The song, “Amazing Grace,” in all of its beauty and grandeur, was penned by a once-horrid man and slave-owner—a true wretch, as the lyrics denote—John Newton.  Newton himself reflected, “There never was, nor could be, such a sinner as myself.”  But, through a tapestry of timely events, Newton’s evolved self-awareness led him to write the song that has become entrenched in American culture, with over 1,100 known recorded versions.  A song about grace.

Given that so many people connect with sport at such a base level, it affords us a great opportunity to use sport as a catalyst for getting at otherwise abstract yet profoundly important issues.  The recent “Sherman Incident”[1] provides such an opportunity, especially with this weekend’s Super Bowl on the horizon: an easy, low-risk opportunity to display grace.[2]  Grace may seem a muddled concept, without much agreement on just what it is.  So let me first briefly lay out, in simple terms, how I have come to view grace in my five years reading and writing about it and then explore just how we can give grace a chance this weekend.

We can approach grace as the intersection of three other virtuous concepts: empathy, compassion, and forgiveness.  While grace is commonly viewed from a religious perspective, it need not be: clearly, these virtues are attainable by anyone, anywhere.  Though, as a paradigm case of grace, we can turn to the story of Jesus’ final day, being tortured and executed.  While on the cross he is said to have asked those who harbored hatred for his executioners to instead forgive them, “for they know not what they do.”  This comes from a place of empathy: an understanding of what would cause someone to act in such a horrendous manner.  And, once we can truly empathize, compassion soon follows.

None of this justifies the immoral actions of anyone, nor does it suggest that we continue to allow them.  Instead, it’s a psychological and, if you will, spiritual approach to dealing with the inevitable disappointments that being human brings. Jeremy Rifkin writes thusly in examining the profound nature of empathy in his recent book, The Empathic Civilization, “No one ever empathizes with a perfect being.”

That grace is rooted in empathy doesn’t require us to exactly know the plight of the person to whom we show grace.  We can instead approach individuals with what I call “Implied Empathy”—the understanding that each of us in some way has our own set of fears, weaknesses, and storied pasts, which influence our acting in ways deemed unacceptable.  As the ancient aphorism reminds us, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Lastly, it turns out, as with most things virtuous, there’s something in it for you, the graceful one.  Numerous studies demonstrate the health benefits and increase in happiness of those who are compassionate, who empathize, and who learn to forgive.  While forgiveness clearly benefits the receiver, even more so it benefits the giver.  Forgiveness allows the resentment to vanish.[3]  To resent literally derives from the Old French, “to feel again.” Feeling anger again and again is no way to go through life, much less through the experience of watching a football game.

And so we return to Super Bowl Sunday.  Because of Sherman’s antics, it has been deemed by many as a battle of “the good guys and the bad guys” (LA Times) and there are countless references of the Seahawks and Sherman as “evil.”  Sherman behaved in an unsportsmanlike (and rude—see my last post) manner, no doubt.  But we have an easy opportunity to approach the event with grace.  As Rifkin suggests, “The play environment is the classroom by which we learn to be empathetic with our fellow human beings.”  We can here apply Implied Empathy and imagine factors that might result in such actions:

Sherman had just completed an exhausting, violent, intense three-hour event which had great significance to him.  Given that he is human, he has an ego which can often get the best of us—deny that, and you deny being human—and despite his proclamation that he’s the best cornerback in the league, two of his counterparts earn more in a week than he does all season: a likely bruise to the ego.  Likewise, as we all are the product of evolution, tribalism is encoded in his genes: in-group (Seahawks) good, and out-group (49ers) bad.  Plus, much of his life has been spent immersed in the culture of football: one which inherently celebrates violence and, in many cases, values machismo over virtue.  Lastly, we are told that he and the 49er’s Crabtree shared untold heated words earlier in the season.  Combine all of this with a massive adrenaline boost—likely the biggest he’d ever had—and we can at least start to empathize somewhat.

In addition to all of these assumptions, we also know that the following day, Sherman apologized.[4]  Of course we don’t know if he “meant it” (how could we?) and most reader-responses show that they’re not letting him off the hook (“Too late-he’s a jerk!” to quote just one).  And game microphones picked up something not on camera at the time: Sherman pats Crabtree on the backside, extends his hand for a handshake and exclaims, “Helluva’ game.”  Many view this as an attempt to instigate, though through the lens of Implied Empathy we can take it at face value.

Various other opportunities to imply empathy arise as we also imagine what might be going on in his personal life, how his upbringing factors in, etc.  The key here being: as we acquire more knowledge, we come to a better understanding and can thus better empathize, show compassion, and forgive.

Instead of submitting to our base instincts and allowing them to control us, we gain control through the gift of grace.  Grace transcends.  Part of the beauty of grace is that the recipient doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t earn it.  It’s an unconditional gift.  Hate breeds more hate.  And if sport’s culture truly does belong to all who participate—players and spectators, alike—then we play a small role in shaping that culture.

So this Sunday, let’s watch from a place of joy versus a place of hatred.  Root for something, like good football or Peyton Manning (he seems like a nice fellow), versus against Sherman.  And for those friends and family with whom I’ll be watching, I ask you to show a little grace to me.  I’m sure to slip up at some point on Sunday as my own ego and emotions kick in watching Sherman.  He—and I—are only human, after all.  Amazing grace, indeed.

[1] Following the NFC Championship Game, Sherman signaled to quarterback Colin Kaepernick that he had “choked” and then, in a postgame interview, referred to wide receiver Michael Crabtree as a “sorry receiver.”

[2] That I’m posting on a Jesuit university site for an Institute based at that same university is not lost on me.  I realize that the mention of the word, “grace,” is likely met with profound approval in this demographic.  Though I also hope to show that grace is achievable for all demographics, both religious and secular.

[3] My 3-year old son, Jake, came into my office to ask, “How’s your writing going?”  We read the above sentence about empathy, compassion, and forgiveness.  As per his 3-year old prodding, I attempted to define the latter terms (he already knows of empathy).  In describing forgiveness I referenced the morning’s transgression with his 1-year old brother, Knox, who pushed him down, hurting his chin.  I asked Jake how it felt when Knox shoved him: “Sad.  And it hurt.”  I then asked how he felt when his brother apologized: “Good.”  And then asked how he felt when he told his brother that it was okay: “Really good.”  That, Jake, is forgiveness.  [Smiles.]

[4] He told ESPN’s Ed Werder, “I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates.”