The American sports world, in recent Sundays, has witnessed a significant number of NFL players and team personnel kneeling or sitting in protest during the national anthem. In many respects these protests are rather unprecedented in recent sports history. My first question is: what is the predominant narrative employed to describe (and assess) the nature and goal of these protests?
Some say the protests are a testament to the cultural and political fruit of free speech. These players have the right to express their personal opinions about the state of current political and cultural discord, specifically regarding their judgment about the treatment of blacks by law enforcement officers. Protesting these injustices is seen as a fundamental right that they possess as American citizens, and the fact they happen to be professional athletes is simply accidental to this.
On the other hand, those critical of the protests argue that the deepest problem concerns the very nature of sports. We want to watch our games and sports devoid of the crippling politicization of everything that seems to be a normative feature. Sports, if you will, is meant to be an apolitical event; we should be able to watch our nation’s most cherished pastimes without the encroachment of divisive political activities and vitriolic jargon.
There is a certain degree of truth in both narratives. However, both align in giving insufficient accounts of the nature and purpose of sports.
The first narrative can tend to reduce sports to being primarily about politics or political expression. The rise of athletes, coaches, universities, and almost every element of sports life today giving social and political commentary is just one testament to this fact. The second narrative tends to neglect the precise way in which sports points ultimately to what is beyond the polity. Rather than needing to be freed from politics, sports can actually be a profound guide for considering the ontological ground of existence. In other words, sports can show us something about reality itself.
Seen in this light, sports can be a venue for considering whether or not politics satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart. If that is the case, then articulating sports’ social and civic implications are not only of interest, but vital for American life and culture.
Priest and political philosopher James V. Schall, S.J., in his book Another Sort of Learning, offers an illuminating remark about the deeply serious nature of sports. In Schall’s judgment, “the closest the average man ever gets to contemplation in the Greek sense is watching a good, significant sporting event.” In other words, when we watch a sporting event, observers are being moved to consider the very meaning of culture itself, and thus the place that contemplation has within it.
Sports and form
In one respect, the reality of sport is limited by the nature of the particular game being played. The rules, structure, and organization of the game helps its participants (and the observers) to understand how it is that they can play the game well. Without rules and structures that act as sign posts limiting the game to be what it is, then the game ceases; it is no longer something that can actually be played. If you remove dribbling from basketball, or the fact that shots taken from particular places have a specific value, then the limits of the game become undone. Basketball no longer is its own certain type of thing and activity.
And yet this structure is necessary in order for a player to be considered skilled at the game. To be an excellent basketball player requires, among other things, that you accept the given limitations characterizing the form of the game itself. Anything does not go. This is why form is a precursor to sports, since a game requires that certain things be kept in, and others not allowed in. Discipline and self-government is needed in terms of the training and practice required to excel at the game. More than this, a kind of ordered liberty is fundamental for the players to accept the game and its form as something outside their own wills. This is one of the humorous, and frustrating, components of watching an NBA player self-evidently travel, yet be baffled that it was called by an official. It speaks of the perennial human temptation to hubris that is at work before our eyes.
This fact and givenness of the game’s nature is good in itself. It is an affirmation that this reality exists—but does not need to. And this is something unsettling for us when we reflect upon sports: they do not, by necessity, have to exist at all. Such a realization should also spill over into our own existential self-examination, for it reminds us as well that we need not exist, but do.
There is a sort of existential abundance that sports gives, and for which they are ordered. After we are done watching a thrilling game, it becomes almost natural to proclaim how “good” it was to watch such an event. We are enriched by having seen it. In watching the game, we are witnesses to a fundamental truth about human beings: regardless of circumstance, humans look to overcome setbacks and trials through moving towards a good in community with one’s fellow companions. Regardless of where you are from, or the level of skill you possess, one can look to his teammates knowing that they will sacrifice everything for you, and you for them.
The goodness and limits of sports
Sports, good in themselves, nevertheless have a further end to which they are ordained. In a real way, sports is a condition or ground for a further set of goods leading us beyond the sport itself. This point relates sports to the purpose of our political and social lives together, which Aristotle alluded to in his Politics (III.9):
Now a political community is formed rather for the sake of a good life and not only for the sake of mere living, nor for the sake of mere alliance to prevent unjust treatment, nor for the sake of trade alone, or other useful exchanges.
Human beings naturally come together to live in political communities, and we do so for the sake of a good life, as Aristotle remarked. Garnering the necessities of life, fostering a humanely scaled economy, and establishing military protection are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for civic life. It is significant, though, that our political communities provide the conditions wherein we can recognize the natural goodness of a genuine civic life, but also be opened toward those goods that are transpolitical. In other words, political life initiates citizens in a quest that draws them toward “a good life,” and thus into a transcendent order not of their own making. What it means to be a good human being, its content and telos, is something that has been given to us. Just as there is a nature and purpose for sports, so too there is a purpose and nature for human beings that points us towards being good.
And yet, even though this may take us beyond the limits of a given political order, we get glimpses of this transcendent realm, here and now, in our civic lives embodied in a particular place. Sports also do precisely this. We catch sight of what our life is truly about when we witness human excellence in sport. This is why sports analogies usually apply so well to life, which is why St. Paul himself employed sports analogies in describing spiritual growth and struggle.
Contemplation and the “uselessness” of sports
These recent protests and related events demonstrate the politicization of life; they reveal how politics has in many ways become the most important thing in our culture and society. Politics is the lens through which everything—be it nature, sports, persons, sex, or family—must be seen, understood, and referenced. But since politics is not the meaning of life, it should be no surprise that anger, division, and cultural erosion emerge in the shadow of this deeply flawed perspective. Charles Matthews draws out the implications of seeing political things as the most important:
One of the dangers of politics is its ineluctable tendency to draw people in and suffocate their belief that there is anything beyond or outside politics. Such suffocation causes two things to happen. First, people lose the sense of joy, the sense of depth and richness of life. Existence becomes a joyless struggle to defeat others, out of fear that lest you do, they will do the same to you—a kind of vicious inverted parody of the Golden Rule…
Second, if politics is all there is, then anything becomes legitimate in order to get one’s way. The collapse of all into politics means, inevitably, the collapse of any sense of a higher moral order, which would serve to hold our most ruthless tendencies in check. (in Political Theology in a Plural Age, ed. Jon Michael Kessler (Oxford University Press, 2013), 238)
This is where the contemplative element of sportscan be a key which unlocks its deepest meaning and mysterious pointing beyond itself, especially as it relates to contemporary civic life.
In the Laws, we discover Plato’s remarkable judgment regarding the purpose and nature of human life: “Every man and woman should spend their life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them” (803c). Life, in other words, is seen most fully when understood as one akin to leisure and contemplation.
When children are at play, they laugh and joyfully demand that we “do it again.” This is also the reason why we continue to watch sports over and over again. Sport reminds us that we are more than political animals, and that the ground of our existence resides in something more akin to the joy of a child playing, and wanting to do it again.
Perhaps it is this feature of sports and its relation to higher things that needs more emphasis in our time. The things we need most are not “useful.” However, this is precisely why they are so needed, and ultimately useful, because they are good in themselves—they are loved and enjoyed for their own sake. The reality of sports is a response to the question of what citizens ought to do when they are no longer in need. In other words, what are the sorts of activities and pleasures we will partake in, and observe, once we have taken care of those things that must be done?
In Schall’s estimation, this reminds us of the fundamental truth about being human, a truth that may hopefully infuse more of itself into our American republic, especially as it pertains to sports: “The highest things absorb us, and this is our pleasure; this is why we are at all.”
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