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From the October, 2003 issue of Touchstone


What Sports Illustrate by Anthony Esolen

What Sports Illustrate

Anthony Esolen on the Obvious Truth About Young Men & Religion

A few years ago, when I was traveling with my family through Italy, we stopped in the Calabrian town where my grandfather was born. There something happened—a trivial incident—that I return to whenever I wish to appreciate anew the wisdom of the Creator, who in his exuberant comedy created us male and female.

We were in my cousin Francesco's shop when his young son came racing home from school. He stayed only long enough to let his father know he was off to the church, and before his father could reply, the door had swung shut. "The church?" I asked Francesco. "It's Wednesday afternoon. Why is he going to the church?"

"Oh, these priests are shrewd," he said. "They bring the altar boys in for practice, and then they let them use the game room they have in back. There's a pool table and everything."

Not Good-For-Nothings

This I had to see, so I made my way to the small piazza tucked away behind the church: On one side stands the church itself, with two doors leading I don't know where; on the street side there's a building or two, blocking most of the piazza from sight; and on the third side there's a wall with standpipes, sheltering a nearly vertical embankment of about twenty feet. As soon as I rounded the buildings and entered the piazza, I saw five or six boys, between eight and eleven years old, lighting a smoke bomb at the foot of the church.

"Che fai, monelli?" I shouted at them, and they approached me. "Noi non siamo monelli," they protested—"We aren't good-for-nothings!"

With that amicable greeting, we proceeded to establish that I was that American come to town to visit, and, conversation naturally turning to sports, they asked me to show them what baseball was like. A soccer ball and a broomstick had to serve. So I pitched a few, using the church wall as the backstop, and they hit a few, until, inevitably, the ball went over the standpipes and down the embankment.

That should have ended it, but one of the boys ran up and said, "I'll go," and go he did, scrambling over and down the wall like a construction worker. In the meantime, several teenagers had noticed that something was going on and had entered the piazza, proceeding to wrest the "bat" from the smaller boys and to chase them and cuff them. When they learned I was the American, they came over to talk.

I'm not sure how it happened—probably it was spurred by my answering that I was a professor at someplace called the "Collegio di Provvedenza"—but all at once one of the teenagers piped up, motioning towards his friend. "Pietro qui non crede in Dio!"

And why did Peter not believe in God?

"Io credo nella scienza," said Peter proudly. "Il big bang!"

That began ten minutes of argument about what science does and does not do, and can and cannot prove, with the other boys pitching in sometimes and generally enjoying the sport. So it went on until one of them committed, audibly, what you would call a minor social indiscretion.

"Hai scoreggiato," I remarked. And the boys burst into laughter—how did the American know that word?—and proceeded to cuff the offender, the conversation having reached its comic punctuation.

Never in America

What I noticed right away about this incident is that it couldn't have happened in America, nowadays. None of the details fit. The American boys are not being called for altar service; they are not playing outside; if they are getting into trouble, it is more serious than the mischief of a smoke bomb; no one addresses a stranger; the embankment has a chain link fence, not so much to prevent accidents as to protect people from being sued for them; the boys are too bored to learn a strange game; the teenagers are suspicious of grown men; the older boys and younger boys avoid each other; no conversation gets off the ground, much less a conversation about the existence of God.

At first, I attributed the incident to Italy, and it does have an Italian dash to it. But such things could once have happened in America, and probably used to, back when children did not have their days devoured by television and its secret ally the totalitarian school, when they could go outside because somebody was home to deal with a skinned knee or the rare broken bone. But it cannot happen in America now. I might get questioned by the police.

Yet there's another thing about this story that demands attention. It's so obvious that we miss it. All the characters are male. They are all boys, even the boyish professor. Keep the scene and make every character female. It doesn't happen. The mischief, the sport (physical and intellectual), the pugnacious teasing, the intellectual pride, the submission to One Who Knows, the behavior ranging from reverent to gross—it doesn't happen.

That is not how girls are, nor how women are, nor even how female college professors are. I've asked many women I know to confirm it, and they agree. Indeed, my daughter enjoys re-hearing the story, not to remind her of Italy, but to delight vicariously in the antics of a sex so different from her own.

What of it? Traditional wisdom, as opposed to the quackery of gnosticism, is built upon the obvious. The Lord did not intend for us to rely on geniuses to figure out how to get along with each other. The obvious is a miracle overlooked. Chesterton was said to have been a master at seeing the obvious, and that was no insult: Only second-rate minds descend into the arcane. But in the case of the special gifts boys bring and the special challenges they present, we are talking about obvious facts not just overlooked but energetically denied. That is worse than foolish. It is cruel to the boys and an affront to the Creator.

What are the obvious insights—not an oxymoron, for there are things that everybody not self-blinded ought to know—to be gleaned from what happened to me in that Calabrian town? There are many, I think, but one, the most obvious, is the most feared and denied: Boys will place their intellectual trust in men, not in women. I do not mean that women cannot teach boys. I mean that ultimately the boy will and must look to a man for the formation of his intellectual character.

That is related to the more general truth that a boy needs a father, because someday a boy has to become a man. Boys are proud to fight over the ultimate questions on a wholly intellectual level (so they believe), free of emotion. They sense that a man will allow them to do that, while a woman will not. In this cool estimation they are not entirely wrong. And so boys are drawn to a combination of competition, instruction, and male leadership. How can we have forgotten, when every culture's educational system used to testify to it?

