It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being yourself and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace. – Thomas Merton
Merton said it so beautifully. It is an indulgence to create the person we think we should be. But it is an act of courage to become the person we really are. Identity in sport is something we all need. Athletes play every day and still don’t know who they are. Coaches coach every day and still don’t know why they work for their kids. There is just such discord at times. And it seems as if the higher you go in the sport, the more ‘elite’ you get, the more a façade grows, engulfing everything with a false sense of community and relationship.
In the world of sport, there is a great deal of balancing and discernment that comes along with the question of who we are and how we create ourselves. More so than any other thing I have done in my life, I always perceived athletics as the one place in which I believed I could dynamically create. It was a reprieve from the barriers and limitations of an otherwise dull and structured world.
I think the greatest athletes feel this in the most awesome of manners. It is a tragedy, however, to see when that separation of sport and life comes crashing into each other, destroying what was and placing what seemingly could be in the most perilous of positions.
Consider Ray Rice. Here was a guy from New Rochelle, New York who was the Renaissance man of his high school football team. A gifted running back, he apparently threw a tight spiral and even punted for them. He was great at Rutgers and he was great for the Ravens – leading them to their 2nd Super Bowl.
Now, he is more crippled and vulnerable than ever. Reeling from a despicable incident that shed light on a poisonous culture of machismo in the NFL, his actions have suspended him from the control of the game for perhaps the first time in his life. Citing that he had often lost the will to continue to live and now proclaiming to be a changed man, he is sifting through the barrage of ill will to attempt to resurrect a career that many think is caput.
“I just want to be able to hang them up the right way,” he said as he sat with tears welling up in his eyes during an ESPN interview.
Beyond so many things relevant in this story, this statement means so much to what Ray was and what he may become – not just as an athlete, but as a human. Someday or another, all athletes must realize that the playing of sport is really not a reprieve from life, but an actualization of it. When used in the right manner, we find that it connects us with the whole of our existence, not creating some alias that separates us from it.
Now he must ask: what is my identity and where is that leading me?
If it leads him back to the NFL, great. It will take tough work to get back on the field. He was, after all, injured and is going to be in the middle of a media circus if he lands on a team.
But what if it leads him elsewhere?
If truly open to this possibility, it would be a counter-cultural act that many would perhaps attack him for. But beyond that, I do believe it could be the greatest athletic feat he may have ever accomplished – something that would require zero physical strength, just a lot of trust and openness in discerning his true identity as a whole person.