Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The role of sports in today's culture

As we look forward to meeting on Tuesday, October 27, you might find time to consider this excerpt from Mario Llosa's Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society (2012):

"Massification, along with frivolity, is another feature of our time. Nowadays sport has acquired an importance matched only in Ancient Greece. For Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and other regular visitors to the Academy, the cultivation of the body was coextensive with and complementary to the cultivation of spirit, because they believed that both were mutually enriching. The difference with today is that, now, people usually play sports at the expense of, and instead of, intellectual pursuits. In the sporting field, football stands out. It is a mass phenomenon that, like modern popular-music concerts, attracts large crowds and raises passions to a greater degree than any other public mobilization, be it political meetings, religious processions or civic assemblies.  Of course for the fans -- and I am one of them -- a football game can be a magnificent spectacle of skill and harmony, with justifiably applauded flashes of individual brilliance. But today the major football games, like the Roman circuses, function mainly as a pretext for irrationality, the regression of individuals to the tribe, to being a part of the collective, where, in the anonymous warmth of the stands, spectators can give free rein to their aggressive instincts, to the symbolic (and at times real) conquest and annihilation of the opposition. The notorious Latin American barras bravas, the gangs of supporters attached to certain clubs who cause havoc with their homicidal brawls and the burning of stadiums with great loss of life, show how, in many cases, it is not watching sport that attracts so many fans . . . but rather the ritual that releases irrational instincts, allowing them to turn their backs on civility during the game and behave as part of the primitive horde." (pp. 29-30)

But what would be the condition of Plato's republic without the gymnasium, the warrior class without friendly games, the local high school on Monday without some testosterone left on Friday's field?


  1. Sports taps into the unique value of what Paul called "physical training" which requires the individual to exercise bodily discipline [basic self-control] in the pursuit and realization of personal potential. This learning experience and the satisfaction [in the form of deferred gratification] it brings can be undertaken and enjoyed by nearly anyone in any physically demanding endeavor in which they are allowed to participate ... from hiking to hang-gliding. Teamwork is a by-product which is present in some sports ... but also realized in non-sports group endeavors such as music. The Special Olympics, for example, helps keep individual experience in perspective.

    However, participation in sports can go beyond personal accomplishment to inter-personal comparison ... competition. And although this is a dangerous place to venture for those who lack humility, it is also a great place to learn humility ... when one sits on the bench or plays and loses [without quitting]. Thus "participatory or club sports" can be a very good learning experience ... if there is time and money for it.

    But when sports goes "varsity/letter jacket" it is another matter. To understand, recall that Cardinal Newman set out three goals for a liberal arts education:
    • good sense,
    • refinement [micro vision] and
    • largeness and justness of view [macro vision].

    He juxtaposed these with three goals for a religious education:
    • conscience,
    • humility [appreciation of humanity] and
    • faith [love of divinity].

    Then he seemed to imply that these worked together:
    • good sense affirms conscience
    • refinement honors humility and
    • largeness and justness of view enrich faith.

    To the extent that "varsity sports" [or any other exclusive-compulsive endeavor] distracts or prevents the mind and heart from considering and experiencing the larger and more enduring thoughts and actions entailed in being a human before God, it is damaging ... and we see examples of this everywhere in modern culture. Like anything else carried to an extreme, sports can constrain a person's "largeness and justness of view" and in so doing rob "faith" of its real riches.

    Perhaps, this is what Paul saw when he noted that the exercise of "godliness" has "value for ALL things" [the macro vision] ... both present and future.

    1. From Paul Henrion on 9-22-2015

      An interesting perspective on the social and cultural influences of "sports" in their broadest definition, not just their professional realm, which includes big time college sports and their tv contracts, but also including, in my mind, sports like dance, usually thought of as art.


      "March Madness" is a phrase that conjures up different images for different people. Some think of an exciting time of year with basketball competition to view on most nights, while others think about the excess of college athletics and the ever burgeoning salaries of college coaches, exploitation of student athletes and outrageous salaries of professional athletes.

      However, for the 50 percent of high school students who compete in athletics and almost all of the more than 360,000 current NCAA student athletes, academics and athletics are co-curricular activities that together strengthen the foundation for future success.

      Having been involved with athletics my entire life from elementary school to all three levels of college athletics (NCAA Division I, II and III), I have seen firsthand the many sides and viewpoints of academics and athletics. For some, it is easy to have a negative view of athletics; the airwaves are filled with stories of scholastic, collegiate and professional athletes who have faltered in their personal or professional lives.
      It is unfortunate that the same media attention is not given to the outstanding individuals who compete in scholastic and intercollegiate athletics; those who bring pride to their team, their university, their high schools, their community and their sport.

