Ruminations on a Sacred Cow: Sports & War
If BYU is defeated by Notre Dame or Baylor I doubt very much if our typical fan would feel the slightest inclination to convert to Catholicism or become a Southern Baptist, just as no red-blooded American apparently ever converted to Communism even when the Soviet Union and its satellite states invariably took home the lion's share of Olympic gold.
There is another aspect to all this: historically, not only are athletic games symbolic preludes to battle, they are also designed to prepare the participants and the spectators -- psychologically and physically -- for actual war. The games of ancient Greece clearly demonstrate this aspect of athletics. Whether in chariot racing, the no-holds-barred pankration (meaning: "all force"), the javelin throw, the hoplite race in full armor, or in less obvious martial contexts like the long jump -- itself designed to test a soldier's ability to cross ravines and streams quickly -- and the discus (like the shot, a hurled stone weapon), the military training of Greek sport was always paramount.
Medieval jousting, too, was clearly a form of divination cum military training. The unlikely modern heir to the joust was, in Germany, gymnastics, which is there called Turnen, a word coined by the inventor of gymnastics, "Turnvater" Friedrich Jahn, specifically with reference to the medieval tournament. With Germany under Napoleonic rule, Jahn began his popular nationalistic movement as a clandestine military training exercise.
Hitler used sports in the same way. One recalls how the Führer divined from the 1936 Berlin Olympic games Germany's racial superiority and predestined victory in the coming war. (When a black American, Jesse Owens, spectacularly won several events, of course, Hitler predictably dismissed him as a sub-human who just happened to have the speed of a jungle animal.)
A final word about fans (which is short for fanatic). (For a fuller account, I recommend Michael Robert's book Fans: How We Go Crazy Over Sports.) What emerges from Roberts and other writers on the subject is that such sports as soccer, a relatively non-violent game (when compared to hockey, football, or lacrosse -- an American Indian game played with a severed head) have the power to arouse in fans the most violent reactions. (A war between Honduras and El Salvador is justifiably called the soccer war.)
Clearly fans bring to the game a burden of extra symbolism. Rather than quietly viewing the match with an appreciative eye for the skill of the play (on whatever team), such fans project the fate of worlds onto the game and behave as if Armageddon itself were being fought out before their eyes. All shades of gray disappear and stark black and white, good and evil, "us and them" seem to emerge.
It is difficult to assign exact cause-and-effect relationships, but I recall witnessing, as a student at BYU in the sixties, large rallies in favor of the war in Vietnam; as well as, in the seventies, at least one rally in honor of the already totally discredited Vice-President Spiro Agnew. More recently, BYU gave Vice President Dick Cheney an honorary doctorate. At all three such rallies, held in the psychologically associative environment of athletic arenas, I witnessed large numbers of the BYU community loudly "getting behind the team" without really asking, as individuals, the more difficult issues about the war, Agnew's moral turpitude, or Cheney's contribution to a serious assault on the American constitution.
These crowds more closely resembled, in my opinion, the crowds in Hitler's stadium, wildly shouting their excitement about total war (Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg!!?? -- Are you ready for total war!!??) rather than men and women calmly deliberating the many facets of such issues in a democratic setting.
Perhaps athletics has nothing to do with it. But I wonder. I personally prefer what William Johnson, writing in Sports Illustrated, called "ecosports." Backpacking, hiking, bicycling, jogging, ski-touring, etc., sports that involve people directly in a healthy, non-competitive way and do not attract crowds of symbol-minded spectators. I also think that universities, particularly those dedicated to the gospel of the Prince of Peace, should forgo big-time competitive spectator sports. I realize this is quixotic, but perhaps you would like to tell me what Isaiah meant when he said: "Neither shall they learn war anymore"?
Alan Keele is Professor of Germanic and Slavic Languages at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.