So, we have the spectacle of sports in order to put the energy and prowess of our young men and the beauty of our young women on display. In recent decades, the beauty of the young men and the energy and prowess of the young women are increasingly part of the display, but remain secondary. This applies not only to the society as a whole, but units within the society as well: schools, towns, regions. This may have started in the Anglosphere, but much of the world has since adopted it. The Soviets were quite explicit in using sports to demonstrate the superiority of their system. Other countries try to leave that implied.
That is not the only expressive meaning of sports, and it is not present in all individuals. But sports would not be popular if they were not meeting this need. An individual athlete, perhaps even a team or an entire fan base, may have nothing but love of excellence, enjoyment of activity, and opportunity to be with like-minded others motivating them. This may even be common in the less-popular or non-revenue sports, all those legions of JV field hockey players, competitive swimmers, and dogsled mushers. But when we are discussing popular team sports in America, the presence of this display aspect is my default position.
Need I say that while it may be possible to justify this in Christian terms, it is pretty emphatically not an expression of core Christian teaching. If competitive sports are going to pass muster, it will have to be on other grounds.
I have one tangential bit I would like to clear up, simply because it seems such a common defense of competition, and running up the score in particular. The fact that good may come of it is not, in itself, sufficient. Anecdotes, movies, and theories of how well things can sometimes work out are irrelevant. Any number of obviously bad things can bring good out of those who experience them. Wars, disasters, and tragedies can bring forth remarkable courage, generosity, kindness, and resilience from people, yet that does not imply that the original situations are good. Shall I sin more, that grace may abound? Paul asks. Heaven forbid.
That is not a positive argument that running up the score is bad, but simply knocking down one of its defenses.
There is a related argument – that sports are an artificial training ground for life’s stern lessons, and therefore an easier way to develop the virtues one will need in adulthood – that I think has some value. However, even this has a major downside. Youth sports are public. They are not like a report card or a standardized test, the results of which you can keep to yourself and learn what you can about your own abilities. For kids, sports (and a few other activities) are not a separate artificial learning of adult lessons, but activities that take place in real time, in front of their real friends. They are real life, not a preparation for it. Adults, putting some importance on these games because they regard them as training and unimportant in the long run, add to the reality. Kids don’t have much of a world outside their friends and families. Bad coaches, taunting opponents, and individual failure are not something they can gain much perspective on.
It is certainly fair to say “well, they have to learn it.” It is quite another to expect that they should suddenly have to learn it all at once before they are developmentally ready, just because adults made the mistake of setting kids up to fail.
The boiling water hardens the egg but softens the carrot. Fine. But does that suggest that we should not ourselves be the boiling water at all?