(Pictured: Fr. John Muir at the 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open)
For those who love sports, Super Bowl weekend is, well… the Super Bowl of sports weekends. In Phoenix where I live, this weekend is especially sports-crazy. The city hosts the largest sporting event in the world: the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament, drawing well over 600,000 people.
What forcefully strikes me about these two events is the power of sports to impact culture in a positive way.
It’s no secret that the United States is painfully divided politically. Civic dialogue is at a depressingly low ebb. It’s becoming increasingly easy to listen only to those with whom you agree in terms of politics, religion, etc. The result is a culture where people are isolated. We miss out on the fruitful growth of engaging people who are different from us.
That’s why sports matters. In its sheer ability to draw people together who wouldn’t be so otherwise, sports can massively impact culture for the good.
Sure, both the Super Bowl and Phoenix Open can be superficial spectacles. The Super Bowl often seems less like a football game and more like a talent show for dancers and ad-writers. The sometimes-debaucherous Phoenix Open hardly resembles a golf tournament on the gladiatorial 16th hole. The whole thing can and does on occasion degrade into blatant public hedonism.
But it’s still worth it.
Look, these two events bring people together in unmatched ways in terms of reach and breadth. I went for a walk during the first half of the Super Bowl – Nobody was outside. Neighborhood streets were packed with cars parking in front of houses. Houses were packed with people eating, drinking, and chatting about commercials and Tom Brady. Were they discussing politics? Probably not. But they were together.
I try to attend the Phoenix Open for one day of the four-day event. This year, once again, I marveled at the throngs of Phoenicians and people from all around the country, mingling, laughing, chatting, and having a great time together. Especially in Phoenix, where everyone is seemingly from somewhere else, this coming-together is significant. The golf is an occasion for being together, for sharing our lives with each other.
And that is the point of sports in the first place. That’s what our culture needs as a necessary baseline.
Pope Francis speaks similarly in a short, classy message he released for Super Bowl viewers. He said, “Great sporting events like today’s Super Bowl are highly symbolic showing that it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace.”
Of course, sports won’t save culture or bring world peace. It’s no replacement for the hard work of politics, philosophy, religion, education, and other culture-formers. But sports do show something: that our isolation can be overcome and peace can, in a large measure, be achieved.
In that way, sports can be a symbol of hope. That’s something that we need to see much more.