back to Footnotes Overview

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation



Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

100 Hardscrabble Road, Briarcliff Manor, NY. 10510 Tel.: ( 914) 747 9102

A recent study shows a drop in newspaper circulation over several months in America's major city dailies. It was explained in part by a desertion of readers due to the baseball strike and the resulting absence of sports news. With the strike now settled and teams making their pitch for players with salaries reaching the $ 5.5 million per year, readership should pick up again.

That may be good news for the local and national dailies. But it also is one more indicator of the importance of sports over political, cultural and economic news for the public. To the extend in which this may be the case, we do well to wonder about the long-term effects and the deeper implications of this interest in sports to the culture as a whole. I am troubled that the debate over serious moral and political issues of our times is so often substituted by the talk about sports. And , worse, that the patterns and language of sports are used to set the tone for the public, moral and economic life.

This is a touchy subject. Critique sports in any form and you will be suspect to many people as much as if you had questioned their marriage. Strong criticism comes from all those who practice a sport and those who participate from the couch or the bleachers. Any crowd of people, any gathering of even serious and successful individuals will sooner or later focus their conversation on their one common subject: sports. Sports brakes the ice, floats as shouts in the bars and is the music of socialization. Loyalty to a university is expressed in terms of sports, not fields of knowledge, professors and degrees. All other conversation comes to a halt, when strategy, players, teamwork and goals are discussed.

I was still ignorant of Michael Jordan a couple of years ago. I was as alone among members of a Washington think tank as when I could not give name recognition to Elvis Presley shortly after having arrived in America as an exchange student in 1956. I was ignorant of the center of the universe, the core of the world as it is experienced by my neighbors.

Sports to them is more than an entertainment, a personal interest or a business. It serves as illustrations for speeches and sermons. It unites cocktail parties and board rooms. Highly qualified people and serious in their contribution to the educational, economic, intellectual and political culture today readily turn to sports as the real life spectacle that holds the nation together and gives forceful expression to desires, a longing for success and human achievement.

Italy and France (and I imagine also several South American countries) have their papers wholly devoted to reporting on sports. But I know of no country apart from the US, in which regular dailies with sports sections would decline in circulation because of a strike of players or where any Board room talk includes lengthy discussion of sport projections and performance.

There seems to be something attractive and perhaps satisfying in sports that is not found in other communal activities. Religion, school, politics and sex bring people together. But in each of these fields an insidious tolerance keeps us from applying rules, standards and evaluations. Sports is perhaps the only area in which there are still distinctions between winners and losers. There are rules, which, when broken, bring clear results in the form of punishment. There are clear goals and practice is rewarded.

Now that my son plays soccer, I get to watch the young team members more closely. The game contains all the best of human social, educational, goal oriented efforts. The virtues of self-discipline, responsibility, altruism and dedication are taught, demanded and practiced. Watching the game, the training sessions and the crowds may explain this dominant interest in, almost worship of sports in this country. Sports, as taught here, is perhaps the only remaining area in which excellence is not merely spoken about, but required. It is the only area in which rules are expected to be obeyed, independent of your cultural, ethnic and gender specificity. It is the only area in which accomplishment matters more than good intentions, effort and developing self-esteem.

In training and in the ball park, no nonsense is tolerated. Ask a stupid question, like "can I have a drink of water", and you punished by a run around the field. Any distraction is similarly requited by a useful exercise. Argue with the coach or each other, and again you run. Nowhere else is such discipline demanded and accepted in today's world of relative values, multi-cultural ignorance and progressive education. In no other area do people allow themselves to be exposed to such psychological pressure openly without resigning. Within its own framework, players bow to the demands of what is needed to play well to win.

I respect and admire the pleasure of sports, the necessity of developing your body together with your mind ("mens sana in corpore sano"). I am amazed at the control, the power and the precision of the human body. I stand in awe before developing skill and acquired discipline. I am startled by the surprise of trained responses and creative strategic decisions.

In addition to these personal achievements there are social benefits to sports. They unite a supporting community. They give expression to animated emotion. They demonstrate human achievement after strenuous exercise. They bring men and women, parents and children together around a common interest and provide a vivid experience of being one of a crowd.