      I am talking about the young men and women who have or will become educational, business, health care, government and social leaders. Such individuals number in the hundreds of thousands and include famous former student athletes such as Jackie Robinson, George H.W. Bush, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Sally Ride and Norman Schwarzkopf.

      It is clear that the experiences as a student athlete have helped shape my life and the lives of others.
      Every day, I call upon the experiences I learned in athletic competition and involvement to serve as a "guidebook"; The values of sportsmanship, teamwork, sacrifice, commitment, discipline, hard work, spirit and competitiveness serve individuals well in life.

      Research by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that high school athletes are more likely to earn a bachelor's degree than non-athletes; more likely to achieve full-time employment than non-athletes; and more likely to remain physically active and fit in their adult years.

      Research also confirms that at the collegiate level, student athletes are graduating at a higher rate than non-athletes; are more likely to assume leadership or service roles in their communities, are more likely to make healthy choices, and have a greater respect for diversity.

      Gen. Douglas MacArthur summarized athletics well as he spoke years ago to student athletes at West Point Military Academy. He said, "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which, on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory."

      So, as you watch "March Madness" this year, realize that the young men and women competing are not just athletes but students working hard in and out of the classroom to prepare for the changing paths and avenues in life.

      Scott Gordon is the dean of the Pott College of Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Indiana.

    2. Michael, I'm really glad you brought up the point that the student athletes are working hard on and off the court to not only bring us hours of entertainment, but also further their own education.

      I've always been torn between the European version of amateur sports where the athletes perform for independent clubs instead of the schools and ours where we perform for the institutions. On one hand our form allows for massive exploitation of the academic level where most notoriously places like North Carolina, Miami (FL) and Oklahoma State have put their athletics over the education of the student athletes and even those student athletes over the regular students. The numerous reports of bribery, prostitution and academic fraud that has been reported from numerous institutions is enough to make someone physically ill and completely turn off of amateur sports.

      On the other hand, many of the students who would never had the chance to attend college get this chance because of their athletic prowess.

      For instance, look at Shaquille O'Neal. He never met his biological father and grew up in a very rough part of Newark, New Jersey. There is a very good chance that without basketball he would have never graduated college and gone on to other great academic feats, earning his MBA from Barry University in Florida.

      As a recent college graduate and college athlete myself I remember many times discussing with another student about how he would have never been able to go to college if it weren't for his football and track scholarship.

      It is an odd duality since it is done really well in some places and others fail miserably.

      Also, I'm going to post a link of a lady who absolutely loses her mind at Auburn football players and remember the kids she criticizes are between the ages of 19-22.

  2. I am clumsy, slow-footed, and have ten thumbs. Growing up, sports was never a high priority for me, if for no other reason than that I wasn’t very good at it. But while not a high priority, my sporting activities (such as they were) were valuable to me. At the very least, my involvement provided three important things:
    a) It forced a bookish lad to exercise. Much more than I would have without little league, intermural football, and the ever popular tether ball.
    b) It forced a bookish lad to socialize outside my intellectual circle. I learned that people different than me had value. And they learned that I had value.
    c) It taught me that losing isn’t everything… nor is winning.

    But the important lessons I learned in sports continued in my adult life. I have coached baseball off and on since 1987 (including a little league team that made it to the Mississippi State Championships.) I coached football for almost eleven years (middle school and high school.) And I have even coached basketball (the sport I knew least about) in recent years. And while I am still bookish, intellectual, and more thoughtful than active, I have learned these things about young folk in sports:
    a) Teams give individuals an opportunity to focus on the ‘many,’ instead of just the ‘one.’ A well-coached team involves everyone. Just like in life, everyone has important things to contribute.
    b) Team sports places students in an environment that allows for introspection, observation, and interaction. Of course, most student activities allow for those activities (if I can call them that,) but the stretching stress of competition, the growing awareness of team responsibility, and the openness that occurs during physical exertion provide unique and valuable opportunities.
    c) Team sports provide training and experience in leadership. Not just the quarterback or pitcher, but every participant has moments in which they are required to lead. English Literature, as valuable as it is, does not provide this same opportunity. Neither does Biology. And of course, observing supervised leadership gives every student a display to follow or reject.

    It is clear that too much emphasis can be given to sports. But let us be careful not to throw babies out with the bathwater. The problem, it seems to me, arises not from the availability of sports for youth; but rather, from the emphasis placed on it by some parents and societal enthusiasm. Provide clear limits for sporting activities? Yes… Enforce restrictions on scheduling and encourage time management? Yes… but abolish team sports on the altar of intellectual over-emphasis? No.

