From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Blame Games

Newsflash: Scapegoats No Longer in Season

January 11, 2019

I witnessed the Double-Doink Heard 'Round the Sports World last Sunday. With seconds left in an NFL playoff game, a Chicago Bears' field goal attempt hit the goalpost upright, ricocheted, hit the crossbar, bounced backwards, and thus was ruled "no good." The Bears lost 16-15.

The aftermath as reported:

Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey elevated himself to public enemy No. 1 after he missed the potential game-winning field goal against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Boos rained down in Soldier Field, and angry fans have sent hate his way on every form of social media.

As much as fans like to have a scapegoat for a big loss such as this, the facts are sometimes more complicated.

Parkey's kick had been tipped by an opposing player, slightly, but enough to change the trajectory of the ball. The NFL officially ruled the kick a blocked field goal. He didn't miss it. It was tipped. 

But a scapegoat is a scapegoat, despite the tip and the fact that the Bears managed only one touchdown and failed to score 2 points on the conversion attempt. Parkey was 3 for 3 before this kick; he outscored the rest of his team, 9 to 6. Gotta blame someone.

If football or another sport is your religion, you may need scapegoats. Usually it's a player, like Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, but it can also be a fan, like Steve Bartman in the 2003 National League Championship Series. (The Cubs lost that game, not Bartman!)

Scapegoating is a very ancient feature of human society, a theme in the writings of the late Rene Girard (Touchstone interview). But scapegoating has also encountered a counter-force in Christ:

What most offended [Girard's] secular audience was that he saw in the culmination of the biblical witness, the passion of Christ, a permanent exposé of "the things hidden from the foundation of the world"—that both the order and disorder of human life are founded on the clashes of mimetic desire relieved by the lie of the scapegoat mechanism.

. . . By laying down his life to expose and overthrow this kingdom built on violence and untruth, Christ also introduced the world to another kingdom, one "not of this world," whose fundamental principles are repentance for sins instead of the catharsis of scapegoating and love of God and neighbor rather than the warfare of mimetic desire.

Perhaps this new force in the world has even crept into NFL locker rooms:

There's no better evidence of the culture that coach Matt Nagy has created with the Bears than what transpired after Cody Parkey missed...the field goal...

Parkey's "teammates provided unwavering support":

"That's our guy," said defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. "I'm going to ride with my guy. If you have that 'C' on your helmet, I'm going to ride with you to the end. I don't care what happens on the field. We are together, that's it."

Kyle Long, said, "At the end of the day, it's a team thing. We lost as a team. We win as a team. We lose as a team. We could have done better in a lot of areas."

The devoutly Catholic McCaskey family owns the Bears. (Pat McCaskey spoke at our 2018 conference.) If you want to know what makes Cody Parkey tick, his appearance today on the Today Show makes it clear. "Football is what I do; it's not who I am." He's a Christian. He may remain a scapegoat to many, but he has risen above it. He has "girded up his loins."

Despite the darkness in our society today, the counter-force of Christ's Passion is still in play, able to calm storms of blame, even hatred, when allowed free rein. Bill Buckner's and Steve Bartman's stories ended well, the bright and healing power of forgiveness breaking through. 

Sports is a sideshow to game of Life for many, even athletes. Sports is what they do, not who they are. Lawyers, doctors, writers, too: Christians first?

And blame is a game that is played without a winner. Sometimes failures or trials incite us to find someone or something else to blame rather than faults that we could overcome. Sometimes we'd like to blame what's wrong with our church or congregation on a "certain individuals." Are there other factors? Are we one of them? Or are we satisfied by identifying a scapegoat?

Every day, in actions large and small, we will routinely hit that Cross-bar. Which side we land on may be more under our control than we realize or admit. Gird up your loins.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.