But the absence of hardly any other broad focus for a society is deeply troublesome. Our society is not known for its interest in the arts, in intelligent conversation, in its search for wisdom, its intellectual and cultural life. We don't expect to hear talk about history, the significance of a Biblical world view, the cultural distinctive of Jewish life. We are not introduced to the wider world of the human quest for the good life in the various attempts to civilize human existence. All this has been largely abandoned in the community. The fear of an alleged elitism has broken the resolve to insist on clear definitions.

We still found it in the deliberations amongst the Founding Fathers. But we fail to see that the discussion has to be continued in each generation, lest we lose the discernment between civilization and barbarism in our own minds and then in the larger public arena.

The wide interest in sports is not the problem per se. But when this interest has become a substitute for the more markedly human interest in the world of ideas, of questions of truth and beauty and community, we have a problem on our hands, which effects what lies at the heart of human existence.

There are a few voices which doubt the benefits of such a national fixation on sports. A recent interesting book warns that the promise of social and economic advance for black children does not lie in the belief in a basket ball career. Most who dream of dribbling for success never make it into the Leagues. Those who do not recognize this fact in time, never make it at all. Period.

An article in the New York Times Magazine ( April 2, 1995 "The Emasculation of Sports") suggests that sports has lost its innocence, when salaries draw the crowds and when heroes of the game are Tyson, Harding and O.J., spoiled fools as role models, and when games exist only to hawk products.

I wonder whether the current and growing interest in sports is in fact a substitute to help us overlook the need for more serious considerations? Does the interest in the physical hide the confusion about the intellectual and spiritual content of the life in a society? Does the interest in sports reveal a sickness of heart and mind? Does the need for victories of the home team and the military and crime gang vocabulary ( "Sink the Navy; Trounce Wisconsin; Beat Oregon") to support it forget the need for a good loosing team? Or is the victory in the "game event" a substitute for the lack of confidence and moral certainties in other areas of our modern society?

Is the interest in sports an admission of failure to work with the components of a more verbal, artistic, intellectual and moral society? Is the interest in physical fitness and health a distraction from the failure to renew the source of our culture, which lay in love, courage and a sound mind with which to distinguish between moral and physical victories? Is it possible that the search for a good life of good people to form a good society, that quest and mark of Western civilization with its Biblical and Greek roots, has been reduced to a game with good rules, good performers for good entertainment?

Sports historians suggest that the values of sports have shaped, in some way or another, the American character. But is that character renewal itself being made impossible by the focus on sports not as a model but as the only reality with character. Since the game has rules and style, in the real life of work, family and community we can be barbarians and neglect the underlying intention of sports to instruct us in such virtues as playing by rules, working together for common goals, submitting to authority.

In addition, because it is only a game, sports has become another variety show, a kind of masculine soap-opera. The story of such a show undermines the values a society needs to renew itself again and again in critical humility.

The game has become a substitute for the real battle for civilized life. We train for sports and put aside the training for life. We accept the rigor of the games of Olympus, but neglect that the Greeks also gave us the tradition of doubt, of asking profound philosophic questions about eternal verities concerning human beings, civilization and possible gods? With that selective decision we have also replaced the intellectual and spiritual discipline from the Bible by the arbitrary discipline of the rules of a game of sports?

My concern for the real things in life is grounded in the understanding that sports were only meant to entertain in life, not to substitute for it. The word means to entertain, to do something on the side, to amuse, to flirt, to divert. Sports were meant to give pleasure, to mock, to distract. The serious things of conversation were to revolve around the quest for the moral life.

In Greece sports had a religious connotation as well as a military benefit. It was the training exercise for physical results. But it also expressed a physical reality of idealistic goals. The human bodies, well proportioned and controlled, exhibit a beauty not found in common things of life. The contemplation of the extraordinary, of greatness, would lead to the awareness of a higher goal, a nobler aim. The power, virtue and beauty of the exercise would elevate the mind and stretch the imagination to always be self-critical of the more personal present. Heroes were the people most unlike the common man and woman.

