Towards A Theology… Of Sports?

October 26, 2010 - 9:02 am 144 Comments
Towards A Theology Of Sports?
 A Look at the Place and Importance of Sports in Our Lives
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Ah, October! The sports fan’s favorite month! It is the epitome of fantastic or the fanatic saturation! Not only does the football season reach its full time coverage of every pass and punt, we also have the basketball season tipping off with all of its deeks and dunks, the hockey season flies down the wings of the rink, seeking to score hat tricks, and if that is not enough, we arrive at the cultural pinnacle of sports, that exoteric ritual we have named The World Series with all of its history and hoopla awaiting its play!

Every team and each major player in whatever sport you are avidly following will have their every move analyzed with endless commentary and in exasperating details…. If you happened to miss a game, there is always Dish, Hulu, Netflix or some other satellite broadcasts and if you want to learn a game, there are plethora of ads for instructional videos, clips looking back at the highlights of last season’s games, etc., that will ensure that we, living in the USA, Whether it is reading, watching or playing, our country might be the most sports conscious culture in the world!

From my historical and not hysterical point of view, not since the Greeks or the Romans, has a civilization emphasized sports so highly… Not since the Greeks held the first games and the Romans held their circuses, has a nation been so preoccupied, or so self-possessed by what is going on its playing fields gyms, and stadiums! Not since the time of the gladiators have rabid fans of all ages and intellects had so much to cheer or moan about! (Remember: the word fan is short for fanatic!)

While it is certainly true that sports seems to be a peculiar topic for a sermon, I feel that every aspect of life benefits from a periodic philosophical review and an ethical appraisal. Body/Mind/Spirit regular and routine check ups?)
Because our society is so intensely involved in athletics, the motives, values and ideals behind sports in America is for me, as a former minister and an ex-jock, now a life coach and spiritual counselor, it is fair game for consideration.

As I have come to understand it, the role and the place of sports in our culture is basically a healthy one. Exercise and participating in sports has been strongly advised as an aid to cardiovascular health, lowering stress, building resistance, increasing immunity, preventing bone loss, and in the latest studies on mental and emotional health, exercise has been established as a contributing factor in lessening depression, relieving anxiety, and other illnesses. So it is clear that sports, exercise and games do have their valuable and importance place in our lives.
The US President most responsible for accelerating our love for sports and athletics in this country was John F. Kennedy. When starting the fitness programs nationally in our schools, he said:
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. …. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound gods.” JFK 1961

Even though I can still agree with him, unfortunately, the times have changed! With the advent of a more passive, Mass Media driven culture, there are some very disturbing outlooks, practices, and actions within the world of sports that deserve a more critical examination. Not the least of these is that the passive consumption of sports can function as a deterrent or as a preoccupying distraction from having a more positive and energetic engagement in our lives and giving more time to our personal, civic, and relational priorities! So today, I will outline some of the issues that trouble me as they pertain to how we, as individuals and we, as a society, deal with the wide world of sports…
First, I am questioning the looming social crisis concerning how we approach participation in sports: from the littlest gymnast to the avid golfer, from the playground to the stadium. The dilemma, as I see it, is the wholesale corporate sponsored distortion of personal values to justify winning and being a success in one’s life.
The original lessons from the Greeks all the way to the founding the YM and YWCA’s has taken an unfortunate and often tragic turn. What our children need from us as their parents, grandparents, coaches and teachers is a return to the original ideal of the Olympics and to willingly adopt more of the classical approach that started it all. Succinctly, this outlook is captured in two Latin phrases, “Mens Coporae in Mens Sana” or “Anima Sana in Corpore Sano” A sound mind in a sound body…
Real strength derives from our moral character, and true greatness comes from holding one’s mind, body, spirit in balance. The leader in the Athenian Greek culture was not just a brutish wrestler, or even the best javelin thrower, he was also a fine philosopher, artist, poet, musician or politician. It is a life of activity and balance that appears to be quite removed from the crass materialism, low ethical expectations, and gross standards for stardom we accept today.

Sports in our society have been co-opted and perverted by greed. There is the extraordinary emphasis on money, which encourages children and young adults to play hurt, take steroids or cheat in order to win. Additionally, there is a distinct lack of civility from the fans and alumni supporters and when combined with the moral and abusive infractions of coaches and trainers and the players themselves, we are given a picture of severe imbalances and lack of proper perspectives concerning the value and role of sports in culture today.
Before I get into an examination of a few of these issues, I would like to state that I feel that every concerned parent will need to be more careful about these prevailing attitudes before endorsing their child’s participation in them. Next, I am asking parents and citizens of every age to look deeper into the real consequences and the impact that sports has on our values.

I will ask you to consider these questions:
How does my interest or involvement in sports help or hinder my ethical understanding or my spiritual development? How does it affect or influence our children’s education and enrichment? How does our participation and sponsorship of sports and athletic events assist certain outlooks or how does it create dominant values?

