A new perspective, for a new year   

Updated: January 8, 2009, 2:28 PM ET

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Improbably, we've managed to put another year of the long human experiment behind us. This despite so many inspired efforts to the contrary. From implosions on Wall Street to explosions in Islamabad, from collapse in Detroit to relapse in Kabul, from a subprime crisis in credit to the subcontinental crisis in Mumbai, and from a hurricane-ravaged Galveston to a whirlwind reaped in Gaza, 2008 did its best to do its worst.

But the stars whirl in their clockwork, and the sun rises and the moon sets and Earth and time turn for us all, so 2009 arrives just when we need it most. One more new year shimmers out there on the knife's edge of the horizon, as bright with promise as it is sharp with dread.

Peyton Manning

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

Peyton Manning's season ended in bitter disappointment, but we won't soon forget his spectacular MVP performance.

Whether we'll get right the worldwide business of living together this go-round is anybody's guess. In a universe ruled as much by chaos as cause and effect, predictions, after all, are for suckers. Just ask the Colts. Or the secretary of state. But turning the page on the calendar of our miseries -- disasters natural and man-made in a world bounded by our common confusions and fears and shortcomings -- is by necessity an exercise in optimism. It can also remind us why sports, as near perfect in their uselessness as art or music, are so important.

At that awkward human intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane, lie the games we play. Because beyond their value as mere entertainment, or their charm as an endless source of harmless argument, these games are one more little theater of metaphor in which we can act out the struggles of the species. And in which humanity can temper our endless failings with our constant striving and our occasional triumph.

As players or fans, we can find in sports the poetry of the body or the rhythm of hard work, the courage of conviction or the gifts of selflessness, the virtue of persistence or the limits of endurance. By winning, by losing, by merely showing up, we can find in sports the state of grace we all share simply by being alive. Look hard enough long enough, catch the right athlete in the right electric moment, and you'll even find transcendence. Thus the genius of Usain Bolt was not that he ran so fast, but that he ran so fast carrying the rest of us with him.

Remember then that down there somewhere in the tug and grunt of a goal-line stand or a 12th round or a match point lies the inspiring prospect of our redemption.

The ancient Greeks understood this. They understood that whether or not it conjured a profit or put food on the table, and no less than art or music or philosophy, sports are a defining human pursuit. So they organized their first athletic competitions as a component of religious ceremony, a rite of worship in which the offerings we made were our own best efforts.

Don't misunderstand; no one's ever going to mistake the relative complication and importance of the Cover 2 for those of the two-state solution, or the ground attack of the Minnesota Vikings for that of the Israel Defense Forces. But at their best -- at our best -- the games are a fine reminder of our collective potential.

And our collective weakness.

Because humanity is the sum of its contradictions, sports are as well. In accord with our truest nature, for every moment of exhilaration or uplift in or around our games, we find three more of greed or vanity or sloth, stupidity or selfishness, mendacity or slander, thievery or wantonness or bigotry. And on both sides of the ball, and up in the press box and on a hundred million sofas, we harden and narrow ourselves with the us-against-them, win-at-any-price, zero-sum notion that every human enterprise must produce a loser.

So sports can be a cautionary tale, too.

Like that of young Mr. Plaxico Burress, a simple pilgrim who reminds us that if you walk into a New York nightclub strapped, it's best perhaps to actually use, you know, a strap.

And having measured out the holiday month since then in all the ancient ways -- the lighting of candles; the setting ablaze of Yule logs and Charles Barkley's political ambitions; the solemn Annunciation of the Thirty-Four Bowls and the annual Adoration (and Renunciation) of the Manning; the ritual sacrifice of NFL goats and coaches and the reading of their entrails for signs and portents; the darkening of our days beneath a blizzard of sports listicles falling like snowflakes, all different but each the same with top 10s past (Phelps! Federer! Favre!) and top 10s future (Phelps? Federer? Favre?) -- we are reminded of our own endearing absurdity, and learn all over again the lessons sports teach.

The Greeks knew all this about us, too. The earliest example of sportswriting, Homer's description in the "Iliad" of the chariot races at the funeral of Patroclus, goes on at some comic length about the need for qualified umpires to police the rampant cheating.

Michael Phelps

AP Photo/Petr David Josek

Sports gives us moments, and memories, that we'll cherish for a lifetime.

Thus we find true greatness in sports with the same frequency we find it in ourselves, which is to say rarely. Which makes it all the dearer.

Our games then, like our lives, are not simply about outcomes or efforts or results, or about the good in us or the bad in us. Rather, sports mimic the complex and incessant tensions of being human.

If all this seems obvious it is worth recalling, if only for a week each year, our deep historical attraction to these games we play, while rekindling our instinctual passions for them. Finding that original fire is harder now than ever. It's out there somewhere, lost in a wilderness of postmodern commentary, tangled in the threads of the message boards, obscured by radio provocateurs and television ratings and columnists writing only about themselves, hidden by the mountain of blogs behind which the thing itself, the game, now rests.

And for years we've made commodities of sports and the metaphors they bear, and often as not our noble little struggles become nothing more than cynical clichés, an occasion to sell beer and pickup trucks to one another.

In an age of ironic detachment and instant, interchangeable electronic opinion in which volume and antagonism trump reflection or complication; of a commerce in which we parse our play into smaller and smaller pieces in order to resell it, we risk losing sight of the games altogether, just as we risk allowing our quick-trigger technologies to enshrine the value of being loud, or being first, rather than being right or even thoughtful.

Taken only in these terms, it is possible to condemn sports -- as the eggheads have so often done -- to the international toy box, just another distraction in a world already full of them.

Sports are too important for that.

And yet they are no more important than the sight of ourselves alive and at play.

It is the sad conceit of every generation to think itself special, unique in the history of the species, more troubled, more brilliant, more beset by worry and conflict. The homely truth is that we all walk along a simple continuum of earnest trial and error, subjects in the long human experiment of just living.

Sports are that thing at the convergence of slapstick and divine revelation, the mirror in which we can find or lose ourselves, the ledger in which we reckon our own mortality and assign immortality to those we most admire, and the folly in which we believe we can see an absolute and objective truth.

At the end of things, whenever that comes, this will be the best and worst of us, playing with such joy the games in which we so briefly celebrate ourselves.

All this as the sun, the moon and the stars keep right on turning.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him here.


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