh attacked her, groped her, tried to rape her, and then tried to silence her by covering her mouth with his hand.  We can see some of the cultural acceptance of male jock culture that comes with the details of this story.  We think that teenage boys, especially athletes drink too much, and that they are inherently sexually violent, and they act this out on girls.  This is part of what it is to be a man -violent and angry. Boys will be boys, and girls just need to accept that. We have seen some of this in the stories of various hockey teams, armed services behavior or college incidents, where drunk players or men think it is their prerogative to force sex upon women.  I think these stereotypes of violence and anger are some of the reasons UUs have avoided sports or what they see as jock culture. Some say engaging in sport is a diversion from important things in life. But, moreover, men are stereotyped as jocks who demean others. This is why it is important for men to stand up, and say that the stereotype is not true for all men. While some men act that way, many of us are trying not to let rape culture continue.

A couple of years ago, I gave a sermon on why I was no longer going to watch professional football.  It had to do with violence, and especially the injuries caused by repeated hits on the head, and the very premise of the game which seems to be to hurt others.  I quit football my senior year in college precisely because I was tired of being sore all the time, and I also wanted to succeed academically so that I might get into graduate school. I grew up in a family where sports was everything, but let me chronicle first what I learned from sport which was not so positive. George Orwell once said, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” Some people once saw sport, and in my case, especially football, as ways to build strong, tough, courageous people, a sort of survival of the fittest mentality.  It got us ready to face the hardships of life. In high school I endured an arm that was bruised so badly I couldn’t move it, and in college, broken ribs. My brother had major surgery on a shattered ankle.  I think some of the idea about injuries was that they would toughen us up, whether you can endure pain from a broken bone or a sore shoulder, or merely the double practice sessions before the season. This is probably what I remember the best. The seemingly endless calisthenics of up and down, the heat exhaustion, the booming, male shouting, and then running short sprints again and again, back when I could still run, and then the insane idea of running laps backwards after our coach had read a book by the famous coach Vince Lombardi. All of this seemed to inflict pain upon us, and it was indeed capped off at night with the worst leg cramps I have ever endured, where I would awaken from sleep screaming in pain.

Sports also bring humiliation and shame.  People often speak of the humiliation of never being chosen to be on a team, but there is also the humiliation of failure – an error, a missed basket, a serve that goes wide.  My worst moment came in high school.  On Mondays we always watched the films from the previous Saturday game. This was always a time of great anticipation of either praise if we won, or condemnation if we lost.  One Monday, my coach stopped the film, and said to me, “Harris, at the beginning of the season, I said you would be the best end in western Mass. Well, you’re the worst.”  I have to tell you on that day, I was wishing I was the most forgettable Unitarian tight end my coach ever met. The destruction of self-confidence by an overly zealous coach, or by a person’s own striving for success can have a significant emotional toll. It hurts to never be good enough in someone’s eyes, especially your own.

The journey in sport from pain and even humiliation to self-respect and even triumph can be a short one. I recall an incident from one college game against a team that invariably beat us.  Most of the starting defensive team played on the kickoff team as well, and that included me. This one day, at the opening play, the kick sailed into the air, and we began to sprint down the field in pursuit of the runner with the ball.  Yes, I was running. Just as he ran up the opposite side of the field, and was soon tackled, I slowed down to a mere jog, in anticipation of the play being over. Then out of nowhere I felt a searing jolt as a helmet hit me square in the chest, and I flew over backwards with the wind knocked out of me, hitting the ground and being momentarily unable to move. It was a dirty hit at the end of the play. Slowly I recovered my senses. Then, the face of one of our offensive tackles, a huge man named Peter appeared in my face screaming at me to get up and get off the field because they did not want to take a timeout. I remember how mean he looked, when all I wanted to do was breathe again. Then as I struggled to move, I remember the hands of my roommate, who had seen what happened and rushed off the bench to help me stand up, and get off the field. A few weeks ago, I reminded him of this incident, but he had forgotten.  It is always interesting to me to recall the events that are still vivid in our memories.  A coach can humiliate, a fellow player can reproach you, but someone who cares can pick you up and care for you, because he remembers your health is more important than the game. I learned that the world can be a cruel place, but life is redeemed when others pick you up.

My friend helping me to my feet and making sure I was alright reflected team work, and not what my other teammate did. While some sports are more individualistic, a significant part of the experience in the sports I played as a young man was teamwork. I learned the importance of this as a young man when my father used to recall the experiences of being part of a barnstorming’ semi-professional baseball team after World War II. He had pitched against Yankee great Vic Raschi once, and he had also encountered teams from the Negro league. It was the era when someone named Jackie Robinson became the first major league player who was black. Once when he was enduring the hate filled harangues of the crowd, his teammate Pee Wee Reese, a southerner, walked across the diamond and put his arm around Jackie indicating that they stood together as teammates, and no one was going to denigrate the other. Some might argue that the change in baseball’s color line began the cultural changes of challenging white supremacy in America.  Some would prefer that sports be non-political. Beginning with Colin Kaepernick a few years ago, football players kneeled for the national anthem. Some said they were being anti-patriotic, or that politics should stay out of sports. Michael Bennett, the professional football player who wrote Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, said, “By not standing, I wanted to honor the founding principles of this country—the freedom of self-expression, liberty, and the equal opportunity to pursue happiness—and challenge us to try to reach those goals.” 
Bennett, Kaepernick and others kneeled to protest systemic inequalities and racism.  The preponderance of white owners and black players makes football seem like some kind of slavocracy, and the demand they shut up and play is an attempt to take away their voice.Bennett said, “they never understood or tried to understand us. They projected their morals and thought processes onto young Black men without figuring out who we were.” And so, when they tried to protest they felt the price of trying to challenge the powers that be. “Hate comes at you,” Bennett says, “when you make any stand. It’s the price of trying to be heard.”

