From a philosophical perspective, the infatuation and obsession with sports seems a bit strange. On a surface level they mainly involve two teams attempting to move some sort of ball or object across a line, through a hoop or in a hole. However, these games evoke immense passion, draw massive crowds and inspire almost a religious fervor in one’s favorite team.
What can explain this all?
Is there more than meets the eye?
In this guest post CJL provides some insight into my questions, and explains how we find meaning in sports.
It’s 9 a.m. on a crisp fall Sunday morning in a midsized American city and tens of thousands of people have already gathered in coordinating colours to perform a day long ritual of eating, drinking and reciting ceremonial chants that have been passed down through generations. These circumstances could depict a religious ceremony or holiday festival. However, in this particular case, in the outskirts of Pittsburg, Kansas City, Houston, Seattle or a few dozen other locations, the community has gathered to spend the day watching football. It’s undeniable that sports have an impact that permeates through society in a way that nothing else can, it creates bonds and rivalries that can unite or divide over the course of decades. There must be more to this phenomenon than watching a group of athletes compete to put a ball into a net or run across an arbitrary line.
Sports, for both the athlete and the underlying fanbase, create a healthy medium for us to channel our natural tendencies towards competition and aggression. The origins of sport are believed to have developed as an offshoot of military training and included events such as wrestling, boxing, and running. The first Olympics occurred in 776BC and provided an outlet for the various city states of Ancient Greece to channel their nationalism in a healthy and competitive way. These athletes were not making tens of millions of dollars per year instead competing solely for pride and the “teams” they played for. Although these events would have been considered brutish by today’s standard and occasionally led to serious bodily injury and death, the Olympics and origins of sports provided a much healthier alternative to the constant state of war that was a condition of the times.
Lacrosse is considered to be one of the oldest North American team sports. In the traditional form of the game, Native American tribes of hundreds of men would play on a field miles long in games that could last days. Even in these early times, the tribe leaders understood that this was a healthy outlet for their members to express pride in their community and channel the need for competition. Similar to the ancient Olympics, the game was not without risk often leading to disfigurement or death, but it still acted as progressive alternative to warfare. In the Mohawk language, lacrosse is referred to as “Tewaaraton” which translates to “little brother of war.” The community impact and involvement extended far beyond the athletes as there were also roles for shamans, healers, and many ceremonial rituals leading up to the games. There was also material impacts as wagers between the tribes were placed on the outcomes.
Although the consequences of modern sports are not as significant, many of the same sentiments and emotions have continued to this day. Take for example the recent Euro Cup, which pits the top European national soccer teams against each other over a month long competition to determine which country will hold bragging rights for the next four years. The nationalism and emotion that is created from this event extends far beyond the players, organizations, and even the individual nations. When Italy won, a unifying celebration took place across the country for days following the penalty shootout. The impact was much more widespread and global as similar parties could be found in Toronto, New Jersey, Argentina, and many other countries around the world which host an Italian diaspora. The modern Olympics are regarded as a global unifying event in which nations send their best athletes to compete for the title of world’s best. The contemporary state of the Olympics often pits the two world super powers of China and the USA in a race for superiority to see who can collect the most medals before the closing ceremonies. There are also significant financial outcomes for the athlete and national Olympic federations based on the results. This a healthier form of competition than allowing nationalism to manifest itself in a military context.
While professional and international sports play an important role in allowing nations and communities to channel their competitive nature and pride in a healthy way, participation in them also has a significant impact in personal development. Enrolling a child in a sport is one of the best ways for them to learn how to function within a group environment, how to win or lose graciously, and how to deal with challenges. Children who compete in competitive sports learn much more than how to dribble a basketball, shoot a hockey puck or putt a golf ball. What the environment is actually fostering is an ability to handle stress and battle through adversity which will greatly benefit them in future careers and life situations. We are seeing an attack on many of these fundamental principles as people argue that it is inappropriate for youth sports to award winners and losers instead promoting the idea that all kids deserve a trophy regardless of performance. This may have detrimental impacts on children as they become entitled and unable to understand the value of hard work and perseverance. The narrative of the comeback or underdog story is one of the most enthralling in sports and should not be watered down in the name of equality of outcomes.
The phrase, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” was coined by the late wrestler Eddie Guerrero. While competition and the desire to win is the central motivation of sports, there must also be some level of ethics and respect for the game. Sports can only function when there is a universally agreed upon set of rules and norms that all athletes abide by to ensure a fair competition. The topic of steroids in sports draws a lot of controversy as these drugs allow athletes to compete at a superior level, but simultaneously subjugate the user to a greater risk of injury and potential for long term damage. It is for this reason, in addition to maintaining the integrity of the game, that most professional leagues ban the use of the performance enhancing substances. The debate over whether sports are worth the risk of bodily harm has also flared up within youth sports. In games which involve risk of injury, such as hockey or football, there are contrasting opinions over whether children should be given the opportunity to choose to compete. In Ontario, this debate has led the governing body to raise the age at which body checking is allowed in hockey. There will always be some risk competing in these activities. However, it is important to remember that this is a healthy avenue to channel aggression and competition through.
Whether or not the nationalism that sports conjures up, if athletes are overpaid and overvalued for their roles in society, and if children should be provided the opportunity to compete in activities which could potentially cause them harm are all up for debate within the modern context. However, if our human nature does in fact include a need for tribalism and competition, there may be no better avenue to channel this through. This idea, along with the opportunity for individual and community development, shows that sports do in fact play a key function within our modern society and will continue to do so in the future. It is now Sunday afternoon and the nearly 100,000 fans that have packed into the Steelers, Chiefs, Texans and Seahawks stadiums, along with millions watching at home would certainly agree.
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