SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
May 16, 1988
Is It What Life's All About?
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May 16, 1988


Is It What Life's All About?

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His response was typical. If my question was not exactly stupid, it certainly was intrinsically unanswerable. Unlike, say, strychnine or tight shoes, the effects of sporting competition are not automatic and universal. Like eating, work or sex, competition can be constructive or corruptive depending on circumstances, individuals and how they behave themselves.

First, the good news. Tara Scanlan, a UCLA sports psychologist, feels that competitive athletics—by their nature and because they are so popular—can be a powerful tool for the general instruction of youth. She says, "Sport can be used to teach a great number of desirable things: how to master skills and the satisfaction that follows; good general work habits and cooperation; how to break down racial and class prejudices; how to build respect for and responsibility toward other people."

Martens tends to agree. "There are 30 million children and probably as many adults who are sometimes involved in competitive sports," he says. "Some may be pushed into them by peer pressure and, thus, may experience more stress than they should and won't get the benefits they might. But it seems plain that most people compete at games voluntarily because it gives them pleasure. Not for all and not all of the time, but often and for many people, sport is a major source of joy and therefore, on balance, is useful to them and to society."

The bad news, at least for those who value sports, comes from sociology professor George Sage of the University of Northern Colorado, who wrote in the Journal of Physical Education and Recreation that "organized sport—from youth programs to the pros—has nothing at all to do with playfulness—fun, joy, self-satisfaction—but is, instead, a social agent for the deliberate socialization of people...into the prevailing social structure." In other words, Sage believes that sports tend to pit people against one another, promoting pervasive rivalry rather than cooperation.

While theorists argue about the social and physical benefits of competitive athletics, sport may provide a satisfaction that is more metaphysical—a matter of divine intervention, if you will. Considered in this way, contests are seen as tests of piety as well as athletic ability; winning takes on added importance because it is considered a clear demonstration that the winners are on good terms with important powers above. Victory is a sure sign that the gods are smiling upon you.

In Western civilization such ideas were common among early Olympic athletes, performers in Roman Colosseum contests and medieval jousters, to say nothing of makers of many holy wars. These views are still more prevalent today than is generally believed. Aside from an occasional man of the cloth praying in locker rooms for abundant touchdowns, the supernatural aspects of sport are no longer of much interest to formal theologians. But they are to competitors. In addition to the conspicuous praising of the Lord we invariably see on national TV after important athletic victories, participants in all games talk some and think more about being hot, on a roll, snakebit or victims of bad breaks and bounces. To placate forces that control these things, they chew towels, carry talismans, avoid stepping on baselines. We may not thank or curse Apollo, the bear spirit or local saints, but we certainly do court Lady Luck. If she smiles, it is a sign that we have not done too badly at getting things together—and it feels great. When she frowns, it is because she has caught on to what unworthy wretches we are—and it feels lousy.

When the subject of superstition was brought up, most of the authorities I talked to were understandably annoyed, because their careers are based on the premise that success comes from personal discipline, concentration, anxiety management or blackboards covered with X's and O's. They may well be right that there is no such thing as luck, but a lot of jocks think there is. I have never heard anybody say, "Let's play a round of golf, I want to find out what the gods are thinking about me." But I think that subconsciously something of the sort is at work. Call it primitive irrationality, but the opportunity sport offers for testing luck just might be an abiding attraction of the games we play. It may even be one reason they were invented.

It is not unusual these days to hear reservations and warnings from the experts, not so much about the value of competitive sports but about certain corruptions of that value. To summarize these misgivings: The pleasurable and instructive aspects of sport should derive from the competition itself, not from the final score. Traditionally, and perhaps by ancient design, the tangible awards for victory are of little material worth—symbolic trophies of one sort or another—because the only real and lasting value of a game is what's felt and learned during the contest.

In other words, it is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. This adage sums up what most authorities think can be the truest value of athletic competition. That it sounds hopelessly old-fashioned reflects what many think has gone wrong with sport.

Nowadays, the rewards for winning and the costs of losing are becoming more substantial. This is self-evident at the big-money, big-scholarship, big-celebrity level. But even for young children, succeeding at athletics is more and more often a quick, effective means of gaining status, perks and privileges. As the importance of winning is increasingly emphasized, the competitive process—how one plays the game—becomes further de-emphasized. The worth of the inner rewards declines in comparison with the magnificence of the prizes distributed. Raising the material stakes in contests tends to move competition out of the traditional realm of sport—safe excitement and imaginary risk—and into the real world, a world that frequently seems so scary and so stressful that we invented games as a means of escaping it.

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