The Prism of Deification: How our Sports Culture is Changing in the 21st Century

When I am troubled, my mind restless with indecisiveness or the weight of living in this world, I visit the closest Catholic Church. This is the place I had to go once or twice a week as a youngster and ran from on the eve of adulthood. I long abandoned the blind faith the religion requires. I could not follow its archaic, patriarchal edicts or its need for relentless structure. I have shunned catechism, lent and mass. Yet, I still find comfort meditating, praying and even writing in an empty nave staring up at the sanctuary with its ornate altar, cross, lectern and tabernacle. This is the most peaceful place on earth, well besides the bliss of looking out over a body of water. In this place I am embraced in a warm and loving light shone through stain glass windows. Looking into that light I see possibility, I feel hopeful. I have faith in things unseen. I see happiness through the light!

The peace and sense of hope I find in an empty church isn’t religious; it can feel supernatural or metaphysical. For many, this experience is foreign and unwanted. They find their peace in other places, sacred or secular. While megachurchers convene in stadium like places of worship, others congregate at the sport altar. The sport stadium is as popular as our churches, mosques or synagogues. The seventh day is no longer reserved for fellowship and communion. Whether it is Saturday or Sunday, the Sabbath has long been co-opted by sports: football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis…  Once a faithful religious culture, we are now varying types of fans dedicated to deities (players) we emulate beyond the confines of the field. Will our government enact a separation of sports and state?

There are athletes, there are sport stars and then there are sport gods. This is the difference between: Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt, Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, Floyd Mayweather and Muhammed Ali, Kobe Bryant and Micheal Jordan, Katie Ledecke and Micheal Phelps, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.  This level of admiration is rare. This deification is reserved for those who transcend their sport. These athletes are known world-wide and often introduce new fans to their sport. How many children joined gymnastics after witnessing Biles this year? How many kids joined a track team after witnessing Bolt? How many kids devoted themselves to swimming after Phelps’ historic Olympics?

These special athletes exhibit the skills, beauty, and power we admire. Their light are brighter. They appear to us in Technicolor. Their games move us. We are awed by their auras. We crave the simplest interaction with them: glance, nod, autograph, hug. Sport deification is the ultimate athletic ring, the epitome of transcendence.

We deify them. They give us peace. This transaction quells, if only for the time the player is in the ring, on the field or court, our troublesome biases and prejudices; we are free; we believe in endless possibilities, for we often see the impossible from them. For many deification neglects the athlete’s morality and character. S/he is allowed to live in the space of the id. Doing first and thinking sometimes never about the consequences of their actions. We ignore the sex, drugs and criminality rampant in our sports culture. We ignore facts and we support them. This is illogical. We imagine our sport deities with the character of Muhammad Ali. No athlete more embodies sport deification than Ali. Bestowed with unconditional adoration, his death gave the public permission to further elevate him. This is will not be true of OJ Simpson, Darren Sharper, Aaron Hernandez, Ray Rice…

The barrage of news detailing the failings of our super stars are ignored even when it includes troubling video footage. The images of our greatest athletes are imprinted, tattooed on our collective consciousness. Jordan flying toward the hoop, tongue-wagging to dunk or defend. Ali dancing in the ring with the lightness of a butterfly, and the sting of a bee. Serena perfectly tossing the ball to deliver a precisely placed ace. How many of us have practiced our shots, punches, serves to the roar of imaginary fans?

Sports are an intense and enduring experience, first hand or through the vivid retelling and analysis of gifted writers  and directors. Love and Basketball (2000) is one of my favorite movies. It succeeds as a love and a sport story.  Written and directed by a woman, it lives in deified air. It is told from Monica’s prespective and avoids deification. It is the story of an athlete’s sacrifice to not only play the game she loves but to live a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately this is not the norm for gifted athletes, amateur or professional. In a Kardashain obsessed world, too often celebrity and notoriety supersedes the game or the pursuit of excellence. We, players and fans, have been trained for the highlight reel not the details of the game.

