Sport as Religion

I have been a sports enthusiast as long as I remember. I played all manner of sports though tennis was always my best sport and I eventually became a teaching professional and a coach and was able to see the sport from a different angle and appreciate it even more than I had when I played. There are those who think sports are a waste of time, but I disagree. So does John Carroll, as it happens. You remember John Carroll? I have referred to his books frequently of late because they do provide an excellent spark to ignite thought. Or something.

In any event, Carroll has a chapter in his book Ego And Soul devoted to sport. He thinks it is one of a number of ways that modern  men and women find meaning inter lives. And he makes out an excellent case that sports in our culture have displaced religion and as such play a vital role in a culture that desperately needs something to draw people out of themselves. Sports do just that. We have heard that football, for example, allows those who play and those who watch to release their aggressive impulses. This is a healthy thing, though it apparently does not release enough aggression in enough people, sad too say. But sports in general have become larger than life and they make possible the ecstasy that is frequently identified with the religious experience by Zen masters and they also make possible the sense of euphoria and catharsis that are frequently associated with that very religious experience. Religion, for most people, has lost that ability and has become mainly ritual that leaves the participant empty and dissatisfied. Sports fills the gap, according to John Carroll. Take the Olympics, for example.

“The modern West has created one global cult of mythic force. The modern Olympic Games has become the pre-eminent international institution.

“The modern Olympic Games was initiated in 1896 by the a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin — 1500 years after the ancient Olympics were closed down by a Christian Roman emperor on the grounds that they were too pagan. Coubertin sought to recreate the classical Greek ideal of religious festival in which humans perform athletic and cultural feats at the highest level of excellence.

” Coubertin was strongly influenced by the English Public Schools. It was, in particular, the emphasis in Thomas Arnold’s Rugby on developing the character of the boys, linked to the neo-Hellenic ideal of a ‘sound mind in a healthy body.’ For Arnold, sport played a key role, but it was not sport for its own sake. Coubertin’s adaptation was to take education out of the school and into the public arena. He then harnessed sport to his pedagogical ends by orchestrating the games within a totality of brilliantly conceived ritualized drama. He created what would become the modern religious festival, dwarfing all others, rising, as if on cue, as the Christian churches began to empty.

“Coubertin was quite explicit that his was to be a religious revival, and that it was pagan. He spoke of new gods to replace the dying old ones. He lamented in the 1930s that the Games were turning into a marketing spectacle; he had intended them as a Temple, in which religio athletae was to be practiced. . . .

“The spirit of classical Greek religion had been rekindled. By taking sport, and setting it in a larger metaphysical context, a neo-pagan festival had been recreated that appeals to the religious sensibility of the secular modern West.”

We are all aware of the commercial spectacle the Olympics has become, with players being paid by their countries for the medals they win. But at the heart of this spectacle, especially during the grand opening of the Games, we can see suggestions of what Coubertin had in mind. The Games were to be the new religion. They were to provide for participants and spectators alike a deep religious experience, taking them out of themselves and moving them to new  heights of appreciation for the beauty that is athleticism at its best. Thus we have the religious experience par excellence: ceremony; aesthetic delight; ecstatic and cathartic experience. All in the interest of connecting us with one another and with the greater world outside the self.

Those who participate in sports have described the rare experience of “being in the zone” in which they don’t think but simply feel and act as if on a high. This is ecstasy as it is described by the gurus and mystics who meditate until they reach nirvana. Shades of it can be experienced in the company of great works of art, when the aesthetic becomes the totality of the world: the painting, sculpture, or music become all there is. At this point, as Carroll would have it, ego and soul become one. Balance is achieved. This can happen not only for the athlete but for the spectator as well — especially in large groups such as a packed crowd in a sporting event when “it’s all on the line.”

To a degree, all sports can achieve this, according to Carroll. Even the individual sports such as golf and tennis. They fill a vacuum that has been created by the death of religion which, all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, no longer enriches the spirit or replenishes the human soul of the vast majority of people in the West.