For example, do you see a link between sports and alcohol consumption? Did you know, taking only a few of many examples,
that Coors brewing company has a record of giving its profits to ultra right wing groups? That the Philip Morris tobacco owns Miller beer? Other areas of concern would be the fact that the Shick razor company who owns Bic pens, has supported the John Birch Society! Nike has been known for its exploitive hiring practices, and so on… I am sure you can easily come up with other such troublesome connections! Corporations own and name stadiums today… and along with outrageous prices, the big business of sports often gets tax breaks for their sports complexes!
As I see it, the main ethical issues or problem areas are these: The priority we give to the success motive, the emphasis on materialism and its rewards, and the “body image” worship that is so wrapped up in athletic competition. They lead to a whole host of problems such as drug abuse in sports, the use of anabolic steroids- where the first average use age has increasingly been younger… now as early as 18… There are drugs and hormonal additives used for increased short term benefits without weighing any of the long term negative effects!While I am not objecting or degrading the value of competition, or free enterprise as an inherent evil, (well at least not today I am not!) My present concern is focussed on the increased pressure placed on our children that states something like this: ” You’d better not fail, or lose, or be inferior in any way. You have to be a winner in life!… And the insidious corollary… If you become a winner, I do not need to feel so bad about my own failings or shortcomings.” What has happened to a parent’s supportive and encouraging participation in sports as someone who promotes learning teamwork, cooperation, dexterity, organization, follow-through, kinesthetics … Whatever happened to playing sports and games as a source of having fun? (origin of the word Amateur- doing something or participating for the love of it!) Whatever happened to the noble sentiments of Grantland Rice when he penned” It not whether you win or lose, but it is how you play the game?”
The truth is, that if we allow young people to fail without shame, to lose and then learn new skills without censure, the merits and the values they will carry into adulthood will be far more useful and less toxic— less toxic and damaging to body and soul than being driven to succeed by the fear of criticism, failure, or winning at all costs….
Why I know of men who are still haunted and at times, have had nightmares over a severe public tongue-lashing by a coach… even thirty years ago! We have to look at what values are being created and mirrored back to us by adult needs and the mass media… Adult needs?Yes, indeed, there is a phenomenon that sociologists and psychologists have termed, “vicarious fulfillment.”  This concept simply means that the desire of the parents or the adults to reach or attain their own personal goals is achieved through others- namely through their favorite team or their children’s athletic prowess. This projection or this living out their self-esteem needs through the identification with their children or the efforts of others, can have some unforetold, destructive, even tragic effects.
We have seen this tendency in other places than sports- in the movies or in the theatre, we have seen the “back stage mother” or in academic circles, the “shadow teacher.” (helicopter parent?)
In sports, it is most often the father who becomes the rabid fan, or it is the overly zealous coach who emphasizes success at any cost. This need for sense of fulfillment crates a desire to push their daughter or son early and hard- to become a star. While I would not criticize active involvement in your child or grandchild’s activities, we are seeing ample evidence of coercion at very early ages, and we see elementary school youngsters logging long hours of practice at the gym, on the practice field by the parent who dreams of a rich pay check or a gold medal for…. Themselves.A little personal experience… I was intensely interested in sports all through my youth and young adulthood… I still have the scars and wounds to prove it! I remember hitting a teammate so hard in football practice that I broke his helmet and he received a concussion… It bothered me so much that it contributed to almost failing the first half of my senior year… But all though my life, from Charles Atlas to isometrics, from isotonics, through the martial arts and more, I have deep reflections-pro and con- on all those experiences…. One stands out- I was coaching a Pop Warner Football team… and I was confronted by an irate parent because his son was not first string quarterback! I am glad that a mutual friend intervened otherwise there would have been an unavoidable fight!
(You may recall reading about the angry parent in Massachusetts who actually killed another parent over a peewee hockey game…!)

The ultimate lesson being taught is that you play sports to see if you have enough talent to “make a bundle” and you willingly prostitute your talent for cash and prestige. Whatever happened to the “Chariot of Fire” model for an athlete? Instead, we have parents willing to bring their child for practice at 4:00 AM but not willing to get them up to go to their religious education classes?
From my dialogues over the years with a variety of child advocates, this intense pressure worries many caregivers… from classroom teachers, from guidance counselors to physical therapists and physicians who increasingly are treating joint fatigue and bone growth injuries in their young patients.

As a consequence, while I enjoy following my favorite teams when their games are televised, I am not so sure I would ever allow myself to be a serious fan of anything … Well, maybe cheer leading for a liberal, inclusive and accepting approach to spirituality and religion!

The next issue is our culture’s skewed emphasis on greed and the prizes of materialism. The newspapers are filled with glamour write-ups about huge contracts, signing bonuses, and romanticized lifestyles. The truth is becoming a professional player is a remote possibility… less that 2% of all the people who ever play the game ever achieve any short-lived stardom or status… Careers for most of them are over by age 30; and former professional athletes have a high mortality rate- average age for the onset of serious illness is now 50 years old, and that is without factoring in the insidious price of dementia from repeated concussions!… . Is it worth the price?
What about the college stars who once their playing days are through, find that they many have sacrificed their education to the prestige of a belonging to a great sports team or profit making athletic program… for while they might have graduated, they painfully realize that they are now functionally illiterate!

