Monday, January 14, 2013

Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games by Jeanne Hess

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Balboa Press, 2012
Price: $17.99
ISBN-10: 145254381X
ISBN-13: 978-1452543819

I listened to the news sportscaster and thought of Jeanne Hess. I wondered, what would she think of this fierce language? "Our team will annihilate them," the newscaster swore, lifting a fist of victory in the air, referring to the local football team doing battle with the opposing team. The news anchor tossed her comments into the swirl, using phrases like: beat them into the ground … grind them to dust … smash them to smithereens … flatten and destroy.

One might think this was the language of war.

"When we peel words back to the original meaning, they provide us with an intent that often differs from current cultural thought and offer a level of understanding that enlightens the soul." (Page 32)

I read the pages of Sportuality with increasing interest. If I entered with doubts, I emerged with none. Mind you, I'm not what one would call a sports fan. I played center on a girls' basketball team in school, and I wasn't bad in track, and now and then I've tossed a ball with friends. But a fan? Not really. My remote control never stalls on ESPN. It's possible that the violent factor in sports has something to do with that.

Interestingly enough, even though I don't usually watch sports games (I enjoy being at the actual games, not watching them on television), it occurred to me that quite a few of my favorite movies were sports stories. How does that make sense? Reading Sportuality, I realized why. 

Sports movies are about a hero's quest. An athlete is on a quest to achieve his or her own personal best, against all odds, rising above all obstacles, enduring through all conflicts, fulfilling potential. All the elements of a great story are there—and I'm a writer. I love a good quest.

In fact, if I started reading Sportuality with skepticism, that was soon why I found myself immersed and enjoying the read. Hess isn't citing sports statistics here. She's talking about a hero's quest, and she writes about the roots of language. She tells great stories, memorable and inspiring ones, and she leaves "time-outs" for reader introspection, offering questions for exploration.

"Sportuality" is a concept of blending sports and spirituality. Dividing the book into sections that have the reader contemplate competition, community, communication, spirit, humor, enthusiasm, education, religion, holiness, sanctuary, sacrifice, and victory, Hess begins by examining the roots of the words. As it turns out, more times than not, contemporary sports-loving society has so mangled these common words and concepts that their original meaning has been, well, annihilated. Hess resurrects them to accuracy.

Sports, she writes, is actually a means of human communication. Sports "is a vehicle for life." As for the spiritual aspect, Hess states that God intended us to play and have fun in life—and thus, her mission to restore the fun in games. Hess discusses the spiritual, even religious, aspect of sports (from this comes the word, and the concept of sportuality), and anyone who does watch sports will attest to the constant call to prayer before games, references to team spirit, and the similarities in spiritual pilgrimages to an athlete's quest for excellence.

The parallel quests for the divine and for excellence in sports are not at all far-fetched, although some readers may chafe a little at the idea of worship as applied to sports. It is certainly something that has bothered me, and perhaps has something to do with why I have not become a sports fan—so many such fans really do seem to worship sports and athletes, taking it to a level that may belong more in a house of worship than a ball park. Hess gives us another look at these parallels.

Considering that God refers to the physical body as a "temple," Hess may just have a point here. We have taken sports too far into the physical realm alone, and Hess is calling us back to consider its spiritual side. Competition, she writes, is not a word that means to annihilate or grind to dust or beat to smithereens. When we take it to its roots, it is actually a concept that means playing with another in a manner that brings out the best in both.

That gave me pause. As did much of what Hess discusses in Sportuality. By book end, I understood my resistance to sports was a resistance to violence, not to the game. Hess had indeed restored the joy. More, she has a call to all of us to reconsider how we play the game. Not to "sissify" that game, because her call is to achieve excellence, overcome obstacles, learn endurance and persistence in the pursuit of our quest, but without taking it down to us vs. them, and debasing sports to the ugliness of violence. 

Sportuality is an important book. In a society immersed in sports, we must take a second look at our approach to the games. At a time when football, for one, is being reexamined as so violent that athletes are sustaining life-threatening damage to their bodies, we would be wise to step back to consider the part we left on the bench: true team spirit.

Jeanne Hess is a native of Detroit, Michigan, and was a varsity athlete at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. She has been a volleyball coach, professor of physical education, and college chaplain at Kalamazoo College for nearly 30 years, and is the wife of a coach and the mother of two professional athletes. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Jim, whom she met in a gym. 

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