Certainly a novel and most interesting suggestion, is it not?


Here We Go Again!

You may have picked up the stench from East Lansing, Michigan where the outrageous behavior of Dr. Larry Nassar recently came to the surface and is now followed by allegations of innumerable sexual attacks against women by members of the university’s basketball and football teams. Dr. Nasser has been sentenced to 175 years in prison for his behavior involving Olympic athletes as the flowing clip from CNN reveals:

(CNN)Once a world-renowned sports physician treating America’s foremost Olympic women gymnasts, Larry Nassar now will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The disgraced former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, a judge announced Wednesday, after more than 150 women and girls said in court that he sexually abused them over the past two decades.
“I’ve just signed your death warrant,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom. “I find that you don’t get it, that you’re a danger. That you remain a danger.”
Nassar had pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County in Michigan and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault and molest girls under the guise of medical treatment.
Imagine that: 150 women testified against this man who has shown little remorse that raises deep questions about the man’s mental stability, among other things.
But the aftermath at Michigan State, where Dr. Nasser was team physician for many years, raises even more questions. It has all the hallmarks of the Penn State investigations not too long ago involving charges of sexual attacks on young boys by a member of the Penn State football staff. The fundamental problems here are twofold: (1) The University feigns ignorance regarding victims of alleged attacks, and reporting those attacks is not encouraged; moreover, when attacks are reported they are not taken seriously. (2) The culture of secrecy that surround the athletics programs which are laws unto themselves. Attacks are investigated by campus police who then report to the Athletics Director as do those young women who allege attacks. The Athletics Director is then charged with following up those charges and punishing the attackers when found guilty. But, as can be imagined, the in-house investigations give every appearance of a cover-up and the University continually denies the charges, as do the basketball and football coaches who, if they did not know of the attacks (which is doubtful) certainly should have.
In any event, we have here the resounding echoes of the seemingly endless number of scandals that would appear to rock college campuses where the sports teams are laws unto themselves and just when we think public reports of the latest scandal would surely end the nightmare, it passes as just another incident reported in the news and quickly forgotten. The genie is out of the bottle on college campuses where Division I athletics are King. And it is not clear, given the amounts of money involved in sports at that level, that the genie can be put back into the bottle. On the contrary.
As a life-long educator this bothers me on so many levels. I have spent my life dedicated to the ideal of education as the process of freeing young minds and have always regarded college as the place where the process finds its highest expression. I have no problem with sports, having played them all my life and having been a certified teaching professional in tennis and a collegiate tennis coach for many years. But as an educator I have always thought that sports should take their place in the college and university hierarchy well below the ideals of educating young minds.
But at the Division I level of NCAA sports this is clearly not the case where education comes after all the money is counted and the bills are paid — and folks are paid off, apparently. The corruption in itself is an object lesson, one would think, but like so many object-lessons this one is not learned — even in the hallowed halls of academe where history is still taught. We hear and read about these things going on and then return to business as usual. Nothing changes and the problems persist.

Enhancing Performance

After watching Katie Ledecky win her fourth gold medal at this year’s Olympics, beating her second-place opponent by 11 seconds in the 800 meter free-style race I immediately thought “I wonder what she’s on.” It’s sad. I have no reason whatever to believe that this young women took anything to enhance her performance, but in this day and age when anyone wins big one immediately wonders what that person was on.

For so many years we could simply enjoy the thrills and spills that are sports, getting satisfaction from the remarkable feats of strength and grace. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Now that’s all done and gone. I suppose Lance Armstrong was the one who spoiled it for me. Or was it Barry Bonds? Or Roger Clemens? Anyway, there seem to have been so many “great” athletes who, it was discovered, cheated and had a leg up in their goal to achieve great things in sports. They have spoiled it for me.

I watch an athlete like Katie Ledecky win her race by such a large margin and I cannot get it out of my head that if she’s that much better than her opponent she, too, much have had a letup. The same is true of Serena Williams who is big and much stronger than so many of her opponents. I don’t want to believe it, but the seed has been planted and it has grown into a thorny bush that pricks and stings and makes every great moment in sports a moment of suspicion and doubt. How sad.

