The Apotheosis of Sports

01-07-2024Weekly ReflectionFr. Leonard F. Villa

The god Ever Before Our Eyes (edited) …(E)verything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses Juvenal Satire 10 (Quote added)

... One recent campaign asked riders on New York City subway trains, “When you count the loves of your life, is sports first or second?” Another, seen at city bus stops, queried, “Without sports, who would we follow?” And, “Without sports, would anyone believe in miracles?” The terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games were crazed. But when they called sports “the religion of the Western world” and the Olympics its “most sacred ceremony,” they might have been onto something.

It is the essence of religion to keep its god or gods constantly before the eyes and ears of its followers, and this is what we are witnessing today. Images of athletes seem to be everywhere — in sports bars, on filling station TV screens, in advertisements for cars and deodorants. Where we once heard church bells ring on Sundays, we now hear the roar of crowds at pro-football games or the “ping” of metal bats at Little League baseball games. Religious feast days and the colorful processions that accompanied them are no more, while marathons close down entire neighborhood….. It seems that no corner of society is immune…

The Nazis, who destroyed German culture, outlawed religious instruction in schools and replaced it with physical education and sports. We have not yet gone that far, but it is abundantly evident that religion in the U.S. now takes a back seat to sports. Recently, a bishop in the rural Northeast sought to merge two of his parishes for the sake of economy, but hard feelings between parents of children on the schools’ rival teams stopped him in his tracks… There was a time when Sunday was the “day of the Lord.” People tithed. Olympians like Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame refused to compete on the day Jesus rose from the dead. No longer. Sunday is still the day of the Lord, but the “Lord” is sports. Some enthusiasts may still go to church, but they are apt to dress in the gear of the local sports teams rather than their Sunday best for the Lord’s dinner party. The only people who can be counted on these days to wear a jacket and tie are athletic coaches and sports commentators. Quoting once again from postings seen at New York City bus stops: “Without sports, weekends would be weekdays.” The implication is that there is nothing inherently distinctive — nothing sacred — about the weekend. Sony’s 2013 Tennis Tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida, scheduled competition on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Medieval cathedrals are spiritual halls of fame where saints’ lives are commemorated in marble and glass. But the best-known hall of fame nowadays stands in Cooperstown, New York, and it is not paragons of virtue who are honored in its hallowed halls but those skilled at hitting home runs or throwing sliders. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are better known, and probably better attended, than any modern-day basilica. Our hagiography has shifted as well. At one time, the symbol X reminded us of St. Andrew, who was crucified on an X-shaped cross, and keys reminded us of St. Peter, whom Christ entrusted with the stewardship of His Kingdom (cf. Mt. 16:18-19). Today it is numbers that resonate — jersey numbers. …Christian saints have drawn fire for doing violence to their bodies — wearing hair shirts, “taking the discipline” (scourging themselves), and enduring rigorous fasts. But in comparison with the sacrifices made by professional athletes of our time, they were self-indulgent. If ballplayers are not dieting to lose weight, they are gorging themselves to gain it. During periods of competition they may abstain from marital relations, especially if they are boxers or aspirants for an Olympic gold medal. Today some of the greatest sacrifices are made by children. Fired with enormously high expectations by ambitious parents, children are lucky to avoid serious injury and win a coveted athletic scholarship. But chances are that their life on campus will mock the ideal of higher education.

Tutors will help them write their papers; they will enroll in Mickey Mouse courses; they will take five years, instead of four, to graduate. Then, in spite of all the coddling, they are likely to leave campus without a diploma. Only a bare majority of white athletes earn a degree, while the graduation rate for blacks is a dismal 26 percent. To top it off, those few who do make it to the pros are still riding for a fall. The average tenure of a pro-football lineman is no more than three or four years, a good portion of which is spent on the road, with all the temptations connected with itinerant living. Then, within two years of retirement, three out of four former pro football players are either addicted, divorced, or broke, according to The New York Times (Dec. 4, 2012). The National Football League (NFL) recently agreed to pay $765 million to 4,500 retired players for concussion-related illnesses, and sadly, some of the victims will never receive compensation given the suicide rate among former NFL players, which is six times the national average…. Among high-school players, 100,000 concussions are reported each season, with many times that figure unreported or unrecognized, and some of the concussions are fatal.