The Bible uses sports as an illustration in two places. In 1. Corinthians 9: 24 ff. St. Paul speaks of the need to run, to train well, even to beat his body, in order to win the prize of a crown that will last forever. To this end he had become all things to all men, in order that they might believe. In 2nd Timothy 2:3 ff. he speaks of the competition for the victor's crown according to the rules as an illustration for the need to entrust the word of God "to reliable men, who will also be qualified to teach others." Discipline in sports illustrated the need for greater discipline in important things of truth and life.

During the Middle Ages, sports consisted largely of tournaments between members of the nobility. There were hunts for the aristocracy. Jousts were common. They expressed agility, reflexes and training. Sports also could be found in the games between guilds to see who would catch an object like a ball. The large teams would carry it to their village by clever tricks, smart actions and agile bodies. Annual events like these brought people together and reflected on the community. They served as reminders to be on your toes in life, to discern between the good and the bad, between winners and losers. The game was an illustration for a deeper necessity of virtue, strength and discernment in the real world of daily existence.

Apart from that, games were often a substitute for violence. There were few rules until the 19th century. Games often turned into riots and were regarded as the resort of the idle, the frivolous and the hooligans, who had no other form of entertainment in their otherwise harsh life experiences. Such riots with their resulting injuries, thefts and other forms of cruelty could only be stopped when the "riot act" was read to the people, threatening punishment.

Church feasts brought the crowds together, in carnivals, kermesse and fairs. At such occasions, jousting and games would easily turn into rough play with physical injuries and even deaths. Paul Johnson ("The Birth of the Modern," pg. 704 ff) mentions that such games were called "camping" in Norfolk. Later, the Methodist churches would set up "camp meetings" to rival and reform the "kicking (or) savage camps."

This helped to introduce a moral theory of games. Sports should lead to a development of healthy minds and bodies. It attempted to rescue the games from chaos . The Enclosure Act had required games to be limited to a field, to be played by rules, rather than in the open countryside. The democratic ideals and economic development brought sports, formerly a luxury of the hunting rich, into the reach of many more people. An increase in benefits from technical advances and industrialization also gave rise to an increasing interest in health itself as well as the time to be concerned about it. In addition, the pleasures of rationality gave a mathematical form to most games. Rules, standards and records established winners and heroes in a more objective manner.

Here lie the roots of our modern interest, our fascination and our leisure in sports. Yet several influences simultaneously gnawed away at a certain innocence in what may have become at some time a wholesome and pleasant human pursuit. They could not win ground, as long as the intellectual foundation for life was solid and the components of sports were held in balance. For the training of the physical body, the interplay between thought and action, the concern for health and the honorable rewards for the winner and a good looser ("being a good sport about loosing the game") are healthy components of a normal life. Sports within these and some other boundaries yield a sound social and cultural benefit. As intellectual and spiritual rigor can find expression in physical work, physical skill can sharpen the awareness of the need for spiritual and intellectual discernment.

However, the games lost that broader framework and were affected by a number of philosophic directions and cultural developments. One such was the use of nationalism in Germany against Napoleon's France in the teachings of Wilhelm Ludwig Jahn, also known as Turnvater Jahn. His interest was not primarily sports as a physical exercise, but as a vehicle for romanticism. He sought to awaken more primitive forms of life, closer to nature and more Germanic, as a statement against civilization, industrialization, cosmopolitanism, rationality,... and France. His student gymnasts and sports fanatics wore the open tunics of forest folk, kept their hair long, had their colors and songs of sworn associations and..... burnt the Code Napoleon. They wore hunting knives in their belts. They embraced nature and emotions, for they rejected science and reason. They felt things deeply on a spiritual level, but their orientation was more pagan than rational or Christian.

Thus their spirituality had a very sensual, physical and nationalistic expression. It comes as no surprise that a century later, Hitler's national socialists would continue the same ideas in the youth movements, the sports federations and the massive gatherings in sport stadiums of healthy boys and girls, men and women, for nationalistic affirmations. The sensuality, the group excitement, the use of sports for a drive towards victory and supremacy of the German blood centered on the body, on health and on support of "Lebensraum" for the Aryan race. Reason, education and a trained critical mind were sacrificed in the political experience of sports.

