Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It is no secret that I have little interest in athletics in general and professional athletics in particular. While I love to support my parishioners and their children in their athletic attempts, there are elements of sports culture that I find deeply disturbing. I find fanaticism about particular teams and players to be repulsive, and, to my mind, the emotion displayed toward the failures and successes of a particular team is akin to toddlers' tantrums in the grocery store. I fear that sports often encourage ignorance among among children and adults who seldom read any books, let alone good ones, and who can tell me the scores from the weekend, but none of the major current events. I detest the power sports has over a family's ability to make free decisions about how they will live and schedule their time. I deplore the notion that sports build character, though it is true that sports frequently reveal the character of athletes. These, however, are the rambling opinions of one who never played sports, never considered them especially fun, and was never especially accomplished in anything athletic. I freely admit I have a bias against sports. Even adjusting for this bias, however, I fear something is seriously wrong with sports culture. It verges on the pornographic.
Pornography is evil, not primarily because it is sexual, but because it objectifies humans. It turns a person, made in the image and likeness of God and existing for his or her own sake, into a commodity. Like slavery, pornography permits that I wantonly use another person for my pleasure or my gain. It denies the dignity of the other, making him or her a thing, a means to an end, and in doing so, it degrades my own dignity which insists that I encounter each person in life precisely as a person other than myself who is of equal value, dignity, and worth to me. The dignity with which I treat another bespeaks the dignity I believe that I possess.
There is little difference between the way in which we treat professional athletes and people in pornography. To most fans, an athlete's worth is commensurate with his ability to perform. He or she is an object meant to accomplish a task that pleases me, and if the athlete fails to do so, he should be sold like a cow who cannot produce milk. Athletes have names and we know them, but what we know better is the position they play and the number on their jersey. We talk about them by their position. When they have finally eked the last ounce of skill from their aging bodies, athletes, except for a tiny shining minority, whither into obscurity. A professional athlete is not a man or a woman, not a person, but a tool for my own pleasure by which I might vicariously obtain a fleeting victory, and know the glory of conquest.
Some will be inclined to disagree with my observations, suggesting that interest in athletics is ultimately an expression of appreciation for the beauty of the human body and its ability to achieve magnificent feats and to endure tremendous strain. That does not change the essential nature of our attraction. The gladiators of the Roman circus did the same. Was this sport? If it is about pushing the human body to the limits of its natural abilities and our appreciation thereof, why are so many athletes now subjecting themselves to performance enhancing drugs? Are they not ultimately attempting to make their bodies a better product for sale? If we care about athletes as people, why did we permit Mohammed Ali to addle his brain in the ring? Why did the NFL have to reach a financial settlement with concussion induced, disabled former players? If we think they are people, why do we tolerate their inhuman and immoral actions so long as they retain an ounce of talent? Why do we allow them to be bought and sold at incredible cost to cities, teams, and fans? We pay fifty dollars to watch these men play, and kick the homeless out of the way as we rush to enter the stadium.
Does this mean that all sports fandom is immoral? No. There must be, I think, a middle way between sheer contempt for sports on the one hand, and quasi-pornography on the other. We should, in fact, rejoice at the majesty of the human form when it achieves the actualization of its potential. We should be moved at the glory with which God created man. But, we have become flesh mongers when an athlete's worth is measured in performance. An athlete is not good because he is good at sports. He is good because he is human. He is not valuable because he wins. He is valuable because he is a man. When we fail to acknowledge this, we have implicitly participated in the sale of human beings; we have become pornographers.