Some people dismiss football as a violent and primitive sport. These same haters write off fans as illiterate, brutish Cro-Magnons. I beg to differ.
For one thing, I’ve been a football fan since I was a little girl. The first game I watched was Super Bowl II: John Madden’s Oakland Raiders battling the defending champs, the Green Bay Packers. I didn’t understand the subtleties of the game or recognize any of those future Hall of Famers, but I knew that when I watched that game, I got very excited. I loved the very words Bart Starr, and when he threw those long spirals down the field, well, my little heart went boom.
I wasn’t then and I am not now violent. (I’m a vegetarian, for God’s sake.) I can quote Shakespeare, have a perfectly shaped forehead and know which fork to use at a three-fork dinner.
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But there’s a lot more than strategy and physicality to the game of football. In my 44 years of being a fan, I’ve learned some profound truths. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I find watching football a deeply spiritual experience.
I’m not talking about prayer huddles. If anything, the spirituality I’ve discovered in football is more akin to basketball coach Phil Jackson’s philosophy of sports. This is the guy, after all, who said the greatest influence on his coaching was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and who once said, “If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball” (playing on a famous Buddhist saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him — because it would be a false god).
I expect this Sunday to offer up some especially powerful teachings for me, but they’re available to all of us, on any given Sunday during the NFL season. So if you’re not inclined to view a game for its own merits — or even if you are — meditate on these four spiritual lessons that can come from watching. After all, it is Sunday.
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1. Nonattachment. This essential teaching stems from the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: There is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, suffering can stop, and the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of suffering.
In other words, suffering comes from attachment to things, but if you can learn to let go of your stranglehold on them, you can be happy and free. And while you won’t find this next sentence in any religious writing that I know of, just ask football fans, and they’ll tell you it’s the God’s honest truth: Watching your team win is nirvana, but there’s no greater suffering than watching your team lose, unless it's watching your team lose to your division rival when you’re watching the game with a fan of that team.
This Sunday my team is not in the big game (don’t get me started). So unlike during the 16 game days in the regular season, I get a chance to practice nonattachment to the outcome of this contest. I will be watching this game dispassionately, like a Bodhisattva, and holding in my heart another high Buddhist teaching: wishing the greatest good for all sentient beings (i.e., rooting for a really exciting game).
2. Impermanence: This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We don’t want things to change, unless things really suck. We’re shocked and horrified every time a disaster strikes and blows away homes, villages, entire coast lines. Our abhorrence to impermanence is most clearly evidenced in our ultimate fear of death and efforts to prevent it at all costs.
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It’s a very different story in Buddhist (and Hindu) societies. In Buddhism, people accept the fundamental truth that all things always change. If you think about it, it’s a fundamental reality in football, too: Favorite players get injured, traded or retire. Impermanence is perhaps exemplified best in the Super Bowl curse. With a few notable exceptions, the team that wins the Super Bowl does not return the following year (and often has a terrible season).
3. Nonviolence: This might seem counterintuitive, but hear me out. Violence, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse.” I'm not talking here about the high-profile off-the-field abuse we learned about this year; there's no excuse for that. On the field, the rules of football clearly ban excessive force, and anything done clearly to injure or abuse gets slapped with a major penalty. (This isn’t hockey.) And for truly outrageous acts of violence, players are fined and occasionally suspended from the game. Football is indeed powerful and physically forceful, but for many of us — women, too, I assure you — this is a big part of the sport’s appeal.
4. Mindfulness: You could actually boil all of Buddhism down to this one quality. The aforementioned Noble Eightfold Path describes specific “Right” behaviors (View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration), all of which can only be accomplished if one has first mastered the eighth, Mindfulness.
This is a quality that applies equally to players and fans. When we say an athlete is in the zone, we mean he’s in that state of total connectedness between thought, intention and action. His powers of focus and concentration are extraordinary, and he’s so in the moment that he will react instinctually, without having to engage the thinking brain. He can do no wrong with the ball. (He is the ball.)
Similarly, when we’re so focused on watching the game, it’s like we’re in it. We’re one with it. We know when the quarterback is going to fake a handoff and throw long, and when he’s going to keep the ball and run. This can also explain to our non-fan partners why we can walk away (or fall momentarily asleep) and yet come back and know exactly what’s happening on the field.
So please don’t change the channel — and don’t walk away. Watch with us. Enjoy with us. And when our team is in the game, pray with us.
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