The recurrent scandals in sports and religion are actually part of the same phenomenon: the exploitation of our desire to be united in amazement, by people who realize there's power and money to be had.
Barry Bonds is not a pedophile priest. He's a guy who realized that he could exploit wonder for personal gain. He was aided and abetted by people who more closely resemble pedophile priests -- his "trainers," his agent, and officials of Major League Baseball, who encouraged Bonds in his quest for deification because it would help them accrue money and power, when in fact the cultivation and sharing of amazement was their job.
Pedophile priests are seekers after power and possession. The priesthood has for centuries been the favored sanctuary of those who need trusting souls on which to prey. Whether these priests become perverted in or by the priesthood, or whether their perversion made them seek the priesthood out, isn't a topic I can address, but I think I can safely surmise that the architecture of holy bureaucracy whetted their appetites and provided walls behind which they could perpetrate and conceal their sins.
Cheating athletes and pious rapists violate an unspoken contract between us and those we choose to elevate: instead of sanctifying the experience of communal amazement, they exploit it. Instead of celebrating life, they defile it. And instead of leading us in exercises of self-renewal, they betray us.
The late Renaissance scholar and baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti understood that wonder was on the wane in baseball and in all of American life. In his bright, shiny paean to the essence of sport, Take Time for Paradise, Professor Giamatti said he thought sports represented not our desire to be closer to the gods, but to be god-like. The difference between sports and religion was crucial:
I believe we have played games, and watched games, to imitate the gods, to become godlike in our worship of each other and, through those moments of transmutation, to know for an instant what the gods know. Whether celebrated by Pindar or Roger Angell, sport is, however, ultimately subversive of religion because while it mimics religion's ritual and induces its fanaticism and sensation, sport cares not at all for religion's moral strictures or political power or endless promises.
That last sentence may or may not have been true when Giamatti wrote it, almost 20 years ago, but it's certainly not true now. In fact, sports is exactly like much organized religion today, not in its moral uprightness but in using a grave pseudo-morality to hide its more cynical goals of self-enrichment and self-perpetuation. Sport has become a church, and the fiercely political, pseudo-spiritual bureaucracy of churchdom has become sport: in their accrual of fanatical devotion, their hollow and patently hypocritical moral posturing, and most certainly in their thirst for power, church and sport are blood brothers.
Greek athletic festivals, Giamatti notes, had religious connotations and featured religious ritual, and it's mostly from the Greeks that we inherit and intuit the connection between the Divine and the divinely human. But that connection has frayed, because instead of striving to be closer to the Divine, we honor those who more closely impersonate it. With apologies to J.K. Rowling, it's conjurers, not wizards, that are our national heroes.
We've increasingly reserved our wonder for feats of athleticism because we came to believe we couldn't trust anything but our eyes. And now, too late, we realize that our eyes have been suckered, along with the rest of us.