The Lust for Conquest–in Football

I have written elsewhere about how our martial spirit–so common in nations of the past–has been sublimated into sports. We are allowed to support our troops only by pitying them, not celebrating their prowess when they kill their enemies. But we can celebrate the victories and even the brutality of our sports teams.

Here is a perfect illustration, a terrific sports column by Sally Jenkins on the New England Patriots, whose clash with the also undefeated Indianapolis Colts should be a highlight of the weekend:

I have a weakness for world conquest, which may explain my fascination with the New England Patriots. You can have the sentimental underdog; I’ll take the dynasty or the empire every time. There’s an imperial marching quality to the way the Patriots have trampled their NFL competition, which I frankly appreciate. This is a team that clearly wants to sweep the board, own everything from Egypt to Babylon. There are those who don’t appreciate the Patriots, who find their dominance cold and unappealing. This is merely weakness, a common complaint from those whimperers and whiners who don’t understand what dark beauty lies in dominion and the exercise of total power.

A football game is one of the few instances in which it’s okay to guiltlessly enjoy oppression of the weak. Critics complain that there’s no honor in the way the Patriots run up the score, but there’s nevertheless something sort of magnificent in the way they crush opponents, in their hard quantitative search for total victory, while Coach Bill Belichick watches from the sideline with that expression on his face, part Lord Sauron and part Doctor No. . . .

To their critics, the Patriots are chilly practitioners who invite a visceral anger with their Thracian massacre-like final scores. Against Dallas, their last points came on fourth down with just 19 seconds to go. Against the hapless Miami Dolphins, Brady threw six touchdown passes and was still in the game in the fourth quarter. And then there was this week’s game against the Redskins, when Brady was again on the field late in the fourth, and they went for two fourth downs despite leads of 38-0 and 45-0. It’s an understandable gut reaction, based on the Golden Rule: Would the Patriots like it if another team did that to them?

But in a way, the discussion about whether the Patriots are running up scores is really about competing ethics. It’s about gamesmanship vs. sportsmanship. The gamesman is exclusively focused on winning. Rules are something to be maximally exploited, and the final score is an expression of superiority. The sportsman is more focused playing the game the way it “ought” to be played, and is perhaps even willing to lose in the name of sportsmanship. . . .

The fact is, whether you like it or not, the Patriots have their own distinct ethic. It’s based in the single-minded principle of all-out effort, and the self-interested pursuit of perfect excellence. They don’t care what anyone thinks outside of their clubhouse, their motto might be Clark Gable’s in “Gone With the Wind”: “I believe in Rhett Butler. He’s the only cause I know. The rest doesn’t mean much to me.” They’re strictly interested in their own high performance, the tuning of a perfectly repeating machine.

Notice how Nietzschean this sports writer and the Patriots are (according to her): the explicitly stated disdain for Christian ethics, the contempt for the weak, the worship of superiority, the personally-created ethical code. Nietzsche may be our future, if this attitude bleeds back from sports into the culture as a whole. So civilization may just turn on an Indianapolis victory.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • phdsvp

    The difference in sports is that the other team has the ability to go Nietzsche as well. If New England runs up the score on too many teams, eventually someone is going to respond by hitting Tom Brady’s knee with his helmet and ending his (and the Patriots’) season. So, as with many contacts Nietzschian philosohpy has with Christian culture, New England must continue to rely on their opponents being more sportsmanlike and merciful than they are in order to reach their goals.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    This game isn’t just the highlight of the weekend: it is the de facto Super Bowl. You’re just getting it several months ahead of time, and with two teams that can’t possibly meet in the actual Super Bowl.

    This writer is obviously projecting. Many of the Patriots players regularly wear t-shirts emblazoned with the themes of humility. They are great not just because everyone else is mediocre, but because they humbly strive for perfection, which can only be approached when one is so focused on the goal that one makes a habit of facing one’s own weaknesses and eliminating them. They are what every other team is striving to become.

    Like the writer, I am fascinated by watching the Patriots. But the implicit comparison to Alexander the Great and his armies breaks down pretty quickly. The Patriots just have a bunch of games to prepare for, against well-documented teams. Armies deal mostly with uncertainty when on the march.

    Still, it will be a great matchup on Sunday. No one has slowed the Patriots this year, but Indie has been fairly well tested and are more used to closely-contested games. At home, I wouldn’t write off the world champions.

    This post submission has not been previewed. Caveat emptor!

  • http://cavman.wordpress.com cavman

    Isn’t the point of professional football to win?
    Do we actually want these guys to give half-efforts because they are playing a weaker team?
    I think the writer is caught up in godless ethics. But does Christianity mean we don’t put forth our best effort on the field of competition?
    The Patriots are about the pursuit of excellence on the football field. I suspect that falls under the cultural mandate to … take dominion.


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