Deeply Religious Men

Indeed, how can we have forgotten it, when we Americans ourselves still possess an institution, impossible to miss, that even now testifies to it? This institution, unlike many churches (alas), stirs the passions and the intellectual interests of millions of people, most of them men and boys, but many of them women who, like my daughter hearing the story of the piazza, find in it a curious appeal. It requires from its initiates an intellectual discipline that would crush the typical indolent professor. It requires memorization and improvisation, and the former had better be exact and the latter had better be ingenious.

It punishes failure, sometimes cruelly. It demands a recognition of and obedience to authority; yet it understands that hierarchy, too, must submit to the common good. Its physical demands are unimaginable to those who have not experienced them; according to those who have known both, it makes boot camp look like a beauty pageant. Men who participate are under constant physical stress and are usually in pain. The enterprise is dangerous. Though the institution has its glamor, most of the participants are relatively unknown, and most of them will also, quite willingly, participate by adopting roles that ensure their anonymity among all but the knowledgeable few. The institution requires giving oneself up, day after day.

Its participants are all men. Its leaders are not only men, but men of a type now scorned: masculine, law-setting, thinking and feeling generals whom other men are ready to obey and for whom they will fight. Given the sheer physical might of the men, it is inevitable that some should turn to violence—as some men in any walk of life will, likewise. What is remarkable is that so few of them do. And more remarkable are the enduring friendships this institution builds among those men.

Most remarkable of all, though, is the spirituality that grows up among them. Not for all, mind you; but if you take a hundred of these men and compare them with a hundred men and women from any other profession in America, you will see the difference. There is something preparative, in obeying one's leader, to obeying Christ. There is something faintly similar, in enduring pain cheerfully, to imitating Christ. There is something distantly akin, in allowing oneself to be hurt repeatedly to protect one's brother without garnering more than a hint of glory, to being Christ, to taking up one's cross and following him.

That is why this institution, football, produces the most deeply religious men in all of sports. Possessed of more asceticism in a single week than the entire post-Vatican II Catholic Church practices in a year, possessed of a healthier respect for authority in a trivial matter than have our laity and clergy in the matter of our eternal destiny, football is not just a sport for men. It is a haven.

We men can at least pretend it means something, and admire the courage, the endurance, the self-sacrifice, and the obedience of men whose shoulders are broader and whose legs are faster than ours, even as we hope that our hearts are no less brave. We can, I say, pretend that it means something. Too often, boys cannot pretend that what they "learn" in school means anything, and, alas too often, neither men nor boys can pretend that the saccharine social welfare pronouncements from the pulpit, exhorting us to follow the great god Smiley, mean anything either.

If it is said that women are more spiritual than men because more of them are to be found in churchly places, I'm not buying. I'll take the sacramentality of football over the spirituality of uplifting chatter any day. A true man, and there are many still, struggling to be both true and man, would sooner have his right arm wither than change his loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet he leaves the Church. Why? Sin, of course; but in fact the Pittsburgh Steelers present themselves as more worthy of his loyalty than does a Church that demands nothing. Of course, he is wrong. But they are more wrong who have made it so easy for him to go wrong.

The Insights

And what are the insights to be gleaned from this strange but obvious spirituality of football? This for one: Priests must be men. I do not say males. I grow weary of the brittle arguments that rest two thousand years of our tradition, which is to say two thousand years of common sense, upon the arcana of sexual symbolism. The only way the sexual symbolism can work, for us embodied human beings, is if it reminds us of sexual reality anyway. If a priest is a male but not much of a man, I had rather he were a woman; at least I'd know where I stood.

Once everything is posed in terms of what women can or cannot do, or how a new law might or might not affect women, we have given up the game and the feminists have won. Instead, the question should be posed in these terms: What sort of leadership do we look for from men, particularly from fathers or from those who serve a fatherly role? What is it about some men that can inspire obedience, even when obedience requires sacrifice and suffering? What do we look for in a minister to the King?

I am no priest—but I am a father. Lest anyone think that being a priest has nothing to do with fatherhood, I ask, for the sake of those boys, and that means ultimately for the sake of the families they will father, that she, or he, think of my story. Can you be not only a teacher, but a teacher who rebukes, loves, lays down the law, and naturally draws the most recalcitrant to you? For you are sent to the pagan and the prodigal, to the enemy and the atheist.

Will the young men listen to a word you are saying when you are telling them they are wrong? Will they obey when you require from them sacrifice that their friends would consider absurd? No one can do that, you retort? Football coaches do that for a living. Can you be, not den mother to emotional dependents, not archsongster of a liturgical club, but a master, a colonel, a vice-gerent, a father who can eschew the moment of truce because he sees, for the hosts he loves and leads, a distant glory?

Can you give men the courage to suffer and obey and restore their lives to order, as did the stern, soft-spoken, Christian coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry? Can you be the head, as Christ is the Head of the Church? Is that the aspiration you believe the Lord has placed in your heart?

Let us then forget about whether women can be priests, an innovation that Scripture wisely forbids. Let us instead try hard to see what men and women are, and what a priest is supposed to be. If we could see a few obvious things there, the minor question of women's ordination would fade away—and a lot of major problems would fade with it. ‣

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“What Sports Illustrate” first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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