Ultimately, the best part about sports has nothing to do with championships, awards, win-loss records, or outstanding statistical performances. Those things are all ego-based.
The best part about sports is the strong relationships that are formed - often for life. And those relationships are soul-based.
Let's take baseball, for instance. Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post recently wrote an excellent feature article on the power of baseball to connect people.
"So many of our parents taught us to love baseball, to believe in baseball," wrote Hochman.
But today, more than ever, families split apart, with the children living far from home. As such, the text message, the instant message on Gmail and even the handwritten letter, these are what keep our bond stitched, like a Rawlings.
For example, Hochman wrote about how a soldier's love of baseball, expressed in handwritten letters to and from his parents, helped the young man endure a military stint in Afghanistan.
Hochman went on to write about the baseball bond between a daughter and her father that's lasted for decades, even when miles apart. And a mother and son's love of everything related to the San Francisco Giants, no matter where their life journeys take them.
But he ends with a touching and powerful portrait of his relationship with his own dad, and the important role baseball has played in maintaining and enhancing that relationship.
"This is our 15th summer in different cities, Dad and me," wrote Hochman. "But over the years, we've texted about baseball on flip phones and iPhones, and we've instant messaged on America Online and Gmail.
Baseball just does something to Dad and me. It's our thing. We're baseball guys. We're romantics. We allow this game to overtake us. We give it unlimited access to our hearts and souls, acknowledging that there are indeed going to be some downs -- but if we make it through those, it'll just make the ups seem that much higher.
When sport is driven by the soul instead of the ego, it can be good, very good.
Besides forging lifelong bonds between family members and friends, there are many other reasons -- egoless reasons -- why we're drawn to sports. Consider just a few:
• It's Fun! -- For sports fanatics, nothing can provide as many enjoyable experiences over one's lifetime as sports. Whether it's playing pick-up basketball on the playground with neighborhood friends when you're 12 or going to NCAA tournament games with a few buddies when you're a geezer, fun is what first draws you to sports and probably the main thing that keeps you hooked. As former Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe once said, "There's nothing like sports. You don't get out of [sports] unless you have to."
• True Character is Revealed -- In sports, you can't be a phony. You are what you are. An athlete or coach's true character, good or bad, will often show through in the heat of battle. Most of us have run into the person that exudes class on the street, and even in the locker room, but on the field or court turns into a total jerk, cheat or poor sport.
This John Wooden quote captures it: "Sports don't build character -- they reveal it."
• Clear-Cut Winners and Losers -- Determining winners and losers in day-to-day life is often a murky proposition filled with office politics and other constructions of the ego. However, in sports, the scoreboard will tell you who won and lost within about three hours. There's clarity and finality.
• Teamwork and Camaraderie -- One of the joys of team sports is working and sacrificing together to achieve a common goal. The thing most former jocks miss from their playing days is the camaraderie, not the competition.
• Unpredictable Entertainment -- The history of sports is filled with improbable upsets. Upsets are the fuel that drives March Madness. Go to a play or concert and you pretty much know what to expect. Go to a sporting event and anything can happen. The playwright/screenwriter, Neil Simon, said it best: "Sports is the only entertainment where, no matter how many times you go back, you never know the ending." In my mind, it's the only reality TV worth watching.
• A Great Test -- Sports give us a chance to test ourselves against others. What distinguishes simple recreation or physical activity from sports is "agon," a Greek word meaning contest or struggle.
• Spiritual Experiences -- Many athletes will talk about times when they were "in the zone," or "flow" and felt a sense of ecstasy, supreme confidence, and oneness with the universe. Maybe sports atheists and agnostics will never understand, but to me, sport - in its purest form - is a spiritual experience.
• Closer Communities -- Nothing builds solidarity in a community like sports. Go to almost any local sports bar or sporting event and you'll see fans of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds high-fiving and hugging each other after big plays. (Just don't look for this diversity on the club or suite levels of your local pro sports franchise!) Even total strangers who discover they have a common interest in sports share an instant connection that brings them closer together, if only for a short time.
• Sports are Closer to a True Meritocracy Than Other Aspects of Life -- On the fields of athletic endeavor, the desire to win almost always supersedes the penchant to discriminate. When Don Haskins and his five African-American starters at UTEP (Texas Western at the time) beat Adolph Rupp and his five white starters at Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA national championship basketball game things changed quickly at Kentucky and throughout the South. Coaches decided they'd rather win than discriminate and began recruiting African-American athletes.
Former New York Knicks general manager, Eddie Donovan, once said, "A lot of people want to go to heaven, but not too many people want to die to go there."
But there is an alternate route to heaven. When sport is in its purest state, when the human spirit is flourishing and the human ego has been banished to the sidelines, sport is truly a slice of heaven on earth.