IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS. This is it. Chiefs-Eagles, UConn-Zags, Your Team against Theirs. It’s critical, and you care. Care in a way your spouse does not, will not, understand. Care with a fervor that makes them shake their head, leave the house, or both, when the game is on. Fine by you; absent judgement, you’ll supply what only you can for your team to do what it must – WIN! By any margin, by any means, at any cost. In the words of Supreme Allied Commander Vincent T. Lombardi, Winning’s not the important thing – it’s the only thing. And this thing is greater than war. It’s sports!

In the fining-furnace of your cave, inclined toward unseen altar, you begin your oblations. From sublime to ridiculous they run, with scant, if any, evidence of the former.

Many will be familiar with the antics of the Puddy character in Seinfeld. A diehard hockey fan, Elaine’s squeeze was wont to paint himself, head to naked trunk, the colors of his Jersey Devils, prompting the first exorcism ever attempted in traffic. 

This behavior may be related, but it’s not really what I have in mind. 

What I mean has more to do with Charles CW Cooke’s recent “breach” of the, What happens in the cave, stays in the cave, code during an episode of his eponymous National Review tpodcast. Real breach or not, it does admit a humorous, welcome, and, for me, liberating light. Per the show notes: On episode 5, Charles confesses to his preposterous sports-related superstitions…(and)…reads aloud some of his correspondents’ weirdest game-day habits.

There are some doozies too. Charles nobly leads by example, If my feet are on the couch when The Yankees hit a home run, I’ll keep them on the couch. The ante’s upped a bit with this, If I get Chipotle for lunch, and The Gators lose, I won’t get Chipotle again during the college season.

A stream of listener confessions follows that includes a fellow whose mother was putting laundry away in a closet when the 49ers began the comeback that culminated in THE Catch. 

Cued by this neon sign of causality, his father insisted she stay there till the deal was sealed. The weirdness bar is then raised by someone only able to watch his team play in the reflection of a window. Sometimes it seems the sports gods are members of The Friars’ Club.

Permutations abound. Kevin, proprietor of The Ellis Restaurant in Vancouver, attests to the ju-ju of staking a fixed position on the couch, as well as the proven sports-sorcery of precisely adjusting his cap at crucial moments – in other words, the entire game. Finally, we can only feel the pain of Matt, co-host of the Mitts and Twigs hockey podcast, and Detroit Lions devotee. Before the start of the year they wound up 0-16, Matt bought a special bottle of sparkling wine to pop after the team’s first victory. As the clock ran out on the winless season, he retrieved the bottle from the fridge, stepped onto the balcony, and purged the curse by pouring the potion over his head in a fizzy lavabo. 

We may wince at such reports, perhaps relieved to hear we’re not as out there as some, or abashed to learn we’re further out than most. 

Says Charles, I know intellectually there’s no mechanism by which one of those things can lead to the other, but….it’s all I’ve got. Sports are unusual, because you wind up caring about them enormously, but you also have absolutely no control over the outcome. And that doesn’t happen very much in life.

Charles is, of course, spot on in calling all this superstition, as is the listener who refers to each exercise as a ritual. And while the second is often wingman to the first, we understand, at least tacitly, that the two are extricable. I wonder though if we aren’t less clear about the details of this than we tend to acknowledge. What’s more, I’d suggest there’s something of surprising value to be found in the elements of the distinction.

Charles says that life isn’t usually like this, which in one sense is true. But, to what degree does a sport stand-in for the pitched battle of life itself, and a team, for ourselves in it? We do care, enormously, some might say, inordinately. Why?

Let’s say our team’s the local team. How many of its players are actually from said town? For that matter, how many of the fans are? How many of those players do we know personally, or are we likely ever to meet? Regardless, a win can lift us beyond all proportion, while a loss can feel like an existential gut punch, or worse. Indeed, with sports gambling now at sanctioned full-throttle, worse could look like Harvey Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant, shooting out his car radio, hearing he’s just lost everything, betting on The Mets.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as, a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation. (Release the com-box hounds!) Rituals are regularly in the employ of superstition, as in the examples we’ve chuckled at so far. But that’s not always the case. Not nearly.

There are myriad civic rituals, of course, as well as those at a remove from an increasing number of people, particularly those who still have their hair, original color no less. They are the rich and varied rituals of religious faith. 

Theologian Alexander Schmemann’s description of them is the most illuminating I know: A ritual is the incarnation of a vision. With this simple insight comes a rather remarkable instrument of self-assessment, one that equips us to ask precisely what vision our various rituals seek to make real. 

In the case of sports, should we get beneath the beer foam and pretzel logic, I think we can see that our rituals travel only so far before bending back toward us in trajectories of self-reference. Here, Schmemann’s lens helps sharpen the distinction between this, and rituals whose trajectory is self-transcendence. The traditions I’m most familiar with, Judaism and Christianity, offer paradigmatic examples.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to slap the buzz-cuffs on – least of all in the wake of March Madness, and start of Major League Baseball. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar – even the exploding kind. My own cave behavior, in fact, could easily be set to the Looney Tunes theme. Barring some truly compulsive dimension, the shenanigans of sports are generally harmless, and often hilarious. As sublimations of actual war, sports themselves render an enormous public service. It’s just that there are rituals, and then there are rituals. There’s a difference. It all comes down to this. 

Go, Giants!


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