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Seeing the meaning of sports in a regime of politicization

The fact and givenness of a game’s nature is good in itself. It is an affirmation that this reality exists—but does not need to.

(us.fotolia.com/Sergey Nivens)

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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About Brian Jones 20 Articles
Brian Jones is the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have been published in New Blackfriars, Crisis, Catholic World Report, HPR, and Catholic Social Science Review.

9 Comments

  1. “sports can actually be a profound guide for considering the ontological ground of existence. In other words, sports can show us something about reality.”

    OK, but Christian Hedonism, whether courtesy Fr Schall or John Piper, still seems a bit forced, and a bit too close to Joel Osteen.

  2. From the cheap seats:

    1) I’ve been watching Pro football for 60 years and I still remember ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’.
    2) In the late 50s in Baltimore we referred to the Pope as ‘Johnny Unite Us’.

    Until this season my usual fall Sunday routine would find me in front of the TV at about 1 in the afternoon with a beer close at hand and the remote control fired up and ready to go. Such is no longer the case. The ‘sportswriters’ are all SJWs and they think that they need to lecture us at the end of each piece.

    Prior to this season my usual Sunday routine was Church in the a.m. for some preachin’ and then football in the p.m. for entertainment. With the arrival of players who feel the need to preach to us in the afternoon that routine has changed. If they still feel that we need to be preached to in the afternoon that is of course their right, which leads to my expressing my opinion in the only way I can, by simply staying away – swearing off the game, which I must admit is not as difficult as I thought it would be.

    To the players in pro football and ther other sports, I simply say this:

    1) Read the story of the killing of the golden goose that laid the golden eggs.
    2) DON’T bite the hand that feeds you.

    • Terence, my enjoyment of NFL is marred by the knowledge of the guaranteed long injury list that follows almost EVERY game, a veritable war zone, in fact. Compared to ALL other sports it is just crazy. That must end. The end of helmets is an obvious start.

    • Terence, my enjoyment of NFL is marred by the knowledge of the guaranteed long injury list that follows almost EVERY game, a veritable war zone, in fact. Compared to ALL other sports it is just crazy. That must end. The end of helmets is an obvious start.

  3. Mr. Jones’ qualifications are quite impressive, and the fact that he lives in a football mad state makes this piece that much more interesting.

    Has he ever played football? I have and spending the afternoon kicking the stuffing out of the guy on the other side of the line, having him return the favor with gusto and then shaking hands after the fray is a fine way to spend a fall afternoon, especially so if the game was played in the rain or snow and mud and you’re just filthy (not to mention young).

    Having said this – Mr. Jones’ decision to bring Plato into the discussion, is a bit, a bit – the proper adjective does not come to mind, but I will search my Thesaurus and if I find it I will report back.

    • Hi Terence,

      Thanks for the comments. In fact, I played football in high school, and briefly during my first year of college at a Division II school in Erie, PA, Edinboro University. Some of my best memories stem from playing football, in the cold and snow near the shores of Lake Erie (Cleveland, Ohio). I grew up an Ohio State fan, especially since my father played under Woody Hayes in the early 70’s.

      Not sure of the adjective you are looking for regarding Plato. Hopefully, it is an endearing one. Fewer could be found who help us to think, and live, as Plato did.

      All the best,
      Brian Jones

      • Mr. Jones;
        Thanks for the response, and I’m glad that you grew up in Pa. playing football.
        My problem with your use of Plato is that I can’t quite understand where he enters into what to me is a silly issue. IMO the SJWs of the sporting ‘press’ have elevated this into an ongoing issue and a lot of us are just sick of it – I feel it is too silly to be taken seriously, I’ve always felt that way and the longer it goes on the sillier it gets.

        I have not read any Plato I must admit but if you think that something he wrote which you can quote might help adjudicate this nonsense – by all means please do so.

        What would you recommend I start with if I were to take up reading his works?

        • Terence,

          Thanks again for your insights and kind words. You wrote the following:

          “My problem with your use of Plato is that I can’t quite understand where he enters into what to me is a silly issue. IMO the SJWs of the sporting ‘press’ have elevated this into an ongoing issue and a lot of us are just sick of it – I feel it is too silly to be taken seriously, I’ve always felt that way and the longer it goes on the sillier it gets.”

          You may want to re-read the Plato quote. His point, like he says elsewhere, is that sports is indicative of the sort abundance that we have been given in this life. He says that we should spend our lives “singing and dancing,” and I would include “playing.” The problem with much of contemporary sports is that because it has become so politicized, it is incapable of seeing both this underlying feature of sports, and thus the ultimate meaning of life. Those who politicize sports are not necessarily those that exude much joy (see the quote I provided in the essay from Charles Matthews on this). Thus, my reference to Plato is not simply an esoteric point, but hopefully shows the enduring and perennial relevance of Plato. He is constantly unsettling us by calling us on to pursue a love of the truth by first recognizing the limitations and errors of our assumptions and philosophical positions. This is the only way to begin the journey of seeing the Good.

          And this leads to an answer, albeit partial, to your second question. I would recommend reading Plato’s Republic and the Gorgias. I am sure others would advise you to begin with a different dialogue, but I say just sit down and start reading. If you are need of anything else, do not hesitate to ask. My email is bhjones84@yahoo.com.

          Thanks,
          Brian

  4. Interesting article. I for one have given up on Hollywood for the same reason many are giving up football, that being I want my entertainment to be an escape from the ugly, repetitive drudgery of this life especially as embodied by politics. Now days politics has become as ubiquitous as a Starbucks store. An ever present display of all that is wrong with the human heart; greed, fear, lust to name a few.

    In sports there is a sense that through following the rules and applying ones talent and acquired skill “the best can win” and triumph is attainable. Sadly politics seems to embrace a method of winning that taps into the greed/fear universe more than the talent/skill/follow-the-rules paradigm.

    The NFL needs to re-evaluate it’s purpose as far as the fans are concerned because most of us simply want to hear our preaching at church and our jollies from seeing men battle it out on the grid iron.

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