Most Americans do not care if the Houston Astros are World Series champions and I get that. Six years ago I would not have cared, but then I met our Deacon who faithfully went to games when the Astros were sad sacks. The Provost at our neighbor, the illuminating College of Biblical Studies, has rooted for the Astros all his life without the big win. He has it now and it makes him happy. Why wouldn’t it?
Sports are a good community activity (in part), because they unite a town in a harmless amusement. We sometimes disagree on things of lasting importance, but there is no real importance in baseball qua baseball. For that reason, the sport can gain a secondary importance by uniting us in good fun. Once the game has done this task, the victory can be important.
Why? We are united in a genuine emotion of joy when the home team wins. “We” think “we” have done something. If this is a bit fictive, then it is still jolly good feelings in a city that much needed them.
Of course this is as far as it goes and as the Deacon and Provost would remind me, sports are not much and this is true. The importance they gain is very fragile. Owners who are greedy and hold up a community, abandon their fans, or run teams designed to lose while still making a profit for the Scrooge in the owner’s box, kill the good sports can do. Misconduct by players can bring the world of crime or contention into the game. When college sports become more than a game, when (as one CFO of a school said) they “take down* the academic programs” financially there is a problem. If the lasses and lads are rowing on the Thames in good comradeship and fair competition all is well. If pampered princes are put in palaces to play games, then sports has ceased to be a game and becomes serious. The moment the game becomes important, it loses importance, because it no longer unites us.
Sports Can Capture the Conscience of a City
There are exceptions and the role of the Queen of England helps us see those. The Sovereign is above politics and should (almost) never weigh in on an issue. She unifies the the nation by a figure head that is England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, in some rare cases, one thinks of the apartheid government in South Africa, a nudge from the Queen can change a policy that most in the nation find odious. Jackie Robinson exposed vile racism, state mandated apartheid in America, by breaking the color barrier in baseball. However, just as if the Queen overused her latent power, the monarchy might fall, so sports figures must be careful to expend this power carefully and in ways that will work with the fans of the city.Robinson had to endure what no man should endure, the real heroism of his play, to expose racism. He had to be “good” (one shudders!) to keep the focus on the fans’ racism and not change it to his “bad” behavior. Robinson was up to the task, the nation was ready, and baseball helped break the national color line.
Sports Can Keep us Calm and Carrying On
Leaving out those rare moments, baseball or other sports have the most importance when they have the least instrinsic importance. The more sports is “neutral,” the more it can unite. Tax payer sponsored sports palaces are controversial and diminish that aura. Owners and players do best (as sports figures) when they live lives where the game is the thing.
When the game is the thing, they can capture the heart of the city and having captured that heart unite us. In fair play and sportsmanship, the team can teach, if indirectly. When they fail, as one Astro’s player did during the Series, a quick and generous apology becomes a lesson for being sporting that might, might, just might creep into the lives of those of us who look up to the athletes for their prowess on the field.
The game as a game has the power in its unreality to become a mirror of reality. Much of Houston will party today. The rest, those who do not care about sports, at least have reason to smile as their neighbors wear funny clothes and rejoice. We are Houston strong and the boys of summer, the victors of Fall, have reminded America that Houston is the American city of the 21st century.
God bless them.