Sports and Morality

I was almost going to write and say that I beat David Brooks to the punch.  He published an article entitled The Sporting Mind a few days ago, and I was going to write to say that I said that sports and morality were related, and that I said it before David Brooks did.  As it turns out though, we said quite different things.  I said that maybe athletes could develop morals because of the emphasis on fair play (this came out of the “Talent” post), while Brooks said, or agreed with the statement, that sports organizes the moral thinking of young Americans.

It’s an interesting theory:

Rosenstock-Huessy was not the last academic to recognize that sport organizes the moral thinking of many young Americans. Professor Michael Allen Gillespie of Duke University has just written a fascinating essay, for an anthology called “Debating Moral Education,” on the role of sports in American ethical training.

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

This is interesting, and I’d like to see the essay once it’s published.  As a side note, I had actually wondered why it seemed like all team sports come from the West–I guess it’s a British thing.

While moral thinking most definitely preceded organized sports (and we’re probably all in agreement on this), I’d have to agree that sports definitely organizes our moral thinking.  Maybe that informed my thinking on Talent…my view is that if you step onto the field or brag about your talents on the field, then you should be prepared to play.  Talking without backing it up or fighting dirty and dishonestly, especially when the field is equal, strikes me as being somewhat less than honorable.  It’s better to step up and lose than to dodge responsibility, especially when you’re part of a team.

I thought Brooks’s article was fitting for this weekend.  Tonight is UFC 109, and tomorrow is the Super Bowl.  Enjoy your sports.  Explore the moral thinking that comes from sport competition.

2 thoughts on “Sports and Morality

  1. Oh wow.

    Also, I knew about lacrosse, but I somehow forgot about that. I think the American Indians (I think it was the Iroquois) also had democracy, which, I guess it somewhat related to team sports since you have to work with others.

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