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For the past three weeks, I’ve watched football games that have simply astounded me. The Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens broke out into more skirmishes and fistfights than I’ve ever witnessed in an NFL game. The honorable and widely respected coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, was fined $50,000 for grabbing a referee while chasing him down and yelling at him. Then there was Monday night’s unforgettable game. None of us who watched the game or the non-stop replays of the final play of the game will forget it any time soon. The blatant offensive pass interference, the ball in the hands of a Packer (Jennings) and a Seahawk (Tate) simultaneously (which looked to most of us like it was more in the hands of Jennings), and one official signaling “interception” while another running toward the scrum signaling “touchdown:” all this has made for an incredulous week in one of our nation’s most cherished pastimes.
In my house, the Monday night game elicited wide-eyed and slack-jawed expressions, leaps off the couch, and exclamations unfit for this blog. All rather mild compared to the national uproar that has followed. Even the President of the United States joined in on the commentary. Consequently, those third-rate refs (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) will be heading back to what they’ve been trained to do, and the NFL refs will be returning to the game starting tonight.
All this won’t give the game back to the Packers. Since I’m a fan—thanks to living in the Midwest for eight years and being cajoled mercilessly by friends, colleagues, and students alike for rooting for America’s other team!—I have no doubt that in reality they won the game on that last play. Yet I’m glad that the NFL upheld the ruling on the field (or at least the final ruling on the field). I’m even a little sad to see those third-rate refs leave. Okay, just a little. Why? Because there was something beautiful about the humanity these refs put back into the game. Something was lost when technology enabled plays to be reviewed and overturned: an awareness of our finitude. Watching the past three weeks brought disappointment, exasperation, limitation, and even a sense of helplessness right to the surface for players, fans, commentators, and surely those refs alike. This is part and parcel of the human condition. We are “but dust” as scripture reminds us.
We spend significant time, effort, and money trying to avoid the profound reality of our finitude. Anxiety about our limitations leads us to try and overcome them—to try and be something other than creatures—and that is sin, as Reinhold Neibuhr so eloquently explained. Perhaps the NFL gave us all an opportunity to reflect on our finitude and that of others these past few weeks; perhaps the NFL gave us an opportunity to accept our finitude and profound neediness before God; and perhaps when we watch tonight’s game, we might be remember that our humanity really is beautiful, even as we are glad for more accurate play calling.