Sports are one of the few places left in our world where people are rewarded for their wins and punished for their losses, where there is success and failure — and many athletes at all levels of play learn important lessons from both winning and losing. But when winning is tainted by the suspicion (well-founded or not) that there was cheating involved it makes the entire enterprise dark and shadowy. That is not as it should be by any means. But that is what Performance Enhancing Drugs have brought to sports. All successful athletes play under a cloud of doubt and the only thing we can do — and we do it — is to think “well, everyone else does it, so what’s the difference?” We try not to think of it.

As I say, that’s not the way it should be. It’s not fair. We should rejoice with Katy Ledecky and admire the determination and skill of this remarkable athlete and the wonders she performs in the pool. But, because of that thorny bush, I find it difficult to do any more. How sad.


In one of Bill Cosby’s hilarious stand-up comic bits, he noted that we don’t cheer for players in professional sports any more, we cheer for the uniforms. In a day when players and coaches stand up before an array of microphones and swear allegiance to the team and then are gone before the next day, there is much truth in Cosby’s comedy. Until the uniform is retired, we had better not get too excited about the star that is playing for the home team because he may not be there in the morning.

Many would call this “disloyalty,” but given the commercial world we live in this is simply regarded as “good business.” No one, it seems, can find fault with the young man or young woman who simply wants to “better themselves” by moving on and taking a better deal. By “bettering themselves,” we mean, of course, making more money. It is no longer even a point of debate to suggest that perhaps a young man or a young man would be happier if they stayed where they are, any more than it is to suggest that young athletes would be well advised to remain in college until they earn their degree. There are some who have done that, of course, but it is almost always a function of the home team coming up with enough money to persuade the hero to stay with the team, or the promise of more money down the line after another stellar year in college. It raises an interesting question about the possibility that, perhaps, the notion of loyalty is a thing of the past along with so many other virtues in our day. Unless, of course, we recognize that for many the object of their loyalty these days is money. And not just athletes. I can’t recall offhand a churchman who heard a “calling” from a Church that promised to pay him less. But back to the athletes.

Though I have not really paid attention to these games because the rampant commercialism has destroyed any semblance of amateurism, the most intriguing story to come out of the Sochi Olympics, in my view, is the story of the snowboarder Vic Wild who got no respect from his American support group so he decided to become a Russian citizen and race for “them.” True, he married a Russian woman, but any doubt about where his loyalties lie is erased when one considers the fact that he simply wanted to race and was willing to do so anywhere if the price was right. In this case, it was a simply matter of getting the financial support he insists is required to perform at the highest levels. He wasn’t getting it in his home country, so he went elsewhere and earned two gold medals for his adopted country, as the following snippit from a Yahoo News story makes clear:

Less than 24 hours before the Sochi Games’ closing ceremony, Russia led the overall medal table with 29. The United States ranked second with 27. Were he still competing for the U.S., Wild would be the most decorated American Olympian at the Sochi Games – and the athlete who pushed them into the lead.

Instead, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association dissolved its already-underfunded alpine snowboarding program after the Vancouver Games, leaving Wild with a choice: end his career or defect. When he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina in 2011, Wild applied for citizenship in her country and its greatest perquisite: the support of an Olympic organizing committee that valued alpine snowboarding.

“I would not have snowboarded for the United States,” Wild said. “I was done snowboarding. I would have moved on. I would have gone to college. And I would have had a great life. I had another option. The only option to snowboard was to go to Russia and snowboard. I wanted to continue snowboarding, to see how good I can be. I wanted to know I gave it everything I had. …

“I was done. I had called them. I had retired. It has nothing to do with the United States itself. It only has something to do with the nonprofit organization, the USSA. They didn’t give me what I needed. That’s cool. I’m stoked for them. They’ve done a great job at these Olympics. They’re amazing. They do a great job. But not everybody can be happy. I had to make my decision. And I’m very happy that I did that.”