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were to become a demonstration of the supremacy of the German race. Health, physical training and race science were all stressed from the beginning. The body came first, character and intellect followed only later. In the same way the Soviet block would use drugs and training in the service of sport victories, which would be evidence for the supremacy of socialism.

A second factor we need to understand in the fascination with sports is the rise of visual stimulation and public pleasure in the 19th century. The spectacle of colorful and agitated entertainment in the newly discovered lime light and later under the beams of electric lighting would create a hunger for ever more. Unrestrained lust for greater, wilder things are a by-product of the greater freedoms and luxuries that industrialization gave a democratic society. The moral and intellectual quest was being replaced by a quest for more sensational things. Today, the theme park often gives such a heightened sensation and is a substitute for real life. Here things are well, amusing and always clean, while marriages, work and life in the city pose too many problems. Theme parks, like sports, entertain; personal effort is too much work. When the city or the marriage die, a trip to Disneyland is hoped to bring healing.

The sports hero, who had achieved discipline and records, became the exhibitionist. In our day the winner of a record would be admired for holding a record. He or she has become the Roman gladiator for modern times. Yet gladiators were honored prior to the fall of Rome.

A third factor is possibly the destructive influence of the democratic idea in a post-rational culture. Truth is here no longer the result of revelation, of facts, measures and definitions, which speak to the mind. Quality is no longer a rational consideration of what is good and beautiful. Instead, what is achieved, what can be sold and bought, is accepted as good by undiscerning neighbors in a world of self-made men and women. They believe they had God within them, and they feel good about themselves. In the past they accepted snake oil. In the present they honor easily anyone who can promise them something tangible and real.

Physical accomplishments counts for more than intellectual and spiritual discernment. Pragmatic success is the beginning of the good life. Sensuality has replaced the quest of sensible understanding. The survivor in the West, the bare knuckle fighter in New York, the fastest gun in the prairie, Jesse James and the Sundance kid were admired as much as the good sheriff and the successful sales man. Here are tangible realities to satisfy the longing for certainties. By contrast, the emphasis on learning, on being familiar with human history and the history of critical thinking was widely abandoned as the interest of a European elite. The new democracy was meant to open doors to the popular hero without regard to established moral categories.

There is a certain attraction to reducing admiration to the physical realm, for the judgment is then not moral/personal, but objective/mathematical. It can be quantified. This is especially so in a society that prides itself on its tolerance and multi-culturalism. It frees us from the need to come to a verdict about the quality of an idea or an argument. The score alone counts. What a person thinks and how he came to that position is then of much less importance than what he can do in physical strength, in sales numbers or ratings.

A shift to a democratic view of virtue involves the sacrifice of the notion of an objective truth. Moral values are replaced by material accomplishments. In the world of sports brawn matters more than brains. I do not reject real accomplishments in sports. It merely places them on a level with the strength of drought horses. Human accomplishments formerly were always a blend of moral, intellectual and physical factors.

The forth factor is perhaps the pursuit of physical health as an end in itself. It is dramatic to observe that this preoccupation coincides with a decline in the knowledge of history, of the classics and of ethics. A dorm at New York University greets students with free condoms, notices about health, safety and meditation more readily than with insights about courses, professors and intellectual discoveries. An increasing nihilism in art, music and the theater, in civil and intellectual discourse, in a common purpose, is compensated by a search for the healthy body, for heightened sexuality and for fitness as a kind of immortality.

David Wells ('God in the Wasteland,' Eerdmans 1994, pg. 52) cities Nancy Brewka Clark's proposal that for many the contemporary interest in physical exercise is not simply a way of achieving or retaining health, but is kind of secular religion. As "churches empty, health clubs flourish; as traditional fervor wanes, attention to the body waxes. In other words, as the baby boomers approach middle age, a yearning towards perpetual youth flares up and denial of the biological takes the form of aerobics ( 'Faith in the Flesh: An Essay on Secular Society's preoccupation with Life [somewhat] Eternal,' Lynn Magazine, October 1985, p. 18). Wells suggests that the pain of a workout is a new form of penance, the monk's hair shirt has been replaced by the modern's sweatshirt,

The quest for health and fitness is the one remaining area in which people can discover that they are significant, that they have control, that their choices do make a difference. Having been robbed of any confidence or certainty in the realm of ideas and definitions, the only affirmation left is in the area of physical health, measured by chronometers, scales and the use of prophylactics.