The last issue I will raise this morning is the effects of the mass media on the quality of role models … The propaganda device for selling products through advertising that is most often used is called the “testimonial.” This when a pro player, or for that matter, a rock musician, movie star, any celebrity is asked to pitch a certain product and lend their credibility, or their star power for an media endorsement in exchange for great bundles of money. The famous person is asked to endorse a particular bat, glove, racket, golf club, sneakers or skis…. beer or fast food… Which breeds a need to identify with that status brand or elite trademark equipment so that the child or teenager can feel accepted and with it… (Sneakers for over $150???)
I used to call this the Joe Namath syndrome, but today I think I would name Peyton Manning- he is selling everything!
I fear that you can name any number of these talented players who will do anything for a buck! I disagree strenuously with Charles Barkley, the basketball star, when he stated that athletes are not role models…. they receive such public attention and acclaim which, to me, morally necessitates their willingness to be role models for the future generations….

In closing, my approach to sports is that there is nothing inherently bad or wrong with sports or any competitive games, unless they become playing fields for learning destructive values. I feel the same way about movies, music, and video games, etc.. If you are involved with a young person in your life, if you are asked to coach or to sponsor any youth event, ask yourself some probing questions about the goals and the way it is played or taught.

Each child has her or his own inner resources, skills and talents and abilities that can serve to enhance their best potentials. We, as the guardians of the personal and ethical growth of the whole person, cannot settle for either media hype or selfish, destructive short term success. May everything we do serve the development of the whole person, so that we all can become winners in our hearts, minds, and souls. SO BE IT!Selected Readings: Homo Ludens (from my Sociology Lectures)

Play is necessary to the health and well-being of our society. Play is the process by which we engage in some meaningful activity that does not qualify as a task, a chore or as work… It is meaningful because it can teach or help to prepare us to participate more fully, more soulfully in our lives and in our relationships.

Everyone needs to do some kind of playful activity- it is essential for relaxation, stress reduction, and it fosters creativity, originality, and ingenuity. Play is essential learning; the training ground for a full and complete adulthood.

Playing is a universal phenomenon, in fact it is clearly one of the things that connects us to every other warm-blooded creature…. Animals play and so do we… In fact one of the definitions of our essential humanness is that humanity is called Homo Ludens- the creature who plays. Play is our special form of self and group interaction that is unlike any other. It provides for a social learning function, for amusement, entertainment, and has a value just in its release or expression. The way a person plays can say a lot about them…

Playful people are more at ease with themselves and can practice more self-acceptance. Play is the microcospherical- it develops within a person and grows to include their whole view of society- it values, importance, it ways of ritual and worship. (Umwalt)

William Blake put it this way: ” A child’s toys and games become an old man’s reasons- and both are the fruit of their two seasons.”

On Success and Failure

One day, a young man came into the Temple and was very distraught…. He wanted to speak to his old family Rabbi about his feelings of being a failure. While the kindly and insightful rabbi listened, the young man complained that 50% of everything he tried never turned our right, and that he was feeling like a loser, dejected, and that he would never be a success.

After the young man was through with his self deprecating tirade, the rabbi told him succinctly, ” Go, turn to page 390 in the New York Times World Almanac, and maybe that will give you piece of mind….

Confused yet curious about the rabbi’s advice, he went to the library, found the almanac, and turned to page 390….

There he found the listing for batting averages among all the baseball Hall of Fame players…

On the first line was simply: Ty Cobb .367

Puzzled by this, I returned to the Rabbi the next day and said, ” What is this? How is this an answer to my feelings?

The rabbi explained. He said:” Ty Cobb was the best hitter in the history of baseball… Yet all through his professional career, he never hit the ball more than once out of every three tries…. And you are complained that 50% of the time you have failed… What do you expect already?”

The fellow thought for a moment and began to understand… Isn’t remarkable that theology can be taught through sports!


Pastoral Meditation: For The Love of It?

When was the last time you did something just purely for the love of it? No need, no compulsion, no reason except to truly enjoy yourself and/or your playmates? I fear that our culture is so driven and obsessed with success and failure that there is no pure recreation left…. It has to be seen as winning and losing… The Olympics and our entire sports and recreation industries have fostered this, and I feel that it is a tragedy that has had a wide negative impact on our society.

Remember, we get the word amateur from the Latin and through Latin to the French… It literally means to do something for the love of it…. Whereas the word professional means someone who is compensated for their time, energy and efforts…. As a famous sports writer once put it, “To participate in sports and games for the sheer love and enjoyment is the sign of the true amateur, because to be a pro means you play for the dough….”

Take a moment and think about your ability to play….

Try to do something for its sheer enjoyment… I ask you to allow some time in your life to play, to explore, to grow and to experience life in away that winning does not matter, where cooperation not competition is most important, where there is a time and an intention to grasp the wonder, beauty and the joy of being playful….

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