By Bob Hiller –
I recently had a great conversation with some old friends about why I like sports. Not being fans, they could only see the negative impact of sports on culture, higher education, and the church. Though I vehemently tried to defend the benefit of sports, much of what they said resonated with me. What is wrong with sports? Or, perhaps a better question is, what is wrong with our attitude towards them? Is there something wrong with playing and watching sports? Are sports nothing more than an idol that needs to be smashed? Maybe, but idolatry is too easy of an answer. Idols are typically made out of the good parts of creation. So, if sports are an idol, it means that there is something good about them that we are twisting and abusing. So, why sports? Why do we need them? Do we need them at all? That question brought me back to Chesterton and alcohol.
In his delightful book, Heretics, GK Chesterton writes on the problem with a puritanical view of alcohol. Prohibition sought to rid us of alcoholism by removing all forms of booze. Drinking for pleasure would lead to all forms of fornical kaboodelin’ (as Dr. Rosenbladt used to say). However, some suggested alcohol could be used when needed for medical reasons. In response, Chesterton says:
“The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine…Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinking in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way of death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.” (pg. 41-42)
So, the problem with drinking is not that people do it for fun, but that they need it. Wine gladdens the heart of man, but it becomes dangerous once the heart needs wine to be glad.
Let’s bring this sort of logic back to my question about the “good” of sports. Sports are games aimed at joy. For our existence, they are needless. Yet, that is where their virtue lies. They bring recreation, pleasure, fun, and, of course, exercise, which is important for health. They can be useful in teaching healthy forms of competition and teamwork. When we “imbibe” sports for these reasons they are serving their purpose and are good for us. However, they are not necessary for any of these. We’ve made sports something they were never meant to be: necessary. When sports are a necessity, they enter “the way of death and hell.”
Think about the way we treat little league baseball, for example. Some parents are convinced that their child needs to be successful at little league baseball in order to get to college. So, they start teaching eight-year-olds how to throw sliders and curve balls. By the time they are 18 they have some pretty filthy stuff (that’s a compliment in baseball) which could mean a scholarship or the minors. They needed to learn to pitch that well that early in order to have success at the age of 18. However, placing such a stress on the child’s arm leads to Tommy John surgery by the age of 22. From that point on, their career is shaky at best. For what it’s worth, of all the eight-year-olds throwing split-finger breaking balls, a minuscule percentage have a prayer at going anywhere beyond high school.
But, don’t fret. Just because your kid may not make it, colleges still will look at team participation on college applications. By placing your child in a youth sports league, you are helping them increase their chances of getting into school. In other words, your kid needs to play sports to secure their future. At this point, actual necessities are denied to children, such as quality time with family, disorganized, imaginative play, and, of course, church attendance. I can break the third commandment far easier if I know soccer helps my kid get into college. Who cares about fun or Bible stories? My eight-year-old has a future to consider!
On a much more terrifying level, consider what has gone on over the last few weeks at the University of Tennessee. Multiple women have come forth in a lawsuit against the school claiming that they were sexually assaulted by athletes. At the risk of hearsay, I will not get into the details of the case. However, I will speak to one thing that disturbs me to the core. After allegations were made against the school, 16 coaches from various programs rallied together to stand up for the athletic department and school. They wanted to demonstrate there was a healthy culture on campus and to support their administration. Said women’s soccer coach Brian Pensky,
“It was time for us to be strong. We came to the administration several weeks ago and said we want to put our faces out there and let people know that we’re behind the decisions being made within this athletic department. Instead of us continuing to lie down and just kind of take it and take the beating, we felt like as a coaching unit we wanted our administration to know that we have their back and we have each other’s back and our student-athletes’ backs.”
Are you not going to “lie down and take it”? This (insert a lot of bad names here) realizes that this is a sexual assault case, doesn’t he? He realizes that young women were violently harmed, right? Good heavens.
Sorry…back to the point. Do you see the fear at the University of Tennessee? Instead of doing the right thing and saying, “We’re suspending all athletics and pouring everything we have into getting these women the help and healing they need,” the coaches trot out to defend the school for fear of losing athletics, something the school desperately needs for revenue. Their need for sports trumps justice and, more importantly, the well-being of these women. This is deeply disturbing.
I want my kids to enjoy sports. I want to play catch with my boys and have them hit whiffle balls at my face and laugh hysterically. I want them to be angry at losing, so they try harder next time. I want there to be joy when we yell at the football game together. I want my kids to love sports…that’s why I fear putting them in a league. They don’t need sports. Neither do any of us. To lift from Chesterton, what we need is to return to the “irrational drinking” of play.