Ignoring the false dichotomy between either Vic quits snowboarding or he defects [there is a third alternative], his fellow snowboarders don’t fault Vic, as I dare say few if any Americans will. He was simply seeking to “better” himself, i.e., put himself into a position where he could excel at a game he loves. But we need to recall it is a game, despite the tons of money that are thrown at successful athletes before, during, and (especially) after the Olympics. If Russia is anything like America in this regard, as reports suggest that it is, Vic will be a very wealthy and adored hero in his adopted country, which I suspect might have been part of his motive in the first place. But make no mistake: he is not being disloyal. He is being loyal to the only thing that really matters to so many of us, namely, money. And if you can make a ton of money doing something you happen to be very good at doing, so much the better, regardless of where you do it.

What’s It Worth?

I used to watch “Antiques Roadshow,” one of the very few shows on public television that people actually watch in great numbers. But its popularity as well as the nature of the show itself are worth consideration. The former depends on the latter. But what is the show about? What does it mean? What are the subtle, hidden suggestions the show passes along to us? These are questions worth considering.

People bring family heirlooms and treasures to a city where cameras are set up and experts evaluate the worth of these treasures in dollars and cents. In a word, the “value” of things is translated before our eyes from delight, sentiment, and aesthetic appreciation to filthy lucre. It is a sign of what has been called the “commodification” of culture. In such a culture everything is turned into a commodity — including human labor — and a price is put on it which determines its value. Without the dollar sign attached to it, it has no value. We are so used to the process we no longer think about what has been lost in the translation. What things are really worth has given way to what price they can bring. “I love that painting, but is it worth anything?” This is absurd.  If you love the painting it has real value. You don’t need to attach a dollar sign to it.

The same sort of thing happens in “sport” which is the reduction of athleticism from something beautiful and valuable in itself for participants and spectators alike into a money-making proposition where television and promoters call the shots and the athletes are valued for what kind of market they create with their skills. The better ones make more money, and vice versa. Just think about what the commercialization of the Olympics has done. It has turned a series of athletic events that should amaze and astound us for the remarkable skill shown by the participants into a competitive spectacle where every medal earned is rewarded with dollars and carefully counted; winning has become not the main thing but the only thing that counts. It really isn’t: I don’t care if Vince Lombardy did say it. It is the event or the performance itself that should be valued, not wins and losses.

When I played and coached competitive tennis I loved to win. Don’t get me wrong. But I never fell into the trap of thinking that winning is what it’s all about. I played because I loved to play: to hit the good shot or to “be in the moment” when you know every shot will go where you want it to and nothing else matters. When I coached I always stressed performance. Let winning take care of itself; just give it your best effort. And I certainly would never have thought to put a price on winning or losing.

In a commodified culture something important is lost when these sorts of reductions take place. In reducing the value of heirlooms and family treasures to dollars and cents we lose the aesthetic and sentimental value of the objects themselves which has nothing whatever to do with money. In reducing athletics to sports we lose the thrill of watching another human being perform extraordinary feats of strength, skill, and movement as we worry about whether they will win or lose. Our three-dimensional world is hammered into a sheet.

We seem to have lost sight of why things are truly important to us in our urge to measure everything in terms of money. But how do we measure in this way the value of a child’s smile, a sunset, the trust the blind man has in his dog, or the love of another human? We can’t — certainly not in terms of dollars and cents. The important things don’t have a dollar value, they are valuable in themselves.

Patriotism Yes, Jingoism No

The Olympics give us a good deal to think about. I have blogged about the medal count previously and will leave that one alone except to say it gets nauseating. The Games are supposed to be about athleticism and competition at the highest levels not about how much gold and silver one country can accrue. But that’s spitting into the wind.