Over 100 high-school and college football players died from collisions in a single decade, according to The New York Times (Oct. 21, 2010). Why do we tolerate such carnage unless the prestige of sports has risen to the level of the sacred?.... (E)ven the president of the United States earns less than a utility outfielder or backup offensive lineman. Seven-figure salaries are standard for superstars in the major sports, while famous boxers like Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoya have drawn down purses of over $20 million for a single match. Coaches are in clover too. Even though most universities lose money on athletics, the average annual salary for a football coach at a big-time school is $1.64 million. Until recently, Alabama’s Nick Saban was earning $5.5 million a year.

The problem is that, as Lord Acton observed, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Money is power. To that end, every day in the world of sports, players routinely consume performance-enhancing drugs (some of which are illegal) to gain a competitive advantage, and recruiters are often knee-deep in bribery trying to attract top-level talent to their schools. Two seasons ago, the NFL suspended members of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff for offering bonuses to their players for injuring opponents on the field. The fostering of sportsmanship used to be a prime goal of athletic training. No longer. Self-absorbed and discourteous, many of today’s athletes indulge in fist-pumping, salsa dancing, and general whooping it up even when they make routine plays. Boxing champ Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) boasted famously of being “the greatest,” as did baseball’s stolen-base king Rickey Henderson. In tennis, viewers are fortunate if they are not subjected to tantrums and racket smashing by losers. Practically everything frowned on in bygone days is accepted because histrionics are entertainment, and entertainment is money. (emphasis added)

…When our nation was young and full of promise, professional athletics was practically unheard of. Football didn’t exist when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and neither did baseball or basketball. John Adams, the second president of the United States, played quoits and liked wrestling, along with sailing, kite flying, shooting, swimming, and skating. His son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, took time off as chief executive to swim the Potomac, attend horse races, and — scandal of scandals — install a billiard table in the White House. But athletics had its place, and it didn’t displace religious duty. Needless to say, the Adams family was exceedingly devout by today’s standards, spending nearly all their time on Sunday attending church services. Fast forward and we find USA Today reporting in 2007 that 60 percent of Americans were unable to name five of the Ten Commandments, while 50 percent of high-school seniors thought Sodom and Gomorrah were married! Needless to say, there has been a precipitous drop-off in church attendance in recent decades. The number of priests and nuns has fallen 50 percent since the 1950s, and one must look long and hard nowadays to catch sight of a religious habit or Roman collar worn in public. Religious affiliation of any kind has long been on the wane, and along with this has come an increase in militant atheism. In short, we are faced with a spiritual vacuum — a vacuum that, in a good many cases, has been filled by sports mania.

Comparing the U.S. with Greece and Rome when they were in their prime and cresting, one can see that, in all three cases, prolonged peace and prosperity following military success sapped the religious foundation of the state; this, in turn, set the stage for a compensatory (and obsessive) interest in sports. After Greece won the Persian Wars (449 B.C.) and Rome defeated Carthage (146 B.C.), there was, in both instances, a rush toward athletic professionalism accompanied by a decline in sportsmanship. More and more athletes competed in more and more games, some of them on holy days. St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (d. A.D. 407), lamented that his people were going to the races and attending games on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Due to the craving for spectacle, arenas grew ever larger and athletes ever richer. One of them, Gaius Diocles, earned more in a single day than Roman procurators did in a year. In addition to prize money, the athlete with laurels received a state pension and was exempt from taxation, along with civil and military service. In short, those gifted with bodily strength were privileged characters. They became famous. Their images appeared on ceramics, mosaics, and glassware. As Rome’s devotion to sports spiraled out of control, emperors were pressed to bankroll chariot races and gladiatorial games. The popular cry was for “bread and circuses.” Indecency entered the picture as well. Women became gladiators. Brothels sprouted at the arcades of the Circus Maximus. On the tiles of a Sicilian villa, one can make out bikini-clad women running, throwing the discus and javelin, playing ball, and winning prizes. Did an exaggerated emphasis on sports contribute to the downfall of Greece and Rome?

One must take care not to argue post hoc ergo propter hoc (NOTE: A logical fallacy which argues that because something happened after a particular event, it was caused by that event.) but there does seem to be a correlation, and of one thing we can be certain: Misguided emphasis on the physical went hand in hand with imperial collapse. In the case of the U.S., who can say where the athletic juggernaut is taking us? Who can say where it stands in relation to our moral anemia? The two appear to be symbiotic. In the final analysis, all that may safely be said is that if God is who He is supposed to be, violation of the First and Third Commandments will have consequences, and the consequences will not be pretty. “[Christian morality] rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2289)

Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review where this article first appeared in October 2014. Frederick W. Marks I