“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.“ – Henry David Thoreau
Sociology of Sport – Ancient boxers fought until one gladiator was knocked out or admitted he had been beaten. In antiquity, fighters could hit an opponent while he was down, and no distinction was made between weight classes when matchmakers chose would-be opponents.
Why do we compete? Is it to win medals? Or is it to give it our best shot?
The Classical Tradition >
Sports engage us to test our mental, physical and spiritual limits, while enabling its participants to manifest a unique form of beauty. [ Video: The Shaya Story (Baseball) ]
Aristotle (d. 322 B. C.) remarked that play (or athletics) is the closest thing most human beings come to contemplation, to the highest of human activities. It may lack the “seriousness” of contemplating the highest things (such as philosophy or music), yet it contains a liberty and a joy of its own that can only be had if we seriously engage in the play before us.
“I’ll let the racket do the talking.” – John McEnroe
We are at our best when we exert ourselves at a craft we have been honing. In his best-selling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of performing a specific task for one to become an expert in a chosen field. That amounts to 20 hours per week for 10 years.
Athletic contests is where we find an outlet for expression, a stage not possible within office cubicles or dead-end jobs. If we’re lucky, we encounter heated rivals. And as transient beings, we explore the faculties endowed by Divine Providence; to dig deep and search for our personal best; to become hushed as the challenge unfolds, to face our fears, to search for our zenith despite the background cheers (or jeers).
To feel our spirit effuse the flesh, to weep in agony — face marred by dust and sweat, to relent in exhaustion as worthy challengers undergoing loss, or to exhilirate in domination and prowess.
Sports is emotive, arousing us from the wellspring of our core. At night, dreams are obsessed in what fantasies of outcomes may illuminate the darkness. We become immersed in the uncertainty of the play’s results, and the absoluteness of the game causes time to stop. When time no longer exists, we are reborn into eternity.
With us, we carry a lifetime of memories defined from one crucial moment, in the championship rounds — or the do-or-die last minutes. As we grow older, our athletic dreams may fade. We die slowly, losing our identity and unable to find a worthy substitute.
We recall our glory days, when battle flared our devotions.
The game (like the elephant hunt) holds our complete attention, and without notice, transcends conceptions of responsibilities and space.
Civilization mandates that we no longer hunt for food. For centuries, we have stopped thrusting hunting spears into elephants. Rather, we hurl the Olympic javelin as ritual of our primitive roots; to display our mammalian gifts inherited from our past — its act stamped into the collective unconscious of both competitors and spectators.
In The Laws (d. 347 B.C.), Plato describes our human lives at their highest, remarking that we should “live out our days playing at certain games — sacrificing, singing, and dancing….”
“Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.” — Theodore Roosevelt (1894)
Sports and Modernity >
Sports replaced our ancient rituals, back when villagers took young males away from their mothers’ protection and into the forest to test survival or hunting skills. Such practices would eventually be deemed barbaric, and therefore, obsolete.
Athletics is antithetical to the Information Age; its essence opposes the printing press, book learning and the media age because its telos (or purpose) is founded in action. Tech nuts are shackled to their mind-numbing laptops while contests of skill freed you in outdoor recreation.
The Industrial Age, nationalism and military service became social pillars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Boxing, football, basketball, rugby and hockey became the preparatory grounds that molded boys into men.
Douglas MacArthur, when he was a superintendent at West Point, developed organized football to shape the future officers of the U.S. Army — those same warriors that would lead in battle in Normandy, Bataan and Corregidor.
Excellence in the field contributed to organizational efficiency, unit cohesion and morale. MacArthur said, “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”
“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” – William James
Nations replaced city-states and tribes, and athletics became a venue for symbolic rivalry between different people and races. In 1938, American Joe Louis would lose to Germany’s Max Schmeling in a world heavyweight title fight, symbolizing the Third Reich’s dominance in world affairs.
The involvement of political agendas served alongside the fundamental ethos of sport, as the Olympic Games became a platform for the Soviet Union and its allies, along with the crumbling racial divides in America. In winning a gold medal, a country swelled in unison as the bugle anthem played.
Virtues vs Human Commoditization >
Today, there are two schools of thought. What is the modern meaning of sports?
Globalization and its market economy have created commodities out of us. In Asia and Africa, organs such as livers and kidneys are routinely sold for money — either voluntarily or forcibly.
This notion of the “human farm” has influenced enthusiasts and the media into believing that athletes themselves are but monetary and statistical avatars, to be inspected for defects during the draft, and sold and traded during their short careers. In the NBA and Major League Baseball, like other sports, a player can be traded to another team in exchange for cash consideration.
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” – Heywood Broun
Our society practices an extreme form of utilitarianism. Performance is the only end, and the size of the player’s contract (three years for $12.5 million) is the only measure of his human worth. An injury renders him worthless.
Athletics, then, is no longer the means to high values but entertainment and the bottom line.
Sports contests are viewed in terms of market share; profit centers, no longer the purveyors of national pride, or the preparatory grounds for military defense, civic foundation or the establishment of a sense of fair play.
However, those that embrace the classical tradition still view athletics primarily in the context of teaching lifelong virtues. Competition is a means of instilling in our youth the habits of discipline, humility, faith, devotion, love, work ethic and sportsmanship. Athletic contests embed honor in our blood.
These ideals may be drowned out by the cynics and by the media. But right now, all around the world, out in a basketball court or a soccer field, a young lad is honing his craft.
Guarded by the innocence of age, he prepares quietly. And in his lonesome, he establishes those habits of civic and moral foundation. Resolute, he presses on despite the protests of his ailing flesh.
It is for that reason alone that society (all of us) benefits.