Why I Am Not a Fan of Contemporary American Sports
In spite of my good intentions and promises to myself I just cannot seem to avoid expressing controversial opinions here. That has sometimes resulted in inter-personal controversies I regret. I hope what I say here can be taken as my “musings” and not as any criticism of or attack on persons—except those who I believe exploit athletes and athletics for personal gain whether that be monetary or entertainment.
I will start out with a disclaimer that may cause many readers to simply stop right now, here, and read no further. I have never been an athlete of any kind and have never really enjoyed watching athletes perform. (By “perform” here I simply mean “do what they do;” it here carries no negative connotation.)
Throughout my adult life I have attended only a few athletic events and always only as a spectator. Usually it was not by my initiative. When I was a boy my father took my brother and me to a major league baseball game when we were visiting a large city not far from our hometown. I remember being bored and wanting to go somewhere else and do something else. My only feeble attempts at athletics were my sixth grade foray into “club basketball” sponsored by the local YMCA (a dismal failure) and junior high school brief involvement in wrestling. I remember the “work outs” and training as torturous, but I stuck with it. When it came to competition it turned out there was no other boy in the whole school district even close to my weight. In eighth grade I weighed only ninety some pounds. The wrestler closest to my weight was well over one hundred and ten. I had to wrestle him in a public “match” and lost within minutes. I gave up mainly because I didn’t see any future in it for me. I was your classical “ninety-eight pound weakling” (and weighed considerably less than that!).
Sidebar: *The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
One of my first dates in high school was with a girl who wanted to attend the season’s first football game, so she and I double dated with another couple. The final score of the game was zero to zero; no touchdowns occurred, no points were scored. It was one of the most boring several hours of my life (and hers, I’m sure). The college I attended had only intramural sports. The seminary, of course, had no sports program that I remember. Then I attended a well-known research university that belonged to the Southwest Conference. As I recall it did not win a single football game the whole time I was a student there!
I have always found watching sports of any kind boring, but I have assumed that others legitimately found real pleasure in it and simply avoided it myself. I must confess that I have watched none of the recent Olympic games and competitions in Brazil.
Of course, eventually I began to consider whether organized college, university, professional and amateur sports might have a dark side worthy of critique. I have noticed some. So now I will, having admitted my own personal disinterest in them, point out what I consider some of their ethical and theological problems. (Yes, I can and do sometimes use these to justify my own disinterest and avoidance of them but most people who know me just assume my criticisms are really rooted in my lack of interest. Who know? They may be partly right. I won’t deny it may influence my thoughts.)
Now, first of all, please allow me to mention a matter of personal pique that has nothing to do with ethics or theology. It’s just my own pet peeve. I can never understand why people passionately cheer for athletes recruited to play for the “home team” who would not live in their locale (city, state, country) otherwise. In other words, I have no problem with intramural sports in this regard, but I consider it somewhat silly (it would be for me) to cheer passionately for athletes who are only on the “local team” because someone recruited them and they have no connection with the region or institution at all otherwise. So let me give an example. I did once attend a professional, major league baseball game with my daughter who had been given free tickets—for herself and a parent—by someone at her school. The tickets only allowed us to sit in the “nosebleed section.” I could barely see the players except on the “big screen.” The fan sitting in front of me drank beer after beer until he could not hold the large cup steady anymore and started spilling it all over the place. The stench was awful as was his drunken behavior (and he was not alone). But my curiosity was especially aroused by the passion of the local fans for the performances of team players who I knew would not live in that state, let alone that city, unless they had been recruited and were being paid a lot. How, in what sense, I asked myself, did they represent “us”—the real citizens of the state who had either grown up there or lived there many years? That puzzlement has been a “head scratcher” for me about professional and collegiate conference team sports for years. I still just don’t get it.
