I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.
What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?
Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!
But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids. When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.
I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s. Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.” It is about winning. It is about performance. That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.
While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.
Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.
Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.
But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.
We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development. Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspective – the game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter. Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters. That takes practice and coaching too.
Last week’s Texas-sized dust-up over the Beren Academy basketball team’s participation in the state championship of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools was a real-life Purimspiel. How so? Let us count the ways…
We begin with our modern-day Mordecai: the Beren Stars. How much more expedient it would have been to simply “bow down” before the wider culture. But they would not, for they were Jews (Esther 3:4). In standing by their principles and beliefs, even when it meant forfeiting a state semi-final game, these young men performed an act of kiddush hashem barabim (“sanctifying God’s name in the public square”) for the ages. Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax. The Beren Stars. No kidding.
Next, there was the classic element of topsy-turvy, or nahafoch hu. One day the kids are out, the next they are in. There was a surreal quality about the whole affair, entirely befitting the Purim season (the original “March Madness”). Thursday morning’s acceptance that the season would end with a forfeit rather was suddenly transformed into joy when TAPPS reversed itself (9:22) and moved the game time. Beren Star Zach Yoshor says it best: “It’s very, very strange. This has been the most emotional week of my life. The whole thing has just been crazy. To go from being in a state of disappointment to this state of elation, it’s amazing.”
King Ahashuerus made an appearance, of course, in the forced and slavish fealty to “the bylaws.” Throughout the week, that was the justification for sticking to the schedule. Once a rule is made, it cannot be changed! “An edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8). This stubbornness prompted former Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy to offer perhaps the best line of the week: “I feel like they made a mistake and they don’t have a vice president of common sense who will tell them that this is silly and it’s O.K. to change your mind.”
When salvation finally came, it was “from another place” (4:14): the law offices of Nathan and Aliza Lewin. The Beren Academy chose not to pursue legal action, having accepted the right of the private association to make its own rules. Some parents and students explored a different path, and it led to TAPPS’s abrupt about-face. Good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews, this high-powered legal threat? An interesting question, for another time.
Did Haman make an appearance in this Spiel? A bit part, perhaps. A few comments by one of the professionals at TAPPS seemed angry rather than just silly (“unlike many people, TAPPS does follow the law,” and “I don’t recall ‘inclusive’ being in our constitution” were among his zingers), but by game time, even he was singing a different tune, focused on the “very good game.” Indeed, what’s most interesting about “Haman” is just how absent he was from the story. There was so much good will toward the Beren Stars. From Jeff Van Gundy to Senator John Cornyn, from Houston Mayor Annise Parker to the other teams in the finals (including the team that would have gone to the tourney in place of Beren), support for a time-change was strong and vocal.
Alas, the storybook ending was not to be. After a convincing win in the semi-final game, the Beren community observed Shabbat in a nearby hotel. Post-Shabbat, they stepped onto the court against a very good team from Abilene Christian. Beren came out a bit flat in the first quarter of the finals and were never able to completely close the deficit. They kept it close, and made it very exciting in the last few minutes, but wound up as runners-up.
Thus the ultimate nahafoch hu eluded them. But the players have every reason to be proud. Watching the post-game ceremony and the bestowing of the medals on the kids from both teams, I was immensely proud too. I will take that feeling with me into tomorrow night’s Purim festivities, and raise a l’chaim to the Beren Stars!
Chag Purim Sameach