So, someone down below suggested that all of this silliness might be chalked up to Leah’s “gnostic tendencies”. I have similar tendencies, though they might be better called “puritan” than “gnostic”. Still, I don’t think either of these is really behind the discussion at hand.
The great thing about virtue is that it’s flexible. Sport is good. Activity done for the sake of diversion falls under the virtue of eutrapelia (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae q.168), and is analogous to physical rest and relaxation. The mind (like the body) just can’t be working all the time, so there is an excellence in finding suitable modes of relaxation and doing well with them. These consist of play, humor, wittiness, games, etc. In the absence of these, we become like all those characters in The Scarlet Letter, and life takes a turn for the worse. Even the famously ascetical Desert Fathers of early Christianity recognized the importance of play. (If you bend the bow too far, it will break.) So I’m not saying, and I’m sure Leah’s not saying, that football is to be universally prohibited, or that any leisure activity involving any significant degree of physical risk is immoral.
You may have noticed that I’ve been saying “sport” consistently, and not “sports”. This has semantic significance. Sport is activity done for the sake of diversion. Sports are specific games involving the competitive use of a physical skill, normally in a highly organized setting, often at high stakes. What I would like to suggest is that Sport, as I have described it here, has become mostly distinct from Sports as practiced in our culture. I suspect that this is what people are gesturing toward when they complain about the professionalization of child sports teams (the stock little league dad screaming at his son, the kids wearing their all-too-real uniforms and receiving all-too-earnest chiding and corrective advice from their coaches) or the absence of spontaneity in the typical middle-American boy’s experience of these games. I have already touched on the ways even things like this can be good for kids and help develop certain virtues. But what’s clear is that turning a frivolous game into a matter of significant import in your life (as a child or an adult) removes it to a very large extent (perhaps entirely) from the recreation that falls under eutrapelia. When a basketball game is the sort of thing you can cry about after losing, we can be sure that it wasn’t just a diversion. When playing (and thus the possibility of poor performance or loss) induces tension and worry in the player commensurate with a serious life-event, we’re not dealing with sport anymore.
So let me try to summarize. Activities done for the sake of diversion, to develop a skill that is wholly particular to the game in which it is used (chess, e.g.) are moderated by the virtue of eutrapelia: they are good for the recovery of the soul, for the kind of careless frivolity that enables one to more adequately turn toward serious things at other times. A casual game of football could easily fall under this category, and here we would want to regulate our way of playing and the extent to which we invest ourselves in playing in a way commensurate with the freedom and frivolity of play. On the other hand we have professional and quasi-professional way of doing sports, as practiced in schools and national leagues, in which games become a matter of serious serious consequence (moral or material) for players, and are no longer done merely for diversion, but as a kind of art. Here the virtues I have talked about in earlier comments come into play: virtues like fortitude and temperance, friendship and sacrifice, which aid in the cultivation of art, especially when others are involved. I remember attending hockey games when I was at Yale, and marveling at the excellence of the players’ coordination. There is a kind of glory in it, a luminosity or beauty similar to a dance, but perhaps improved by the fact that it is directed toward a definite end. But the question with the cultivation of any art, is what the value of one’s produce is, and to what extent the practice of that art is worthy of sacrifice and pain. This is a deep question which depends on a solid analysis of what is being done and what is produced. But now perhaps we can see why this question is comparable to questions about job-safety, and also why we ordinarily have so much trouble appreciating that. Sport is supposed to be something free from the ordinary interests and pursuits of everyday life. Any material or moral advantages gained from winning a football game are merely accidental and depend on the context. But once it has been professionalized, assuming it is not secretly part of a vestal cult or religious order, a game decisively enters the world of production and its value is open to question. In other words, since skill at football cannot sanely be pursued as a good in itself, the non-recreational player needs to determine its place within the broader hierarchy of ends, and determine whether the costs of playing (given the benefits of playing) are commensurate with the reasonable pursuit and acquisition of happiness. This is, in other words, the same question (almost exactly the same question) someone working in a cotton mill or a coal mine needs to ask, and something that those who have care of millers and miners need to ask to protect their well-being. I am personally not ready to answer it, but I think it’s worth sorting out all the issues so that we aren’t confused about the matter when we get down to it.
I love the distinction that Elliot is drawing, and I wish these two categories were more embedded in our casual conversations. (A lot of Joe Nocera’s excellent op-eds defending players from the NCAA might not be needed if we’d admitted that those amateurs are doing sports, not sport).
If sports look like they might become your life, it’s time to pause and check if they strengthen you in your vocation or interfere with it. It seems clear that the dementia, depression, and lack of impulse control triggered by CTE makes these football players and boxers worse fathers and husbands. It’s not just a matter of freedom to self-harm; these sports are interfering with their duties to their families. And pursuit of brain-damage really doesn’t seem like the kind of asceticism that would make a good foundation for a new monastic order.
Plenty of athletic arts do involve the mortification of the body (ballet, gymnastics, tennis, cycling, weightlifting, etc) in ways that don’t strike at the human ratio. In some sports these grotesqueries are induced naturally (e.g. the stunted growth of gymnasts) and in others artificially (everything in cycling, apparently). These are the kinds of sports where I think reasonable people can decide a trade-off in long term physical health or body morphology is worth it.
But I think it’s most likely to be worth it when the competitive sports are still tinged with the wonder of sport. I’m a little chary of discipline for the sake of discipline or strength for the sake of strength. If you’ve decided to do something very physically punishing, it should be because it either helps you move past the physical in some kind of spiritual way or because it opens up some particularly physical joy.