Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.


24 thoughts on “Why Sports?

  1. The word “sports” triggers many things, good and bad. I agree that respectful competition and physical activity build character and contribute to lifelong health. Arguing sports “greatness” is a minor life joy. The negatives, though, are those things that lurk around the fringes: the ungodly salaries of professionals (entertainers); the bestowing of special status and perks on gifted athletes as early as grammar school; rampant commercialism (and militarism, and mock patriotism) at the college and pro levels. And the corruption and immaturity that result from all of this.

    I still watch tennis and alpine skiing on TV, but not much else. Also, my “greatest” ever in the two sports you mentioned are Federer and Julius Erving, both of whom are tremendously gifted, lifted their sports to new levels, and are great role models. 🙂

  2. You, my friend, are a true Renaissance Man, of which there are few left these days. It seems that today’s youth are being introduced to an ‘either-or’ culture where one can be an intellectual or a geek or a sports person, but in few are combined all facets. It perhaps explains some things about our current politics, but I won’t go there right now. I don’t look down my nose at sports, but simply don’t enjoy watching it much. Now, when younger, I loved playing baseball, but the keyword is ‘playing’ … I don’t make a very good spectator, for I get bored and my mind wanders off (a product of age?). I do believe that playing sports is a healthy activity that leads to some good character traits, such as learning to operate as part of a team, learning to accept not always winning, etc. But when a young person pins all their hopes for their future on being a great athlete, as one of my grandsons has done, then I see a problem. Anyway, make mine sherry, please … cream sherry, if you will. 😉

    • There is that danger. I hinted at that when I said “Many are . . .unable to see much of anything else.” I don’t blame sports for this, however. I prefer to blame the parents and the schools for not stressing balance! In this part of the world high school sports are the primary focus on many secondary schools — with huge chunks of time off to travel and play other teams. We would be better of making sports intramural or even club activities at the secondary levels. All of the benefits, none of the shortcomings.

      • Agreed … I, too, blame parents who push their kids to the extent that the kid feels he has let the world, or at least his corner of it, down if he doesn’t make that hit, that touchdown. Until the last year or two, I had grandsons who played little league, and I tried to catch at least a few of their games each season. I was appalled at the behaviour of some of the parents. My goodness, you would have thought the future of the planet depended on this one game! They cursed the refs, the coaches, and worst of all, the kids!!! I almost had to deck one mother, for I could not hold my tongue any longer and told her to sit down and shut the f— up! Is it any wonder that our society has lost its ability to speak softly, to engage in civil discourse, to … be human?

        Still no book, by the way 😥

      • I once watched a tennis Mom sit by as her private pro worked with her daughter on overheads for a couple of hours without breaks. And other similar examples are legion. But that’s not about sports, it’s about people who have lost their perspective!

  3. Hugh, well said. The start of your third paragraph defines it well, until you get to the trophy part. Any team or group participation (such as my kids had with band) teaches how to work together and collaborate. And, the all teach the value of practice and honing a craft. The teaching of how to handle failure is vital, as that resilience is desperately needed in life.

    But, working as a team is vital in most anything. Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player of all time, but he did not win NBA championships until he worked to make his fellow players better. He once scored 63 points in a game and his team lost, e.g. Bill Russell is arguably the best team basketball player ever (with more NBA championships than fingers) as he worked so well with others and let them take the glory.

    Teamwork, practice, resilience. Three important qualities. Keith

      • Hugh, I was reading your and Jill’s banter. When I coached Little League I witnessed kids involved in way too many planned activities. The kids and parents were stressed rushing from practice to practice to game to event. This was a disservice to all.

        On the helicopter parents, the best thing is to let them play and cheer from the sideline. I remember pulling a child aside when while batting, he needs to stop looking back at his father between pitches. Just focus on the pitcher and the ball, I told the father between innings he might want to just let him bat.

        As a coach, I would make sure they were prepared, then I would sit down on my hands and shut up. Just let them play. Keith

  4. Very true! My friends also think sports is a waste of time! Great read and I will definitely check out a few more of your blogs! A lack of sport can also lead to a number of health risks!

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