For my part I try not to be partial to my country. When watching the women’s soccer match between USA and Canada, for example, I tried hard to root for the Canadians since I had read the American women had been poor sports in previous matches, engaging in pre-planned and choreographed celebrations after scoring goals and especially after winning matches — with their coach’s approval. During the game I watched I saw a number of examples of poor sportsmanship on both sides, but I confess I wanted the Americans to win. Sorry about that  (as they say).

But one does want to be patriotic, doesn’t one? And pulling for your own country is patriotic, no? Perhaps. Or it may be excessively patriotic, that is to say jingoistic — which is not the same thing at all. It’s a matter of excess. As Aristotle cautioned: all things in moderation! Politics shouldn’t enter into the Olympic Games: it should be about athletic prowess and the best man, woman, or team should win regardless of what country they happen to come from.

One is reminded of the Olympics in 1936 when Jesse Owens ran circles around Hitler’s “superior” Germans, winning four gold medals, and Albert Speer is reported to have said: “Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made [Hitler] happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored [sic] American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.” Seriously!!  He wanted his Olympics to be a showcase to demonstrate the superiority of the German race, which is Jingoism with a capital “J” coupled with blatant racism wrapped in a package of hatred and spite. But this is an extreme case.

To paraphrase Boswell, patriotism is the last refuge of tiny minds: a place for scoundrels and small-minded people to hide their insecurities and prejudices, identifying with the power and might of the country at large. It is all of that with its prominent displays of flags on shirts and poles and its tears at hearing the National Anthem. And it is patriotism that is on display when one pulls for athletes that represent one’s own country. A certain amount of it is healthy and to be expected, even, perhaps, the tears. But when the TV and media are full of episodes showing only our country’s athletes and their parents in the stands with their flags waving, and Americans — or anyone for that matter — count medals to see who is “best,” it goes a bit over the line and becomes jingoism — not Hitler’s form of jingoism perhaps, but excessive patriotism none the less. And that is just a step or two away from fanaticism:  My Country, Right or Wrong!

We should applaud all athletes who perform at the highest levels. If we pull a bit for our own that is to be expected. But when we are shown only (or predominantly) our own athletes and athletic teams again and again and we ignore altogether how the other athletes are doing, we have crossed a line and are dangerously close to becoming biased observers, unable to see excellence except in red, white and blue. Our patriotism teeters on the brink of jingoism and we lose perspective and forget what the Games are really about: they are not political; they are not about collecting medals (and the vast amounts of money that go along with the medals); and they are not about OUR athletes. They are about the best athletes in the world exhibiting good sportsmanship (for the most part) and completing on the world stage, thus deserving the accolades of all of us regardless of what country they represent. But above all, we must keep in mind these are just Games!

A Disquieting Parallel

I read with some dismay the story about the athletes from North Korea who have had success and will therefore be welcomed home — and about those who fail and are punished by their government when they return back home. In part, the story reads as follows:

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

The gold medalists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular – new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.. . .

The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

Now we certainly do not punish losers in this country — unless vanishing from the public eye can be regarded as punishment. They are quickly forgotten. But there are some alarming parallels between a country that chooses to ignore its poor and disadvantaged and our country.  Bear in mind that North Korea is in serious trouble because of the failure of its food production and distribution plus the sanctions it has brought down on itself because of its intransigence regarding the continued development of nuclear weapons. The country has thousands of hungry and out-of-work citizens who barely manage to stay alive because the country has put a premium — that is, spending the major portion of their income — on the development of weapons of war.

Therein lies the parallel. No, we are not a Communist (that is, Stalinist) country. But we glory in the gold our champions win (we also pay the winners, big time), relegate our losers to oblivion, and our government has also chosen to put its focus on the development of weapons of war at a time when a two-year drought in the Midwest threatens to further damage farm production, thereby making food more costly at a time when thousands are out of work, and the numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country grows perceptibly.

