Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Win?

Apart from a brief stint in middle school basketball, I never played competitive sports.  This is not to
"Don Quixote" Pablo Picasso
say I did not compete; I was involved in a variety of competitive theater and music activities through high school.  These two varieties of competition are not without similarity.  Both require dedication.  Both commonly draw upon reserves of strength and talent of which one is ordinarily unaware.  Both demand that one perform at the peak of excellence on command.  Yet, somehow athletic competition remains distinct from other varieties of competition.  Athletic competition is raw, savage, and primal.  Athletic competition arises primarily from the part of man that is still mostly governed by the instinct to survive.  For this reason, I posit, it manages to provoke human passion as little else can.

I have been thinking about this question at some length, trying to understand the power of sports.  One of the young men with whom I associate regularly is a college football player.  Perhaps more accurately, he is on the football team.  He has played the game since middle school, he has demonstrated a fanatic devotion to the Greenbay Packers for decades, and at each of the major turning points in his life, some portion of his decision has pivoted upon how football will fit into the plan.  There is very little in this young man's life about which I am unaware, and we have a rapport as good as you will find anywhere.  I know him.  Still, this is a part of his life that baffles me.  I do not understand it.  I have never felt so passionately about something that objectively so insignificant.  What difference does football make?  He and I discussed the question recently, and though I still cannot make sense of his subjective attachment to the game, I think we have begun to arrive at some sort of philosophical explanation of the power of sport.

It begins thus.  Sport is attractive because it entails two essential elements.  First, it presents an obstacle.  This obstacle is of the variety that at the visceral level, it presents a threat to ones sense of being, analogous to the threats primitive man knew.  He was forced to compete, to fight in order to live, to eat, and to mate.  Such threats could only be answered by means of physical dominance.  Thus, the second element of sports becomes apparent.  There is a clear winner and a clear loser.  Sport ignites human passion because it speaks to a primal drive to survive.

Modern man, however, has no need to battle for survival in this fashion.  In fact, the transitions of man from one period of history to another have been marked most significantly by the advances he has made in using his brain so as to provide advantages over adversaries such that he avoid the need for such conflict.  Regardless or the degree of advancement, however, man finds that he is always confronted with one foe over whom he cannot win final victory.  This foe is himself.  Regardless of his strength, his speed, and his ability, man remains finite.  He is bound by time and space.  He eventually achieves a threshold across which his body will not bear him.  Herein lies the ultimate attraction of sport.  It permits (requires?) one to thrust oneself continually against the outmost boundaries of his ability hoping to push the boundary further away.  Like Icarus, he wonders how close to the sun he might fly, before plummeting into the abyss.  How tall can the men of earth build a tower before the tower collapses.  If man be like God, how much like God might he be?

In this question lies the value of sport and the innate drive to compete.  Among the powers of the soul God has given to men is the power of the will to desire the good.  This desire is insatiable, longing as it were, for nothing less than the infinite.  Because of this, it pushes man to constantly long for the "something more."  This something more remains constantly just beyond his reach.  As such, man discovers his only satisfaction can be found in God, who alone possesses the capacity to satiate an infinite longing.  To the extent that competition and sport push man to become what in God he already is, to become more and more what he will only fully become through perfect union with God, sport is good.  To the extent that sport reveals to man that he is created for more than the limits of a fallen nature permit him, it has value.  To the extent that it makes man better than he was, it is good, virtuous, and glorious.  To the extent that sport is simply for the fading glory of victory, for a crown of laurels that whither, it is foolishness.

Don Quixote, at least as presented in "The Man of La Mancha" understood this idea.  As he sang in the musical:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To be willing to give when there's no more to give
To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live
And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star


  1. Pretty good thoughts especially with the Man of LaMancha...

    I like "Sports doesn't build character. It reveals it."

  2. So I just tried commenting and my 50+ year-old computer skills didn't get my comment posted!!! will try again. Father Tyler, I distinctly recall a gala, and important event that you pulled together as a H.S. student in Wall, a Teens for Life conference. Never mind the five gallons of "sweetened with real sugar" Koolaid that was splashed about the community center kitchen. (I think the ceiling may still be a bit sticky!!!) Most significantly, I recall a younger Father Timothy Hoag speaking to the group about the need for teenagers to be involved in something (sports, drama, etc.) so as to channel young developing minds and bodies' overflow of energy in a positive course rather than an unhealthy sexual way. So today I thank you for that. sincerely, your old Teens for Life advisor PS I think I know the Green Bay Packers fan mentioned in your post.


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