Turning now to some possibly more serious issues. Throughout my teaching career I have several times been pressured by college/university coaches and others to give special consideration to student athletes that they did not deserve. I will never forget when a student athlete in a large general education religion course (at the national research university where I studied and taught as a graduate student) clearly, unequivocally cheated on a final exam. There was no question about it and the university had a very strong “honor code” that required that cheating students be suspended and possibly even expelled. And the honor code also included that teachers and teaching assistants who discovered cheating and did not report it were subject to very strict discipline. As I was reading through the student athlete’s “blue book” I found that he was repeatedly crossing out words he spelled correctly and misspelling them exactly the same way as the friend sitting next to him during the proctored exam. He was copying; there was no doubt about it. I could prove it. Eventually, the student athlete in question gave up even attempting to answer the essay questions and began writing an obscene love note to his girlfriend. (I will never understand what he was thinking as he turned in the blue book with the obscene note to his girlfriend and he knew I would read it!) Of course, I had to report him to the university’s proper authorities who, as it turned out, clearly wanted to let him off the hook. They put pressure on me to withdraw my accusation and pass him for the course. I would not and he “dropped out” of the university. Something similar to that happened other times, later, and it became clear to me that at least some student athletes in academic settings are treated “specially” even in terms of the consequences for failing and cheating. I have been called to coaches’ offices and subjected to attempted coercions to pass student athletes who clearly did not deserve to pass my course. (That has not happened to me at the institution where I now teach, but I only teach in its seminary.)
Where I live and work now is a region of America especially known for fanatical interest in and support for especially football. It may not be there now, but a local sports museum had (perhaps still has) a plaque that says “This is not just a museum; it is a non-denominational house of worship.” Everyone jokes about football being the “real religion” of this state, but I do not think that’s just a joke. In every way I know (and I have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies) football here functions as a religion for many people. When a new, extremely expensive university stadium was built a leading booster of the team, a civic leader and alumnus of the Christian university, was quoted as saying that this, the new stadium, was “the most inspiring thing” that has ever happened at that university. I wondered whether he had forgotten or never knew about the great “student revival” that inspired not only that campus but the whole country in the 1950s. It’s written about in the histories of the universities—some of which I’m sure he must have read.
Here high school football stadiums are huge and very expensive; a great deal of money goes into football programs in schools. As an educator I have to wonder: What if that money was dedicated to support of academics?
The other day I took my grandchildren who were visiting from out of state to a nearby park. In the park, as my grandkids played, I watched a high school football team from a nearby private school practice in the shadeless one hundred degree heat—wearing typical football clothes and “gear.” To the coaches’ credit they did keep the players hydrated, but my grandchildren wanted to leave the nearly treeless park soon after we arrived. The sun and heat and humidity were terrible. Every year I read of teenage athletes—almost always junior high or high school students—dying from heat stroke acquired during pre-season training and practices. I ask myself whether it is really worth it? Of course, I’m biased because of my lack of interest in sports, so my question is not worth seriously considering.
Are these flaws in contemporary American sports mere peccadilloes unworthy of serious criticism by an ethicist? Perhaps. But I have come to the conclusion that sports in America is often illogical, in competition with other valuable activities, and needs reform. If I had my crazy way (which I never will, of course) all team players and competitive athletes would have to be drawn from the citizens of a locale or student body associated with the team or sport rather than recruited from other places. For every dollar devoted to sports by a college or university one would have to be devoted to academics (e.g., a library). Athletes would be given no special privileges or treated differently than others in their communities—other than good training and praise for their prowess and performance. Fans who shout thinks like “Kill ‘em!” at any of the players or other fans would be asked to leave the event immediately—as would fans who are drunk or disorderly. Student athletes would not be required to attend practices or games at times that conflict with their religious meetings. In general, athletics would be demoted from what it has become and returned to its proper proportional role among other practices and events in society.
I recently visited a large American city and my host took me downtown to see the new professional football stadium being built there. I have never seen anything like it. I tried to take a picture of it but could not find a place from which I could take it all in. It looks like no sports stadium I have ever seen before. I asked my host about how much it will cost for a typical ticket to a typical football game in that stadium when it opens. He said “about $300.” I’m sure there will be cheaper seats, like the ones my daughter and I occupied in the old stadium (where professional baseball was also played) in the nosebleed sections. As I viewed it and thought about professional sports in America today I could not help but think of the Roman coliseums and arenas of the ancient world and about the gladiators who fought there. (Contemporary professional football players may not die during games, but we now know how damaging the sport can be to players’ brains.)
I do not question people’s right to participate and support contemporary American athletics/sports; I only question some of their rationality and ethics.
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