    1. Interesting topic. And I think you're exactly right to question this author's characterization of "spectacle" as something entirely negative. Of course, it is bad and good, not all bad.

      The choice of the word "spectacle" to capture the idea is appropriate, however. It was an important concept in my Roman Revolution class in college, taught by one of the leading Roman social historians in the world. There is an element of "appeasement" of the crowd that results from the performance of the "spectacle" and the crowd's participation in it. The movie The Gladiator captures this idea quite well (an epic movie, one of my favorites).

      While the "spectacle" concept generally applies to now, it probably always has applied to any society at any time to some extent. Whether "spectacle" is "frivolity" seems to me just an unhelpful recharacterization of the idea. What's so bad about it? Why does it have to be all bad? Probably we all need some "spectacle" to some extent to stay sane--some fun, some release. I believe we should be proud to some extent that our need today for "spectacle" is satisfied by football and other sports. The sources of "spectacle," and therefore "appeasement," in ancient times was far more violent, gruesome, and terrifying.

  3. PS.

    Competition =/=> Truth

    "Strive together" [compete from Latin com - petere] appears to be the opposite of "fortify together" [community from Latin co - munio]. Of course, we see this all around us ... thieves break in and steal ... politicians twist truth to win a debate or an election ... capitalists do anything to gain power over others in the marketplace ... workers look around to see who is watching ... quarterbacks and coaches break the rules of the game to outscore opponents.

    What looks like an irreconcilable difference arose in a recent re-reading of Socrates' dialogue with Gorgias. where Socrates describes two kinds of men:

    1. one who speaks, not for the sake of discovering the truth, but from jealousy of another
    2. one who is very willing to be refuted if he says anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute - holding that being refuted is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.

    "May the best man win", perhaps, says it all about competition versus community.... "may the worst man lose". Zero-sum game if you add it all up?

    Perhaps, the real question is whether "competitive" sports perverts or perfects our image of God ... our image of ourselves. And if we are ALREADY fallen, does competition further our destruction ... the winner thru pride/dominion and the loser thru shame/domination ??

    Nothing like pouring gasoline on a fire to get badly burned.What would sports be without scoreboards? Does love keep score? Does God keep score? Can we keep score safely?

    It's, perhaps, the difference between going for a run in the woods ... and running a cross country race ... both get good physical exercise and self-discipline ... but the psychological forces at work are very different and powerful.

  4. Two small points and then my main thought:

    1) By "football," Vargas Llosa means soccer.

    2) Different translators of 1 Timothy 4:8 leave us with a range of English renderings. Ronald Knox, no advocate of literal translations, but an excellent classical scholar, renders it into lovely sounding English: Paul, having warned Timothy of the doctrinal dangers to the faith at the beginning of the chapter, admonishes him, "Leave foolish nursery tales alone, and train thyself, instead, to grow up in holiness. Training of the body avails but little; holiness is all-availing, since it promises well both for this life and the next; how true is that saying, and what a welcome it deserves! It is for this that we endure toil and reproach, our hope in a living God, who is the Saviour of mankind, and above all of those who believe in Him." (7-11.)

    3) Mario Vargas Llosa has put his finger on the precise problem when he uses the word "spectacle." (Forgive me Anonymous.) Too much sports are spectator sports rather than participatory today. We have become a nation of spectators at the secular rites that have become our new public religion. The value of sports our commentators have rightly cited come from doing them. not watching them My older son graduated from an independent school in Milson's Point (Sydney) run by the Jesuits. Each quarter each "boy" had to take part in a particular sport. Rather than the whole school simply watching the Firsts (Aussie/English for the varsity) play basketball, they were all part of a team. There were the Seconds, Thirds, and Fourths, etc.; the Under 16 As, Bs, Cs, etc. etc. If Aloysius played Barker, the Seconds played Barker's Seconds, the Under 15 Bs played Barker's Under 15 Bs, etc. At Northfield, a substantial proportion of the student body plays on one or another of the teams. This widespread participation leads to the benefits our commentators have argued for.

    The level to which young people's sports have become so organized and dominated by adults stifles the natural environment of sports. When we lived in New York, our children might on a given evening be with forty others organizing their own games, adjudicating their own disputes, and learning to deal with each other. In Linwood Park, there is a pick up soccer game that has gone on for forty years. The players and companions range from their teens to those in their sixties. This is what sport should be at its best!

    Oh, and yes Michael, dancing can be thought of as a sport. There are competitions and competitive dance will be an event in the next Olympics (horrors!) I must admit after doing a Quick Step and a Waltz Sunday, I was quite winded. Yet for me dancing is something one does rather than a spectacle to be watched.

    And remember, as I am sure Jorge Bergoglio would point out, it takes two to Tango!