In some respects, the way I viewed the world changed forever in the summer of 1988. In early August of that year, Wayne Gretzky left the dynasty that the young Edmonton Oilers had become, fleeing south for big money in Los Angeles. This, to a nine-year-old boy, seemed absolutely unbelievable. It made no sense whatsoever and challenging the blind faith I had in sports. I had so many questions and was only really getting one answer: money. The Oilers’ ownership needed money, so they sold Wayne. Wayne wanted more money, so he sold out—at least that was how I saw it. My mother tried to explain that his wife was from L.A. and she wanted to live there. But, if there was any reason I’d find less acceptable and understandable than money, it was girls.
As I struggled to understand why money or girls (gross) would matter to anyone who got to play hockey for a living, my little fourth grade world was once again rocked by scandal. Upon arriving home from school, my mother told me that Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids and would lose his Olympic medal. Again, I was in disbelief. I had just finished gluing his picture into my Olympic scrapbook at school. I could still picture him running his victory lap: Canadian flag in one hand, the other outstretched displaying a number one. I was having a seriously difficult time trying to understand all of this. Why would anyone, especially these role model ‘front of the Wheaties box’ heroes, ever have anything to do with these things that were just so wrong? I mean, from a primary student’s perspective, greed, drugs and cheating are just about the worst things in the world.
Now, almost 16 years later, I’ve stopped wearing Toronto Blue Jay pajamas but still love sports. Granted, I’ve seen a baseball lockout that probably cost the poor Expos a pennant, and I’ve seen players sit out a season looking for an extra few million a year, or be convicted of disgraceful crimes. And now, with an NHL lockout looming, there may be one more reason to discount sports as another part of our culture lost to greed and ego-mania. However, at the end of the day, my faith in the sheer goodness of sport remains.
To most of us living in the western world, faith refers to a belief in something beyond the immediate and tangible. It means believing in something further than the obvious truth. Sport provides a near-perfect forum for the discussion of faith. It can be seen from both a conceptual and a practical standpoint. Before further examining the latter of these two, let’s look at how we gain our conceptual notions of sport.
Our faith in the purity of sports and games comes to us from an early age. We are taught to see sports and games in this sense because often it is the first structural framework within which our societal values are created and played out. Our first notions of fairness and justice are often realised in the virtual reality of sports and games. Games, whether athletic or otherwise, provide us with a world where the rules are fair and consistent across the board. We are led to believe that if we try hard, we have an opportunity to succeed. Combined, this gives us a very early concept that sports can offer an ideal world. A world of excitement, potential and perhaps most importantly, praise. In baseball, you get credit for a sacrifice fly. In real life, you’d never get acknowledged for such a thing. From early on, we gain a rather earnest appreciation for sports and games and, as we gradually grow up, that stays with us. This idealization, however, often leads us to great disappointment.
Take my case in point. For the first nine years of my life, I had come to conceive of sports as a kind of utopia, a place where hard work and talent were duly rewarded. A place where cheating was, by definition, against the rules, and where the rewards were internalized; meaning that you didn’t feel the need to be paid to do it (unlike making your bed or cleaning your room).
The problem with sports is that sometimes our concept of their purity conflicts with the reality that is presented to us in a practical sense. If sports are an ideal world then, logically, the athletes that play the games are the ambassadors of that world. Thus, we tend to hold these individuals to the same standards as we hold the sport itself. We see baseball with a very ‘crack of the bat, smell of the grass’ idealism and in turn cannot sympathize with Pete Rose as if he were the guy across the street who cheated on his taxes. In many ways, these athletes have come to personify the sports they play, and although many live up to the expectations, some fail. When they do fail, it hurts, because more than anything, we feel they took a great luxury for granted. Again, Pete Rose is a perfect example of an athlete who stole from the Garden of Eden. By betting on baseball, he will most likely be banished forever.
Like anything though, we can’t let a few bad athletes spoil the team. We need sports in our lives. We need a world of sacred fairness, a world of myth and a world of heroes. Humans have always needed these things and their existence can be traced throughout our history. The faith we hold in sports should remain seeded in the concept of sport itself. Athletes may disappoint us sometimes, but they are only human. I’ve come to forgive Wayne Gretzky for leaving Edmonton because he has always said that hockey has given him more than he could ever give hockey. The good athletes realize this. They understand that they are much smaller than the sport they play. They realize that they are the ambassadors of sports, not the embodiment of its concept; and that although some may play like gods, none can be one.