I do not wish to push the parallel farther than it will go. But the fact that there is any sort of parallel between a supposedly “free” country and one that holds its citizens in chains of intimidation and repression is deeply disturbing. The fact that there are thousands of wealthy people in this country who endorse their government’s decision to continue to spend money on “defense” while it ignores the plight of their neighbors —  neighbors who have no place to live and very little food to put on the table, or who have to work two jobs at minimum wage (if they can find work) to support a hungry family — is also deeply disturbing.

We talk about the 1% who control the wealth in this country but we tend to ignore the plight of  the 1% who are homeless, who sleep in their family van or in a cardboard box, and worry where their next meal is coming from — an average of 842,000 in a given week. And there are thousands more who are not categorized as “homeless” but who live in temporary shelters and suffer from lack of adequate food; 46 million Americans are on food stamps. We call them “bums” but they are people like you and me who have been caught in the “trickle down” [sic] of wealth from the rich to the very rich. It is not something we can be proud of. And given the fact that these people and the government they support continue to build weapons of war while their fellow citizens suffer and they look for another social program to cut is a somewhat alarming parallel between our country and a country that we rightly criticize for being cruel and inhumane.

No, we don’t punish those who lose athletics contests. Not really. But we punish those who cannot keep their heads above water in life and we call them “losers” when it is we who are the losers.

Counting Medals

The original Olympic Games dated from the eighth century. Legend has it that the games were initiated by Hercules after completing his many feats of strength and courage to thank Zeus. They were held during a “Sacred Truce. . . and no war between the Greek city-states ever prevented them from being held.”* The games involved various athletic contests such as wrestling, boxing, running, horse racing and the immensely popular chariot races. While they were intensely competitive they were praised by Plato for the refreshment and “wholeness” they bestowed on every participant. All hostilities were halted during the games — which was no mean feat since the Greek city-states were a bellicose group. “If states [that were] engaged in hostilities failed to lay down their arms for the duration of the truce a heavy fine was inflicted, its size calculated according to the number of troops involved.”*  The point is that the Games were regarded from the beginning as a time of peace and fellow-feeling among a group of people who had trouble getting along most of the time.

Contrast that with the modern games which have now a Summer and a Winter phase and involve more sporting events than anyone can possibly remember and pit one nation against another to see which can accumulate the most medals (“We’ve got more than you do: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” ). As mentioned, there was always an element of competition, but it used to be among athletes and not among nations — or even the city-states — though there was doubtless some pride involved when a local man did well.

This is not to say that in today’s Olympics friendships are not formed and dialogue opened among athletes from different countries — all to the good. In addition, the athletes themselves enjoy what has to be a most remarkable educational experience — win or lose. And the athleticism is truly extraordinary. But the modern version of the Olympic Games reveals sharp contrasts with the original version.

The Olympic Games never involved professional athletes who were paid to participate –at least not until very recent times. To make matters worse, today’s athletes are beholden to their sponsors. Recently the I.O.C. had to employ extreme measures (in the spirit of the Olympics, I would think) to forbid the athletes from using social media to promote the products their sponsors are selling.  But — led by the U.S. athletes — the Olympians are incensed, as a recent story attests:

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

It just gets worse. Not only do nations vie with one another to pile up the largest treasure in medals of all colors but we now must also have mounted anti-terrorist weapons on tall buildings and increased security lest someone repeat the horrors of Munich 40 years ago. The air is tense, even electric. In a word, the games are no longer about a time of peace amid the chaos of everyday warfare, but an extension of that warfare onto the court and the field of play — which is no longer play at all, but a contest to see who can get the most gold. Symbolic? I suppose so. But also sad.

The athletes, for the most part, seem to have the idea. To a large extent they exhibit the true spirit of the Olympic Games as the Greeks envisioned them. But the things that separate the ancient Games from the modern ones are the crass commercialism of the latter and the exploitation of the athletes by their corporate sponsors, N.B.C. television, and the countries that send them for the purpose of boosting national pride. But most distressing is the fact that these countries refuse to lay down their arms — even for this brief period — putting me in mind of Handel’s Messiah which asks the probing question: why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why indeed.


*Michael Grant: The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Macmillan Co.).