In my favorite scene, Monica Wright (Sanaa Latham) steals the ball and sinks a three pointer and is admonished by her coach for admiring the shot instead of setting-up the next play. As punishment, the coach sentences her to hold her pose for the remainder of practice. This is but one of the lessons the hot-tempered player must learn. She is a hard worker who gives everything for the game. She gave-up her boyfriend Quincy (Omar Epps) and even America, to play professional basketball in Spain after college. Though her sport journey was arduous, she prevails in many ways as the film’s epilogue details. Monica was not prescient. She had no knowledge of what the end of her journey would entail. From her earliest on-court moments, she played hard for every opportunity. Unlike her childhood friend and eventual husband, Quincy, she was not the heir of basketball royalty. She was not reared for superstardom. She was not a recognized prodigy. She was no Lebron James. She did not lead her city in a parade. She was simply an athlete who loved the game.

In a culture where super stars are heralded regardless of their integrity and character, it is no surprise that GOAT (greatest of all time), Branding and Q Scores have become more important than the game. We deify our sports stars’ stats and performances. They are no longer heroes or role models. Our need for superhuman performances has morphed our relationship to the game and the players we place our ever-growing need for escapism upon. And in turn these poor souls are suspended in a performance triangle (health, game or notoriety). Our sport stars are in a loop continuously trying to fulfill our never satiated appetites. We now expect a scripted performance of patriotism and if they veer from it, they are Kaepernicked, derided or denigrated for expressing ones constitutional rights.

Our parents’ sport deification married heroism/patriotism with sports for sanctioned escapism. Today the escapism is more aspirational. The young and old alike crave the lives of the athletes they cherish. They want to wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, espouse the same ideas, drive the same cars, drink the same spirits. In short, though they deify these sport stars, they are more hypnotized by the life these men and women’s lives than they are by the talent and hard work they expend. It is no wonder doping in sports is at an all time high! We have placed our athletes on a never-ending hamster wheel. These fan created deities’ require selfless spouses, friends and business partners. The physical, mental and emotional energy they expend to fulfill their roles as deities can’t leave much in their tanks for anything else.

Personal sport deification is bothersome not because I am ultra religious; it isn’t sacrilegious for me. It does skew values, expectations and continues shifting the role model responsibility to those outside the home. Athletes are often the least qualified and naturally suited for this role. They often lack a complete education, indeed their life experiences make them outliers. They often live the majority of their lives as prodigies without the discipline and structure most learn in childhood. This is like asking a zoo animal to nurture an animal reared in a safari much less in the wild. Athletes are cared for, indeed they are catered to by loved ones and sycophants alike.

The word fan originates from the Modern Latin fanaticus, ‘inspired by god’ and comes from the word fanum, meaning ‘temple’. Fanatic has come to mean a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially religious or political. However like much of our political zeal, our sports appreciation has reached extreme levels. Though we don’t have to marry our sports with patriotism nor heroism, it would be nice if it resembled a realistic and healthy culture. We have to remove our Technicolor glasses. Our love for sports and the athletes who play them has to return to game. When the relationship between fan and sport or fan and athlete moves from casual to obsessive and crazy it is time to reassess ourselves and alter the dynamic.

Known as the sport or athlete pope, Saint Pope John Paul II said of sports, “They are a training ground of virtue.” Sport deification is insidious. It destroys the sports virtues we learn as children: discipline, perseverance, responsibility and teamwork. Where has sportsmanship and citizenship gone?  Today’s athletes don’t routinely demonstrate sports virtues on or off the field. They are not encouraged to do so in a win at all cost culture. So we heartily applaud the social activism and responsible sportsmanship of the few: Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul… and we belittle those who prefer the muzzle to the bullhorn.

Sport Stars are routinely elevated above folly and even the law. This has become our culture’s hubris. Our athletes need more than criticism and debate. Deifying athletes has become routine and part of sports writing canon and narrative. David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” also printed as “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” deftly deifies and humanizes the most elegant tennis player of this century. However, Wallace’s writing like many sports commentators and fans alike dismiss or neglect to expound on the cost of this deification; this is oddly most explored in post retirement or criminal indictment pieces.

The costs of sport deification are many for the players, fans and culture. Allen Iverson was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The young among us may not know this, but this brilliant player was demonized in the press for his appearance and his deeds and ultimately his career was cut short. While fans deified this small phenom, commentators, writers and NBA Commissioners riled against his braided hair, tattoos and comportment. We will never know if his deification propelled his reported alcoholism, but it is fair to surmise that it did not help him learn to live a healthy nor balanced life. This is not to say we cannot separate the man/woman from their sport exploits, but at what point does cognitive dissonance become harmful to sports and society. What has sport deification cost Jordan, Kobe, Woods, Agassi… Will it be any different for Bolt, Lebron, Serena…?

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