Spring training is on with baseball’s exhibition games starting. And next week’s Torah portion (Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11–34:35) tells the story of the Golden Calf. There’s a relationship here.
Let’s start with Torah. The Israelites, worried that Moses remains on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, ask his brother Aaron to make a god who will go before (lead) them in the wilderness (Exod. 32:1). With Moses absent, comprehending the invisible God is too difficult. To buoy their spirits, the Israelites require something tangible—and inherently false.
Sports buoys our spirits, too—especially baseball, which starts in the spring. But the passion for winning can distort our values. Many fans self identify with their teams to the point at which they accept any means to assure a winning season and more, a championship. Half a century ago, Green Bay Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi famously stated, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Thus a game often represents not just entertainment to many fans but also personal validation. Mix that with alcohol, and conduct in the stands goes overboard. Fans rooting for visiting teams risk their lives.
Given all the gold that accompanies glory, we also see distorted values on the field, court and rink. Sports is big business—and not just on the professional level. The NCAA basketball-tournament TV deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting runs from 2011 to 2024 to the tune of $10.8 billion—yes, with a “B” as in “bizarre.”
That money produces one golden calf after another. Some players focus as much on beating mandatory drug tests as on beating their opponents. Coaches look the other way at all but the most serious criminal acts. Universities hire athletes uninterested in education—and don’t pay them. Winning trumps drug abuse, drunk driving, physical violence and cheating on term papers.
It’s not surprising that in this environment—and with the encouragement of cable TV sports shows that appeal to a post-adolescent audience—many athletes display aberrant behavior. Big—and even routine—plays demand worship-like experiences. A basketball player hits a shot and thumps his chest. A football player scores a touchdown and performs a ritual of self-glorification. A baseball player hits a home run and stands in the batter’s box to watch the ball’s flight. But isn’t that what they get paid—and handsomely—to do?
I hope this baseball season produces fewer slow-motion home-run trots and fist pumps. And while we’re at it, we can do without gestures towards heaven. What, God participates in a fantasy league and rigs it to clean up on the celestial court? Going for the gold shouldn’t mean going for the golden calf.
But of course, I’m shamefully optimistic. It’s spring, and I’ll be off to Phoenix in two weeks to check out baseball’s preseason progress. Which is why I leave you with the words of the Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Fame shortstop, Ernie Banks: “Let’s play two!”
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