It’s here, people! The Sports Issue has arrived to the printers and will be hitting mail trucks next week! If you’re not a subscriber yet, you do that here. Or feel free to buy single copies for your entire church volleyball league, here
Until then, sports fans, step up to the on-deck circle with Ethan’s Opener and the Table of Contents:

More Met Than Yankee

COVID-19 didn’t cross many Americans’ minds as a threat until the sports world stopped. Somehow, the outrageous tallies on the news and the warnings from public health officials did not communicate the severity of the situation as effectively as ESPN did—when every Bracketology special, every live NBA game, was taken off the air and replaced with reruns. Sports was the first celebrity to die, and after its death, we started to listen.

Maybe you’re someone who finds sports to be about as crass as fast food, and maybe you’re right, but you’re in the minority. Almost 75 percent of Americans call themselves NFL fans. More people watch SportsCenter than the nightly news. The 24/7 reach of sports as a cultural force—its provision of normalcy and fun and dreams to every kind of home in America—is undeniable.

And right now, our love of sports is clearer than ever. We miss sports, but what exactly is it we miss?

We miss the levity, for one. Sports are, before anything else, games—the ultimate non-essential. They’re fun. Fun to play, fun to watch, enjoyable even when you don’t have a horse in the race. Sports provide a welcome release valve from the spheres of urgency, gravity, and moral responsibility that require the rest of our waking hours. The squeak of sneakers on the court, the momentum of a late-game march across the field, the snap around the horn between infielders after a strikeout; it is all so superfluous—and so important. It is no surprise that professional leagues are moving mountains and wasting millions to make it happen. Without sports, we lose a piece of our joy.

And that joy is communal, which is another thing: we miss the people. Sports can unify in a way that little else can. They can bring distant neighborhoods and far-flung families onto the same field. I was living in New Orleans ten years ago when the Saints won the Super Bowl; I saw firsthand what a team’s victory can impute to a community, especially a community that has suffered. Cars stopped in the middle of the road, strangers kissed, schools closed. The town seemed resurrected, if only for a moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, when the team you love hardly ever wins, the imputation runs the other direction—love to the loveless shown. How else would you paint the dereliction that is being a Cleveland Browns fan?

More than this camaraderie, though, I think what we miss most is the comforting logic of sports. During Coronatide, our global adversary has been menacing and nebulous; it has been impossible to discern its rules, and unimaginable to predict its end. Sports, on the other hand, offers us tidy boundaries: five players, four quarters, an in-bounds line, and an opponent. We have missed facing an adversary like this. One who understands the rules.

The logic of sports depends on an opponent, someone you beat or who beats you. This adversarial essence of sports gets skimmed over with all the talk about character-building and sportsmanship. But all sports, even rec pickleball, have the same holy objective: to win. You can have fun, you can be friends with your opponents, but ultimately, you are there to defeat them. No sport plays by a different rule.

Within their painted white lines, sports frame our bigger, realer adversaries, and our drive to conquer them. They are microcosms of our own breakthrough victories and devastating failures. Sports give us life in caricature. As tennis legend Andre Agassi put it in his autobiography,

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.

Let’s face it. In sports, we find all the typical stories of strength we’ve heard and believed, with varying degrees of nuance, elsewhere: that life is about winning, that the strong shall win over the weak, that those who work harder win more, and most ominously, that our lives—our relationships, our identities, even the fates of our souls—can be summed up by a score.

But also, because just as many losing teams take the field as winning teams, we occasionally see those storylines turned upside-down. The famous baseball writer Roger Angell remembers a particular game when the perennially down-and-out New York Mets made an unsuccessful late-inning surge against the Giants. Down 9-1 in the 7th inning, a Met fan pulled out a foghorn an initiated a stadium wide “Go!” chant. Angell calls it a “losing cheer.” As the clamor continued, the Mets actually tacked on a few runs—not enough to win, but something. The crowd went bananas in a way that the New York Yankees fan never could. This wasn’t a crowd embracing a performance; it was a crowd in a state of total abreaction:

There was a new recognition (in the stands) that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

Life inside and outside the lines, despite what ESPN shows, is always more Met than Yankee. Life is cruciform. With winners who implode, losers who clumsily wander into victory, and fans who beat the drum regardless. The sports world, like the rest of the world we live in, is full of adversaries, and at the same time, not without the hope of ultimate victory.

In this issue, a very untimely (but then again maybe perfectly timed) Sports Issue, we bring you hope amidst whatever adversary you’re facing. We bring you stories of the underdogs and the over-hyped, of long-distance runners and stationary Pelotonians. We chat with high school and college coaches about the pressure to perform, and with NFL athletes about the need to be reborn. We have interviews with world champion skateboard legend and pastor Christian Hosoi, and former Atlanta Falcons player and chaplain Jason Webster. And that’s not even the start!

So, whether you’re a baseball fan or not, to the New York Met in you, batter up.