This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Save for the Olympics and whatever bowl game the Oregon Ducks get into, I almost never put the effort into working my schedule around televised sports. Just not my jam.

But Monday night, one of the low-key evenings in the life of a fresh college grad, in addition to a few mindless e-mails to send off and a simple word document to create, I figured I might as well catch the Packers versus Seahawks football game. A nice, civilized contest of Midwest brawn versus Pacific Northwest brute, that I would be sure many of my friends would be talking about.

And then this happened:


Unless you somehow missed all the ensuing news coverage, you would know that his not just a matter of game-ending frenzy wrapped up in an ambiguous call. Rather, it came in the midst of a strike on the part of the NFL Referees Association, and the season so far has been carried out by “replacement refs” of dubious credentials.

The NFL reached a deal with the “real refs” just in time for tonight’s game, the Browns versus Ravens. But it got me wondering, what was the big fuss?

There were two sorts of sports pundits in Monday’s post-game coverage. About half were so excited that they had something uniquely interesting to talk about the words just spilled right out of their mouth, the other half were so irked by what had happened that, when it was their turn to speak, they spoke impromptu jeremiads. One pundit, trying to establish how much of a “real deal” this was, said something to the affect of the NFL being a “multi-billion dollar enterprise, with millions of dollars resting on each call like this being made.” Another simply said, “the shield has to defend itself.”

Between the lines, I felt like each of this latter group of men, each of whom have spent years and careers as fans, players, coaches, and now commentators, were saying “my life is wrapped up in something that is looking a lot like a fraud.”

There is a brand-new pigskin hanging around our front room. Recently, when I came back home, exhausted from a solid workout, I laid down on the couch and picked up the this official, composite-leather, not-incredibly-round ball. I realize I speak from my own prejudice as a runner, where the sport is as simple as getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as I palmed “the Duke” I was struck by how lifeless it seemed.

Lifeless, of course, compared to the fan-packed stadiums, the enthusiastic cheerleaders, the calculating coaches, and the players’ incredible feats of athleticism. Lifeless for something that a third of the country takes as a national holiday one Sunday each February. Lifeless for something that, at least at the high school level, has become a medium for entering into larger social issues – think of the non-sexy parts in Friday Night Lights, the race relations of Remember the Titans, and I have to give a McMinnville shout-out to the self-explanatory Quarterback Princess. With so much energy and passion surrounding the game, it seems strange that the football just by itself can seem so dull and unanimated.

It is easy to become disenchanted.

It is easy to become cynical.

It is easy to want to analytically break everything down to component parts.

The same gamble the NFL is took with replacement refs is the same gamble governments take when politicians act contrary to the law, or the law works contrary to the people. It is the same gamble churches and other religious groups take when betraying the truths they supposedly preach. It is a gamble of legitimacy, that the whole shebang might be exposed as a dirty power-play to manipulate the imagination of the masses.

Which may be true, although I sincerely hope against it in every case. What I want, instead, is to believe that synergy exists, and that synergy can be put to good cause.

I think of the human body as a perfect example of synergy. Our bodies are something like 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and then a bunch of other trace stuff. But you cannot say that we are nothing but these elements – there is something fundamentally different between a human body and a water puddle with a block of carbon on the side. Rather, these atoms are in relationship to one another in such a way that they create something of greater value (that is, the human body) than what they would have been on their own.

I am currently reading through Christian Smith’s rather dense but apparently important book What is a Person?. In chapter one he makes quite the argument for personhood, saying that the human person is not simply the human body, but rather the formula goes something like person = human body + cultural context + rational thought + a bunch of other things. And there is something about the “person” which is greater than all of these things combined.

Furthermore, I think that when two human persons become united in marriage, the whole process of “two becoming one” is less 1+1=1 and more 1+1=3. That is, neither partner really gives up their individual identity, but now they have created a new, shared identity that exists as a dynamic addition to who they were originally.

(Hm. This may be the most-off topic rant about the whole Seahawks-Packers touchdown debacle.)

Just like how the institution of marriage is synergistic, I think the institutions of sports and politics and religious affairs are synergistic. Imagine that lifeless football laying in my front room, in the hands of a much more skilled player than myself, on a proper field and perhaps even with a proper crowd. The oddly shaped ball, which kind of resembles an uncomfortable turd, becomes a key part of what is not just a multi-billion dollar empire, but a game which (in varying degrees) is a meaningful part of many of our lives.

All the more reason then that the NFL needs qualified refs on the field maintaining order, to keep the football from being lifeless, meaningless leather. All the more reason government need qualified politicians maintaining law and respect, why sacred places need qualified priests to keep sacraments alive and devotees in worship. When all the pieces come together, something magical happens, synergy happens.

Call it all an illusion if you want, but don’t complain when I call you a puddle of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important thing, of course, is not whether or not synergy exists, but what the synergy is directed towards. This is, I think, a test of the true mettle of a leader and their organization – not the component parts of her or his organization, but how they make those component parts work together and for what purpose. Governments can join in unjust wars, churches can become overly judgmental, and football leagues can needlessly sacrifice the beauty of the game for a quick dollar or two.

But, unfortunately, some leaders cannot get to the step of deciding what to direct the synergy towards, because they are stuck making decisions that jeopardize the existence of that very synergy. They get hung up on some details and neglect others. This goes beyond the decision to hire lousy refs in order to minimize expenses, but also what takes place in corrupt politics and cult churches.

I guess what I am getting to is this. If you are a follower, and we all are followers sometimes, accept the reality of synergy. Don’t say “it is nothing but,” because that contributes nothing but cynicism to the discussion. And if you are a leader, and we are all leaders sometimes, accept the responsibility of synergy. Cultivate it, direct it. Do something good with it. Please.

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy