6400: June—Sports

July 2, 2020
By Grant Lindsley


In my final meeting with the head monk of the small Buddhist hermitage where I’d lived for the past five months, I asked a question about something near and dear to my heart.

We sat cross-legged on cushions under the roof of his kuti, a one-room hut without electricity or running water. A single candle flickered on the tile floor between us.

The monk—thin, bald, Israeli, the most deliberate man I have ever known—sat still and stared directly into my eyes. We’d been talking for an hour already. Even though we’d lived in this tiny community for months, he knew little of my life. Which was fine—by design, even. There wasn’t much time for talk. I, like everyone else there, spent 18 hours a day in solitary silence. Besides, the way he looked at me, with such unwavering concentration, it didn’t matter whether he knew details of my past. I felt known.

But I was afraid to ask what he thought about sports. A detail like, “I’m an ultimate frisbee player,” would shatter my image as a blank spiritual canvas. I knew him to be unflinching. I’d seen him respond to questions before with a dismissive wave of his hand and a simple, “No. That’s delusion.” I also trusted him. I needed his perspective on the life I was preparing to re-enter. For all I knew, I’d never see him again.

I pled my case. I knew that games and entertainment—like stealing, lying, killing living beings, sexual activity, beautification, music, eating past noon, sleeping on mattresses, and much more—were forbidden. I assumed these things were discouraged for practitioners outside the monastic setting, too. This was the Thai Forest Tradition, after all, the most conservative tradition within the most conservative school of Buddhism. Still, I thought I could convince him otherwise. Sport was bigger than entertainment. The game was bigger than a game.

“It’s taught me so much about discipline,” I said. “How to do things that are good for me but that I don’t always want to do. General health. Calmness under pressure. How to be a good teammate. A foundation for body awareness practice. Training sometimes feels like moving meditation.”

I trailed off. A rare breeze ruffled his orange robes. He inhaled and looked away. 

I’d grown accustomed to extended pauses in conversation and glanced away, too. The dry forest was dark around us. A chorus of insects pulsed in the night. These months had consisted of intense self-reflection. Since the death of three friends in a car accident, I’d quit my job and bought a one-way flight to Bangkok, where I’d slept in a bus station and then rode 11 hours to a remote northeast region in Thailand that my guidebook had skipped entirely. For the last two months, I’d been sleeping on a wooden coffee table out in a cave that was even deeper into seclusion, an hour-and-a-half trek into Pha Taem National Park that I made every day between my dwelling and the hermitage where we ate, worked, and meditated together. 

I had needed this distance—from my relationships, my phone, my habits—because the acute tragedy had accelerated a general ennui and compelled me to reevaluate my life in the closest thing to a vacuum that I could create. I had needed the space because had trouble listening to myself in the presence of others (still do). I was a pleaser. I was hardwired to consider others’ comfort before my own. Maybe it came from my upbringing as a well-mannered Southerner. Maybe it was a deep-seated lack of trust in my own judgment. Even though I was 25 years old, I still felt at my core like a child, hoping some authority could give me answers, even if they were answers I didn’t like. It was easier to rebel against an authority than shoulder the responsibility of being one for myself.

And here I was, hoping for answers again. The monk turned towards me. Despite months of practice cultivating my breath—how to shape it with just the right depth, pace, and comfort—I realized I was holding it.

“You know,” he said, “I had never thought about sports that way. I get it.”

My mouth dropped open slightly, and I moved on to my next question before he could change his mind.

He couldn’t have known how much this brief answer would impact my confidence moving forward. He confirmed something I felt I already understood only in a quiet and fragile way. While some of my old habits withered and died after those months in the monastery, ultimate took root and grew stronger.

Now, some five years later, the US is a kind of monastery. That may be a stretch, but think about it. Many are spending 18 hours a day in a type of solitary silence. Sports are more of an idea than a reality. And so I find myself engaging with them in the only way I can: as an idea. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, protests, and polarization, what is their value? 

It’s understandable to say that they’re a distraction. That, at a time like this, they’re entertainment at best—an opiate for the masses, something that will detract from the precious momentum towards healing and reform on so many levels. I respect that stance. And I politely disagree.

Amidst the constant stress of a pandemic, sports offer the potential for respite. Any athlete knows the benefit of active rest: future action that is more powerful and sustainable. Amidst protests, sports offer a platform for activism (the AUDL anti-racism panel and fundraiser, the NBA’s unfolding plans for awareness in their July restart). What better place to educate oneself and aim for change than within the communities one knows best? Ultimate is my community, and both I and it have room to grow. I’ve been deeply grateful to read and re-read experiences of players with perspectives different than my own (link, link).

Amidst polarization—heightened by a 24-hour news cycle that often amplifies rage and shuns nuance—sports offer a venue to understand what a healthy rivalry truly entails. My high school coach, Michael Baccarini, would sometimes sense that our hatred of another team had stretched too far. He’d gently remind us that without an opponent, there is no game. Any rivalry must be undergirded by respect and even gratitude for the existence of the other, something that the Red Elephant team and Blue Donkey team sometimes forget.

The ancient Greeks considered sport a critical part of education and fulfillment. Millions of kids are missing out on the social-emotional learning that sports offer, especially team sports, and even more especially self-officiated ultimate. 

Of course, sports can absolutely be a waste of time, too. I remember growing up watching the Atlanta Falcons lose every Sunday and knowing for the entire four-hour ordeal that I was simply procrastinating on homework. Sports can be hotbeds for immature masculinity, and I’ve seen that on occasion, too. Sports are complicated, because they are what we make of them, and we’re complicated. And so perhaps this break from sports presents an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with them. Maybe they don’t matter so much. Maybe they’re more important than ever.