Calling Audibles

By Sally Morem
[Note to readers: I wrote this essay in 1999 after the Minnesota Vikings finished their finest season in history in 1998.] It seems a fitting time for this secular humanist Vikings fan to address some rather unusual theological claims made by several members of the team, including Cris Carter and Randall Cunningham. I wonder. Is there any cosmic meaning inherent in the Vikings' 1998 15-1 season? Is their less-than-stellar 1999 7-6 (at this writing) season a sign of cooling cosmic favor? If a god exists, would he/she/it really care who wins a football game? And much more seriously, how would such involvement in human affairs affect us? These questions represent an American version of the age-old philosophical debate between the existence of fate and of human freedom. In short, do we decide or does Somebody Else call the shots? I find it very strange to hear profound statements of religious faith with respect to an athletic contest. You probably do too. Even the most religious of us think in far more secular terms about everyday activities and amusements than our grandparents did. In ancient days, by contrast, athletes dedicated their greatest skill and effort to the honor of the Olympian gods. Winning a race meant winning the favor of the gods. A sacrifice now and then didn't hurt either. In the meantime, sports has taken on an entirely secular connotation. A football game today is merely a football game. It is a test of speed, strength, strategy, throwing accuracy, coordination of effort, and raw nerve, rather than a test of faith. It most certainly is not a religious ritual. In fact, contemporary theologians would probably consider such sentiments to be at least somewhat sacrilegious. What is really going on during a football game? It's not a one-act play, scripted for the eternal amusement of immortal beings. Instead, countless decisions and actions by the coaches and players tumble forth in real time as the unpredictable nature of the game shreds well-laid plans. Should I run the screen or the reverse? Should I defend against the short pass or the long bomb? Should I run up the middle or try the end-around? Feeding into these decisions and actions during 60 minutes of playing time are the life histories of every player, coach, referee, and even those of the fans and the beer man in the stands.

What would happen if all human actions were woven into life's tapestry before the game started? Wouldn't the deity in question actually be the one directing the flight of the ball, the sure hands of the rusher, the power of the tackler, the aim of the kicker, and the roar of the crowd? And wouldn't we be horrified if we ever found out this was true? The power to direct the destiny of a very complex game--not to mention the history of a great nation or of an entire world--would in fact mean the power to overwhelm the intentions of us mere mortals. It would render meaningless any sense we might have of free will and personal responsibility. Why bother trying one's best or doing the right thing? The Word Hath Already Been Written. Consider the alternative. We are truly free beings. Quarterbacks call audibles when their opponents get set in an unexpected defensive formation. The audible tells the team to run a different play than the one planned in the huddle. Audibles aren't limited to football. We humans are very good at calling them in everyday life. The freeway is packed. We drive a different route home. Dinner isn't started. We order out for pizza. A child is not learning in school. We search for one that will fit her needs better. We act as if we were free people within an open world because we are. A lack of assurance of success in our plans doesn't detract from this sense of freedom. In fact, it adds to it. We sense a lack of predestination. We watch as possibilities spread out before us. I've come to realize that calling audibles is all we do. We await the delivery of no set plays from heaven. We merely stand out on the field of everyday life, ready to take the snap, set to hand off or throw to family, friends, and colleagues--calling audibles to each other, play after play after play, until the very end of the game. Skol Vikings!