The Importance of Sports in a Post-Modern World

In a few days the FIFA World Cup, which is one of -if not the- premier sporting events in the world, begins so I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the good of sports for those who don’t play them.

In modern sports, sometimes it’s hard to see this good. In sports today, we have college football conferences raiding each other in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar, destroying the wonderful regional nature of the game. We have Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time divas, two games away from yet another title. As Henry Karlson pointed out in a post a while ago, sports stars often find themselves in a position of privilege-both in terms of financial wealth and in terms of our excusal of their poor behavior (though I would attribute this in large part not solely to sports but also to the cult of celebrity we have today, which is another post for another day). We even had a stampede in anticipation of the World Cup.

However, one of the few shining spots in sports has to be my own New Orleans Saints. The Saints were an instrumental part of helping the community heal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina-in part because their stadium, the Superdome, was one of the infamous landmarks of the suffering caused by the storm, and in other parts because the team’s resurgence formed a narrative that many New Orleanians found inspiring for their own personal resurgences. In the wake of the oil spill off of Louisiana’s coast, the Saints have taken up the mantle for their community once again. The President of Plaquemine Parish (the parish closest to the disaster) had this to say about the visit:

Ten days ago he stood on stage at the parish seafood festival and felt his knees go weak. Just before he was scheduled to address the crowd, a BlackBerry message informed him BP’s “top kill” procedure had failed to stop the underwater gusher off his parish’s coast.

“I looked out in the audience and all I could see was people wanting me to tell ‘em something good, and I didn’t have the heart to give ‘em the bad news I just got, ” he said. “Today, when I looked out there — at least for today — I saw smiles. I hadn’t seen that in a long time.”

How can sports have such an effect?

Surely, part of the reason is distraction. The Super Bowl of the team allows its fans to think of something positive rather than the many negatives surrounding their community. Many people look down on this aspect as somehow trivial, but in this sense sports is little different from a movie or a good book that provides one comfort.

Part of the reason also has to do with pride (in a good sense). When the sports stars of the Saints showed up the disaster site, it sent the subtle message that someone cares. Considering the privilege and fame that many of these stars, including the star QB Drew Brees, enjoy, it is not insignificant that they spent time with the people suffering there. Indeed, one would be tempted to say that the Saints are one of the few organizations to show that they actually care about the people of the Louisiana (and this includes BP & Obama’s Federal government, who clearly view LA as a nuisance to their “higher” objectives of profit and re-election)

But I think that sports teams are instrumental to communities b/c they can help forge them. John Paul II said as much about the international level when he said:

You are asked to bear this faithful witness especially in sport, which has become one of the characteristic phenomena of our time. Sport concerns and involves vast crowds, especially through the communications media, thus becoming a worldwide event in which different nations and cultures find themselves joined in one festive experience. It is precisely for this reason that sport can promote the building of a more fraternal and united world, thus helping to overcome situations of reciprocal misunderstanding between individuals and peoples.

I think that JPII is pointing to something very important. In the post-modern world, true communities, both local and international, are sorely lacking. Many of the things that used to hold us together (a common good, a common religion, etc.) have been rejected. Sports however has survived to be one of the few remaining things (other than money) that has the ability to bring people together-both in on the local and international level. What else in the modern ag can bring together 60,000 people on a weekly basis? Indeed, in many fractured American cities-where divisions of race, religion, and wealth reign-a sports affiliation provide one of the few common bonds remaining.

Sporting events-whether they are a local high school game or a international world cup-provide an opportunity for communities to come together as one and forge the relationships that are necessary towards building a true community. While sports is no substitute for the graces provided by the Church in building communities, sports still has managed to preserve some of community-i.e. sports has maintained a foundation of communal relationships that the Church can use to rebuild/build proper communities.

Let’s not underestimate this. In the age of the internet, we have so many different and variant tastes and interests it can be difficult to find a common language. Movies can provide this, but after a few weeks most movies become stale and fall out of the water-cooler discussion. Particularly among men, sports can provide the common language needed to help forge a relationship. How many sons and fathers have bonded at a baseball game or by the father teaching his son the virtues of the sport?

There’s a reason so  many communities are willing to sacrifice tremendous resources to keep a local sports franchise (though this is not  good phenomenon). Sports fills a void that must be filled if communities are to be reinvigorated and restored. While sports certainly has many problems (it can take over the Sabbath, the profit motive, and the violence are just a few JPII has mentioned), considering the alternatives post-modern society has offered up for a common bond, sports is a pretty good option.

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4 Responses to The Importance of Sports in a Post-Modern World

  • T. Shaw says:

    See today’s Wall Street Journal review by John Heilpern of “Soccer and Philsosphy” edited by Ted Richards.

    Most of it flew right over my head.

    Sports and Theology: When my kids were playing, I’d pray that no one was hurt; that everyone played well; and that our team won. Now, it’s a Hail Mary for every pitch Marion Rivera throws. It usually works.

  • I’m reminded of that scene in American History X when a white supremacist and a black guy bond over basketball talk. They say Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week but I’d say that Sunday afternoons at football stadiums are some of the most integrated places in America.

    Having said that, international sporting events have also been responsible for some hostility, sometimes violence.

  • c matt says:

    The slogan for the World Cup in the past used to be (loosely translated) the world united around a ball. Well, it at least gets them physically together in the same place, if not necessarily united.

    I do agree though, sports do have some salutary effects on communities and individuals. Particularly team sports which impart sense of belonging, cooperation, and putting the team’s interests ahead of one’s own (apparently, Maradona has not picked up on that last one).

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