The death of God was declared by an abundance of religion, which then left the soul strangely dead as well. Only the body is still alive and receives all the attention. Our culture has largely rejected any standard in manners, grammar, composition, even the definition of God or marriage. Multi-culturalism has opened the door for cultural relativism. Post-Modernism attempts to make certainty, truth and rationality obsolete. Large sections of Judaism and Christianity have watered down content and form by their approval of self-discovery. Personal testimonies substitute for theology. Only the body can and needs to be given a standard shape. It is still significant and visible to others for their admiration and approval.

The Biblical view of Man and the world gave sports a place as a game with rules, played in the surplus of time and pleasure, which were themselves made possible when we respected a greater discipline and rationality in the quest for human life, as instructed and defined in revelation. But with the abandonment of convincing structures in democratic and self-centered modernity, sports has become for many the sole arena with rules, heroes, satisfaction and definite outcomes. Players are role models and receive millions. Presidents of state and businesses rally to their support. A players' strike becomes a national embarrassment and makes international news. This fascination with sports has become the only common discourse, cultural effort and mark of real humanity. It is a far cry from a tradition which valued truth and ethics as the heart and mind of a person, not only the body. Being a good person was more important for the life of society than doing good things to one's body.

Not only has sports been emasculated, as the article in the New York Times suggests. I believe that the fascination with sports reveals an emasculation of society itself. Precisely because it is only a game, it can not fulfill its role at the center of so much admiration and such high expectations. As the center of most conversations sports receives the attention of the golden calf, an idolatrous fascination, the new model of character, at the same time, in which the games "don't stand for anything beyond themselves" anymore.

To shore up the crumbling sense of self, people turn to sports. Here one can still swing, experience the strenuous life and savor the precarious victories. For the sake of these experiences, fans overlook the change in the players, who have become a "gladiatorial class." No longer models for ethics, they have been excused from restraints and propriety for the sake of our entertainment. Robert Lipsyte suggests in the New York Times that "sports are over because they no longer have any moral resonance. They are merely entertainment, the bread and circuses of a New Rome." Our current Babes are Mike Tyson and Tonya Harding, "two of the neediest, hungriest, most troubled and misguided young people in athletic history."

The growing fascination with health of the body and sports is perhaps more than a result of disappointed expectations. We still get sick and die. Immortality has not been achieved. Deeper than this, we are disappointed that our technological, economic, and material advance has not brought us satisfaction on the level of human existence, of meaning and of answers to the questions always raised concerning the point of life. Like Rodin's "Thinker", we sit in the Gates of Hell with our well-trained bodies and contemplate the meaning of it all. Too modern to return to the Bible, people crave distractions found in paganism, nature religions, Gnostic secretes and... sports.

We abandoned the source of morality, an ethic of life, which sports had exhibited and, by illustrations, taught. The manly virtues have lost their calling. Sports has become an expression of common life itself, in all its nastiness, its ugly triumphs, its commercial barter and success, holding cities at ransom and throwing commercials in your face. The loss of moral certainties, which gave responsibility and value to rightful thinking, civilizing morals and hard work in community, has resulted in "victory" as an ultimate criterion: salaries, fame and celebrity status. We lament the decline of culture, of education, of knowledge of the real world out there. We complain of unemployable youth and our declining competitiveness in the world. Yet we should blame ourselves for meeting our growing sense of nihilism with models from sports and body fitness. Our disinterest in the pursuit of the virtuous life reflects the loss of moral and intellectual certainties everywhere.

The wealth of a people is found in the moral and mental development of the individual, which will always include the search for physical strength. But in our search for success, we have bowed to the pagan attention to the body, to sensuality and to pleasure and have forgotten the weightier concerns of a sound and sensitive mind and spirit. We have submitted to a multi-cultural relativism and lost the definition of a moral culture in the process.

Sport and fitness fanatics may die healthier, but not any later and certainly often less wise and virtuous. They have considered a substitute to function as the divine. Their idol has lost its soul. It leaves us entertained, but unable to converse about and to practice moral goodness.

back to top