article: Radio Sports

An abbreviated version of this commentary was read

on KPBX Spokane Public Radio on June 13, 2001

Recently a Coeur d’Alene high school athlete died of cardiac arrest. We know that such incidents are not uncommon. In many schools undue pressure to excel at athletics contributes to a culture of hostility and exclusion that will occasionally explode in acts of open violence. Sports are said to build character because, for one thing, they teach cooperative effort. But in fact team members cooperate in order to beat other teams. Thus both internal and external stresses are created. For what end?

Competitive sports cause health problems: in addition to cardiovascular damage, which will often show up only in the long run, gymnasts injure themselves, footballers maim each other, race car drivers crash, fighters suffer brain concussions, and some athletes take steroids as well as other harmful drugs. Let me emphasize that here I am talking about competitive sports, notexercise that is beneficial to both body and mind and can be engaged in without damaging oneself or others.

A prominent academic observer of the scene has warned that big-time sports is crippling undergraduate education. While colleges have lowered their academic standards, administrators who are anxious to keep tuition dollars rolling in provide circus entertainment in the form of spectator sports. The activity of the spectator and TV viewer is of course particularly futile. Lately some European promoters have come up with the slogan “football unites.” But the reason behind this was that actually opposing team members as well as fans have been insulted, taunted with racial slurs, and roughed up at international games. So in practice football didn’t unite.

It is safe to say that all the competitive sports endeavor in and of itself will never add an iota to human progress, well-being, the improvement of living standards, or the quality of life, in contrast to so many other activities that at least have the potential to make the world a better place. In former times it was of tangible value, for instance, to be an exceptionally fast runner or powerful weightlifter. Today, in the machine age, this type of prowess is no longer needed. If you believe that a human being capable of shooting a ball across a loop or hitting it with a stick or jumping higher than anyone else should be admired, that’s all well and good, but outside the specific sphere in question their abilities lack all significance.

I believe that an activity is worthwhile to the extent that it yields the greatest benefit to the largest number, ideally to each who participates or is affected by it. Competition is by its nature directed against others. That’s why it hasn’t had a good press with the majority of moral philosophers. You may argue however that competition is ingrained in human nature because it has acted as an evolutionary tool throughout all living species, and so in the broad sense it stimulates progress. Applying this to sports, the argument goes that competition prepares for the battles of real life while it also teaches you that the struggle has to be conducted according to recognized rules because without such rules bedlam would result. Another often advanced contention that may have some merit is that sport sublimates aggressive drives and substitutes symbolic combat for the real one. I readily concede that sports competition is a great deal preferable to war. But I subscribe to the view that true test of being distinctively human consists in the ability of achieving both peace and prosperity without strife. Therein lies the promise of a better future.

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