I was overweight as a child, but life began to change for me when I discovered sports. My childhood friend Bobby once said you couldn’t do anything, until your brother taught you how to run. See I was fast once!  Avenues of personal success have often come through sport.  My father, who was an academic failure found solace in sports, especially baseball and soccer.  He used to say golf and tennis were for the rich, and now in intervening years those sports have become democratized.  The barriers in tennis to the poor and Blacks fell partly under the influence of Arthur Ashe, just as Robinson had done in baseball, and Bill Jean King had done for women. Playing tennis better than white men proved that cries of black or female inferiority were made out of fear and prejudice. The example of those we see succeed or when we hear their stories of who they have become, and in turn who we could become is our inspiration. I suspect this is what influenced the Greeks and their love for sport, giving us the Olympics. To see men and women strive to jump, and throw and run, give us enduring examples of what the human body is capable of. So, baseball for me is about family togetherness, and backyard games, but it is also about seeing the skill of Mookie Betts hit a hanging slider out of the park, or the grace of Jackie Bradley make a throw to get someone out at third. I love to watch the human body excel at remarkable feats.  Have you ever watched the power of Serena Williams hitting a tennis ball?

Power, grace, skill are all attributes of the human body that are witnessed most fully in the conduct of sport.  Part of celebrating sport is to celebrate the body.  I am not sure why sport is not mentioned more frequently in the context of religion.  Perhaps it is because it often is in direct competition with religion. It absorbs our hearts and mind with loyalty and devotion.  It raises our passions with the rise and fall of the team we adore in a game and a season.  I think one of the intriguing things about baseball to me has always been that it seemed like a sport that could be done by normal people. Sometimes the pitchers are overweight and seem out of shape, and yet they can fool the best of hitters with a curveball.  The normal player makes it seem like you or I could be part of the game, even as I once was. Sport is ultimately about being human and failing over and over again. In baseball you are a great success when you hit once in three times.  That means the other two times, you make an out. You fail.  Sport does get us used to the idea of failing.  I played on a football team that lost 23 consecutive games. We go down to defeat, but then we come back because we enjoy the power of friendship, of being with a group that works together. We come back again because we want to try again. We want to see if we can learn a skill. Can we become better? 

Engaging in sports taught me about human skill and about teamwork, but it also teaches the power of endurance.  Here I mean finishing the race in two ways. Football was about those million calisthenics and about running the same plays over and over again.  Baseball, as I learned as a coach, too, is hitting a ground ball again and again. Skilling building is what makes sports seem boring because it is the same thing over and over, but it is also the joy of deep engagement and finally of doing something the right way.  Practice does not make perfect.  We are never perfect. That is part of the game.  Mistakes are inevitable. Accept your faults with gratitude. Practice makes better.  And so, we keep at it. You hit a baseball what seems like a million times, and then you hit one just right.  There is something perfect sounding about the ball that careens towards the outfield, and the way it feels when it hits the bat. Waiting for the pitch is like being silent in the church before the service begins.  As George Plimpton suggest in the opening words, time stops in these moments of holding the bat aloft awaiting the pitch, or contemplating the silence before the starters gun while the legs tense for the big race, emptying yourself before the prayer. The snow is silent before the skier, and the net beckons as you prepare to throw the ball.  There is eternal stillness in the moment we begin. There is discipline in sport – doing it over and over, getting ready, feeling the tension in your body as it is about to forget all time and explode.  Emma Chase in her bookGetting Schooledsays “The greatest skill the best athletes in the world possess is their ability to listen.”  Are you ready for the beginning of the race? You have listened to how to perform at your best.  You have learned the techniques.  You have practiced your skills. The starters gun goes off.  For me it was my first 440-yard dash.  I sprinted around the track.  I could run once. I was in the lead. I felt the wind on my face, the power in my legs, the open track before me, but then I didn’t know where the finish line was.  I stopped short and my teammate, rushed by me, and beat me. I finished second.  I congratulated him. He felt good about winning, and I felt good about running.  We were teammates, too.  Humans win and lose, but when we test our skills and feel our body work, we are running with the sun, with the earth at our feet, and the clouds above.

Closing Words – from ― A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games

 Sports represent a shared vision of how we continue, as individual, team, or community, to experience a happiness or absence of care so intense, so rare, and so fleeting that we associate their experience with experience otherwise described as religious or we say the sports experience must be the tattered remnant of an experience which was once described, when first felt, as religious.