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Fred Niedner: Sports often another version of David and Goliath

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: February 13, 2013 6:06AM



“Sometimes Goliath stomps all over David,” mused a Notre Dame fan quoted in one of Tuesday’s anguished attempts to explain Alabama’s dominance in the BCS championship. The plot line this analogy conjures up works well around here. When a local underdog challenges a distant, hulking brute who has left many a vanquished carcass in his wake, the world joins in pulling for the “little guy.” When the David character prevails, we deem the universe properly tuned. When the chosen one loses, we witness martyrdom.

The preferred version of this ageless type scene did not play out this time. The 1,300 miles between South Bend and Miami proved too great for Touchdown Jesus, who all through this charmed season made the last first and the first last, sometimes miraculously. But not on Monday.

I don’t read the Tuscaloosa papers, but most likely the folks there didn’t employ the David and Goliath metaphor when explaining their win any more than they embraced those “Catholics vs. Cousins” T-shirts that appeared during the build-up to the game. Most likely, Tide fans see their team as heroic standard-bearers for an honorable, even superior way of life, not as heartless bullies.

Deep inside the souls of serious sports fans, none of this is ultimately about merely winning or losing a game. It’s about righteousness and immortality, about life and death, about who deserves honor and perpetual memory and who will slide into the extinction of forgotten losers. In many hearts and minds, it really is about David and Goliath, and about who can claim divine blessing, at least for now.

What else could account for the pilgrimages fans make by the thousands, abandoning ordinary routines and spending money like water in order to join a throng wearing the same colors, sharing the same creeds and fight songs? Why else do we put ourselves so repeatedly through the anguish of possible heartbreak, assuming somehow that the exploits of youngsters, some still in their teens, have cosmic significance?

It only makes sense if we recognize this as one of the ways at least some of us discern meaning and significance in our lives, find a way to believe our loyalties matter, trust that we are part of a way of life that transcends the mundane existence in which our vanquished opponents vainly toil. Like those who dreamed up the Tower of Babel, we seek to make a name for ourselves that even heaven can’t forget.

Admittedly, eternal memory lasts about two weeks nowadays, thanks to the insatiable appetites for continual spectacles the two dozen or so cable sports channels must arouse in us so as to pay their salaries and justify their existence. Nevertheless, true fans can’t help themselves. Some of us couldn’t stop caring no matter how hard we tried.

In some cases, even death apparently brings no relief from such striving of the heart. Among my people, tradition once held that ministers were buried in their clerical vestments. A few years ago, at his own request, a pastor friend who lived into his 90s was laid to rest in full clerical regalia, but also holding a faded, old Chicago Cubs cap, its bill tucked between his thumb and forefinger. Here was a man of complex faith and hope, a priest who practiced the rites of two religions.

Is all this apostasy and idolatry? Or given the inevitability of eventual defeat, a salutary education in humility? Probably some of each.

All I know for certain is that both David and Goliath had a mother, and win or lose, each kept for herself what most needs remembering.

Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.



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