Prophets on the Field of Play

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Competition has a bleak reputation among Friends. It brings out extremes in people, and Friends are inclined toward moderation. For some competitors, the demands of adversity arouse a vile nature in them, and Friends would rather ignore our shadow sides. However, for most of us, particularly most children and youth, our most extreme selves also express the best in us.

Adversity and opposition demand great effort and require great commitment for whole-hearted participation. This is true whether the challenge is an outdoor adventure, a game of chess, or is played on a gym floor with wheelchairs. Individuals’ motivations to compete vary. They include: participating in a milieu of excellence, winning honor, improving on past performances, creating beauty on the field of play, outperforming an opponent or even hurting them.

Alongside individual motivations, “the spirit of the game” also shapes competition. This is an objective that transcends the immediate arena. It alludes faintly to the Spirit held holy by many of us. Whether or not players, coaches, and spectators accept any religious faith, they value a sporting competition that upholds the heritage of the sport itself.

Soccer wide_0.jpgDuring almost any game, the rivalry between two teams is primary in most people’s minds. Officials, however, approach the game differently. Referees or umpires participate actively in the game, but they form a third team, which gathers for a time to work together upholding the causes of fairness and Truth. Their job is to engage in a spiritual struggle for the souls of the players and to defend the spirit of the game. If the officials are successful, players will be safely preserved from temptations to fall into their baser natures as they strive. On those days when all three teams cooperate in upholding the best traditions of the game, everyone returns to their daily lives enriched in ways that fulfill beyond a paycheck, a win, or a gracious loss.

What defines the spirit of a game? The printed rules are just a starting point. Each sport has its own web of tradition and culture that undergirds those rules. No matter how many hundreds of committee hours have been devoted to writing and revising our books of Faith and Practice, reading those books won’t make anyone a Quaker. Friends hang together, accept grace and share meals, worship, discuss, dispute, and resolve issues. Through these processes – more than by having and reading certain books – we grow together into a religious society.

In sport also, more than just rules, there is an attitude toward competition and a unique way of relating to other players that is held within the unwritten, rarely articulated culture of each sport. Cross-country runners are aloof and intellectual until they are vomiting after the race. Baseball players are chatty until they are riled. Basketball players will let you know verbally when they’ve beaten you one-on-one. After hurling balls full-speed at each other’s legs, cricketers drink tea together. Swimmers yell at their teammates, even though there’s not much chance of understanding any words through ears clogged with water.

By practicing, following, and even venerating sports, perhaps we can learn lessons for our lives outside the arenas of competition. American football lets a player know when they are more powerful (or not) than their individual matchup and, in contrast, how the successes that matter most come only through combining the efforts of teammates with radically differing roles, body types, and abilities. Long-distance running teaches participants about euphoria in training and about composed efforts despite continued pain in competition. Soccer is about taking away a physical ability that is critical to primates – our grip – and then competing with cleverness, speed, and improvisation. Each game has a gift for its participants.

Perhaps the role of the sports official is to be a prophet on the field of play. The prophet here is not some augur of future events, but is a voice speaking of Justice and Truth in a situation that’s troubled or chaotic. In his 1984 Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#256), The Prophetic Stream, Bill Taber outlines three major tasks of a prophet: “[The] prophet’s first task is to discover the law; the second task is to show how the law can – or must – be put into practice; and the third task is to make spirit available.” The tasks of the sports official are similar: to learn the rules of the game; to show, correct, and instruct the competitors on how to put the rules into practice; and to make the spirit of the game available to everyone in the arena.

Several years of service as a soccer referee and softball umpire have offered me some insight into the wider struggle Friends have called the Lamb’s War – the war that is waged in human hearts and in the world between the forces of considerate Good and the forces of reckless Evil. Our weapons are not violent ones. Our cause is to remind all people of Truth. As sports officials, our weapons are arm signals, whistles, and the most good-natured, mature voices we can bring to the field; and our purpose is to bring out the best in the players, so they might grow in body, heart, and mind. In our spiritual and personal lives, prayer, humor, and loving interaction are tools for Good. In the wider society, compassionate leaders and movements use persuasion, community organizing, and direct action to point out injustice, present a vision, and lead people toward a more peace-filled and loving world.

