Friday, March 04, 2005

Pain With No Gain

Athletics and sports have some positive influences, in my opinion: physical exercise is a strong motivation. Teaching teamwork, obedience to superiors, and learning to follow the rules are even better influences. Teaching good sportsmanship is perhaps the best influence of them all. Sports is also a fun way of tiring energetic boys, who otherwise would not have the attention span to spend hours a day on academic study.

Modern athletics negate or contradict the above good influences.

Under the above Catholic model of athletics, winning the contest is not the end of the athletic competing, but is just a minor motivational factor. We can describe a "virtuous pagan" type of athletics, which encourages good sportsmanship and teamwork, but also glorifies victory and the victor but within an amateur ideal; this type of athletics inspired the Masonic founders of the modern Olympic movement back in the late 19th century. Our contemporary view of athletics is quite postmodern and is akin to the Gladiatorial view of athletics during the Roman Empire: victory at all costs; riches and power to the victor; and athletics as a tool of Empire. This fits in well with our contemporary notions of efficiency, utility, radical individualism, and Darwinian survival of the fittest. Sports in the Empire consisted of pure carnage.

Most team sports are dangerous --they are not healthy activities for boys. I can't think of a major sport that does not almost guarantee broken bones and bloodshed, not to mention internal organ damage. And the same sports played many years ago are becoming more dangerous due to changes in rules, equipment, and aggressive attitudes. And now that girls are encouraged heavy-handedly to play sports, and even recruited -- thanks to the federal Title IX interpretations that claim that both boys and girls must be active in college sports in equal numbers -- injury rates for girls are also increasing. And girls are more prone to certain types of injuries, some of these due to the females' relatively wide pelvis bone and also due to less strength, and often because they are playing sports that were designed for boys and their particular physique.

"Serious" high school and college sports programs also push students far beyond their endurance; there has been an increase in heatstroke and death from hyperthermia due to training programs starting earlier in the summertime. These students are not just tired out, they are exhausted from their sports. At least these kids aren't on antihyperactivity medicines like their nonathletic peers.

And since high-paid athletes take steroids, and other endurance-enhancing and strengthening drugs to improve their income, young athletes are encouraged to take the same drugs, with severe and often unknown side-effects. Sometimes coaches or other staff will facilitate this drug use, but most often it is fellow athletes who recommend and sell them. Steroids in particular can misshape the athlete into a monstrosity. And a short-lived monstrosity, with a painful, early death.

Teamwork is in decline; football used to be a sport where massed formations would rule the gridiron; now plays are designed around the specific talents of star players who act independently. Basketball and hockey are doing the same. Only our most traditional sport, baseball, still has a requirement for strong teamwork, although only during defense. The move away from team sports started during the cultural chaos of the early 1970s, and individual sports like running and bicycling gained tremendous popularity, and self-centered goals such as body-sculpting and "personal bests" ruled the day instead of having a pleasant afternoon playing a game with good friends.

Also disturbing is the tendency to avoid playing by the rules. Especially in high-stakes contests like the Olympics, athletes are playing the judges and the rules as well as playing the game. Who won the gold medal? Who knows? It may change in the future, when some appeal to the judges or a blood test result changes what we thought was the settled outcome. The old rule was that the decision of the judges, made on the spot, was final and without appeal; the new rule nuances this and adds an uncomfortable flexibility. The spirit of obedience to the rules is being lost, unfortunately. The player who graciously accepts loss and congratulates his winning opponent is being replaced by the whining loser who blames everyone except himself. Perhaps this year's Super Bowl winner will be overturned by a Federal court ruling five years from now.

Knowing -- and accepting -- that you have lost a contest, even though the referees made an error, used to be a part of good sportsmanship. And good sportsmanship is a part of the virtue of Charity, the love for God and your fellow man. But charity is a Christian virtue, and only the most virtuous of pagans would understand the value of good sportsmanship. An athlete with a Gladiatorial mindset cannot accept good sportsmanship: to a gladiator, loss equals death, and even an ignoble or illegal victory is a good victory. With our highly-paid athletes, loss may not equal death, but it can equal bankruptcy.

The old virtuous pagan model of athletics celebrated the amateur, the man who ran just for the glory and the love of running. The Catholic model of athletics has people teaming together for joy and friendship. Contemporary athletes are not having fun, nor do they enjoy the company of their teammates.

Professional team sports has a wide influence beyond their own sphere of the game day. How many young men have dreams of becoming a professional player, live their lives according to that nearly unattainable dream, and end up with only disappointment, injury, and lack of job skills? Even college sports encourage the same mindset: male scholarship athletes, who attend a school purely because of their ability to play a major sport well, usually end up without either an athletic career or an education. And thanks to Title IX, equal numbers of girls are forced into sexually predatory and oppressive women's' sports programs just so that they can get and keep their scholarships; they may get an education, but it is with scars of both the physical and emotional kinds.

Sadly, many contemporary parents push their children to excel at sports for financial gain, instead of encouraging sports as a means of building character. Is this love or greed?

Some would say that we Saint Louisians are blessed with having 2-1/2 professional sports teams, but I think that this is like the "bread and circuses" that another Empire used to placate the restless masses. This is apparent when the government feels that it is its duty to pay for the stadiums where the teams play. Vast hours of media time and pages of periodicals are used to fuel interest in these sports. Perhaps being a fan is a harmless advocation. But following sports and attending games is now a great sink of both time and money. Many readers here are sports fans and would hate to see some Puritanical religionist ban these sports on moral grounds! But old-time fans agree that back in the days, when game tickets were cheap, and players were poor, sports were a pure joy, and not joylessly corrupt with money and arrogance.

The football film "Any Given Sunday" (rated by the USCCB as A-IV - Adults, with reservations) shows the difference between a virtuous model of athletics and the postmodern, Gladiatorial version. The team's star quarterback plays by the book, and encourages teamwork and friendship among the players. He has a joy for the sport and a love for his teammates. After he is removed due to injury, the replacement quarterback is arrogant, rude, hated by the other players, and motivated by greed. The film ends, however, by an acceptance of the style of the new player, and shows him and his coach progressing to the future with a new team that celebrates his radically independent personality. It is a story of the survival of the fittest, and of a man who follows no rule but the rule of personal victory.

Sports are getting uglier and more dangerous. The popularity of so-called extreme sports, which entail very real risks to the participants is increasing. Such sports as rock climbing, whitewater kicking, base jumping, and backcountry downhill skiing are highly dangerous and offer none of the advantages of the Catholic model of athletics, while offering a good chance of death or dismemberment. Some of these sports are more dangerous than being a soldier in combat. This is certainly another sign of what the Pope calls the "Culture of Death"; some folks will always do dangerous things, but only an immoral media would promote such dangerous sports. Prediction: within ten years a major nation will proclaim the legality of gladiatorial-type games. I hope that I'm wrong.

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