After the close of the NFL football season, I thought it would be fitting for me to share some insights I recently gathered into watching professional football. They are part of my introduction to sports writer Robert Gilbert's fantastic ebook Going Beyond: Vision, The NFL, and the 2010 Carolina Panthers (SRG Publications). Purchase the book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. My complete introduction is as follows:
Proverbs 29:18 warns readers that "where there is no vision, the people perish." It may seem dubious to begin a book about football with Biblical wisdom. The connection, however, between football and spirituality, philosophy, and identity is not murky. To both fans, and anyone with the semblance of an imagination, the battles waged, blood shed, victories won, dreams lost, and bones broken on the gridiron are the materials necessary for building a house of shelter from the world where virtues, such as courage, sacrifice, and fairness, along with a shared sense of purpose, are difficult to find.
Norman Mailer once compared the contest between God and the Devil to a football game, saying that "Two teams fight each other with skill and bestiality, each side laboring to win. Nonetheless, a whole set of laws also prevails. After players tackle a guy, they don't kick him in the head. I'm saying that in order to keep it flowing, God and the Devil have certain understandings with each other. What they are, I couldn't begin to say."
Seemingly, but unintentionally, picking up where Mailer left off, Catholic priest and acclaimed author Robert Barron explains that Biblical laws are comparable to rules of NFL football. Understanding them allows you to play the game--be it football or spirituality--but it doesn't mean that you will be any good at it. Proficiency requires perseverance, innovation, and, of course, vision. Those three qualities that are essential to the players on the football field and the coaches on the sidelines, are precisely what is missing from the larger game of American culture. Politicians, regardless of party or label, are incapable of even discussing, much less solving, big problems. Public education is in a state of dysfunction and disrepair, and the economy is at a low point.
How appropriate then that Robert Gilbert--a football analyst with an encyclopedic mind and no shortage of vision of his own--has paved a road to recovery for the worst team in NFL football. His strategic suggestions for their coaching staff and informative appraisals of the Panthers on the field have implications that are meaningful to not only his fellow Panthers fans, but also football devotees and anyone looking for provocation to think more deeply about competition, struggle, and life. The lessons and instruction contained in "Going Beyond" go far beyond Panthers football and football in general. His insights into important cultural and philosophical issues--with references to Shakespeare, scrutiny of the increasing reliance on technology in all spectrums of American life, and more--are useful to the Carolina Panthers coaching staff and anyone engaged in difficult strategizing--from business to politics. Gilbert's insights will also help readers gain a better understanding themselves and their country.
Gilbert's project is important because it is rooted in the darkness and struggle at a moment when the Panthers live in darkness and struggle and America is enveloped in it. If there is to be hope for troubled football teams, just as if there is to be hope for troubled people and a troubled nation, it will arise out of the hard work needed to craft a coherent and edifying vision.
Robert Gilbert has made me take notice. He has gotten my attention with his intelligence, depth of thought, and acebric wit. He has raised the stakes on football--perhaps not to Mailer's battle between God and the Devil--but to a place where the game becomes a metaphor essential for understanding our culture and future. He's even made an impact on a Bears fan like me.