In my experience, most scholastic players are good at heart. Of the soccer fouls I have seen, most were due to carelessness, rather than malice. Few have been made with the excessive force that asked for ejection from a match. The challenge for the official is to distinguish – and quickly – the collisions and falls that occur with good-hearted competition from the collisions and falls that reflect reckless play, unsporting behavior, excessive force, and even malice.

I’ve found that it’s vital to my own mental state as a sports official to let each player and coach have whatever inward experience they are inclined to. The official’s role is to see, label, and sanction the outward acts that flow from the inward states of the participants. When their body language communicates that players are about to give into the temptation of pushing or tripping, my role is to speak out clearly in warning against that behavior. When a player or coach has lost their sense of right conduct and has endangered the dignity or safety of another, it is my role to impose the earned disqualification, showing compassion as I do so. This discipline requires prompt, appropriate action without attachment to the reactions of others. I try to apply these lessons also in my relationships within family, meetings, and political organizations.

There are times in my life when I am reckless in the face of adversity. There have been times during competition when I have disregarded the danger that I posed to an opponent. Reflecting on those times, I sense that adrenaline and testosterone sometimes drive my actions more strongly than common sense or the voices of Light and conscience in my heart. As a referee, when I remember how easily I can become unruly and reckless, I can more easily empathize with players and coaches who allow their competitive natures to overwhelm their more mindful selves.

When officiating at my best, I am faithful in pausing inwardly, seeking to center myself in God’s presence and in a feeling of love for all the participants in the contest. When I am not faithful in this, I find that an unwarranted excitement can grow in my heart, fueled by the determination of the competitors and the noise from the spectators. Such excitement distracts me from my role of defending the spirit of the game.

A number of helpful rituals have evolved within various sports to slow down the game at times when over-excitement threatens to overwhelm participants. In soccer, for example, when the ball leaves the playing field, the center referee and the nearest assistant stop moving for a moment and face each other. They exchange a glance, perhaps pointing discretely. Then they give a public signal simultaneously, indicating which team will throw or kick the ball back into play. Or in softball, after a pitch crosses through the strike zone, the umpire squatting behind the catcher must rise to her feet to finalize her call, signaling a strike with an upraised right fist. I’ve been amazed at how slowly the most experienced among my colleagues rise to give that signal. I’m thankful for their example and for these disciplines. They keep the game at a pace that allows proper consideration for each participant and for the sport itself.

As important as calm awareness of all that is happening on a field of play may be, I have also discovered a hindrance for me in that mindset. I can get so caught up in noticing all things that I lose the decisive attitude I need to blow the whistle, call an out, or award a free kick. A good soccer referee learns to pay attention to specifics – where on the field an infraction occurs, whether control of the ball is at stake, whether a promising attack is underway, what an offender is looking at before and during an incident, and what a given player’s history of fouls has been during that game. The official needs to sort through quickly among several options on how to rule.

The need for decisiveness challenges me, even as I know it is required. Without a proactive official, players learn they can take advantage of the situation. Small injustices lead to greater retributions. Safety is endangered. Once the official has lost authority over the match, it is hard to regain. Discriminating among careless, reckless, and malicious fouls is a challenge, but it is the necessary job of a sports official to do so.

In sports, business, spiritual transformation – wherever we face adversity – effort and commitment typically draw out our best selves. Adversity can also help us to realize the presence of Christ within us as a motivating force for good. Just as the spirit of the game needs officials to defend it, the spirit of our time needs prophets and prayer leaders. Good sports officials compete to win the hearts of players and coaches, reminding them of the gracious spirit that comes with friendly competition in the game they love. Our prophets will likewise remind us to love and defend the Spirit of Life. ~~~~

Competition is part of Jay Thatcher’s life calling in physical activity, dance, sport and play. After twenty-five years as a physical educator in public schools, his career path has led him happily to seasonal work as a sporting official in the midst of high school competition in soccer and softball. He also serves Corvallis Friends Meeting on the Committee on Ministry and Oversight and NPYM on the Faith & Practice Committee.