Men and Sports

Men have an innate desire to celebrate athletic achievement. This is probably because Our Hunting Fathers relied upon their athletic prowess for survival, and it is no surprise that the best hunters and warriors are revered and rewarded in nomadic societies and lionized in folklore. Anthropology is the field which best explains why modern men are hardwired to want to be like Mike.

Professional sports–grown men playing children’s games in public for money—is a multibillion dollar obsession in this country. (Of course, this includes Division One college football and basketball—a malignant growth on our system of higher education, but that article has already been written.) Millions of American males (myself included) spend an absurd amount of time not merely witnessing this grand spectacle, but talking about it, reading about it, and digesting hours of sports radio and television shows.

Sports media is ultimately a discussion about morality. This is acutely apparent on sports talk radio, a large and growing presence in radio markets large and small. And sports talk radio is largely a debate about what constitutes manhood. (The overwhelming majority of the hosts and callers are male, and on the rare occasions when women’s sports are discussed, they are often held up for ridicule.) No matter what the subject, high salaries, steroids, what it takes to be a champion—it’s about what type of men these athletes are. The hosts and callers argue endlessly about whether particular athletes are winners, whiners, losers, or stand up guys.

But athletic competitions are not morality plays. Despite our inherent tendency to assign virtue to the victors, when one team defeats another on the sporting green, it signifies little about the actual character of the men involved. But something inside us wants to believe that the winners are more virtuous, or that they practiced harder, or that they are simply better people who deserved to win.

Sadly, however, grace under pressure in the athletic realm has no correlation to one’s behavior in real life. This is confirmed by a cursory look at the Jurisprudence section of the local sports page. The NFL is our favorite sport by far despite the frequency with which the exalted men who play professional football are being arrested for all manner of malfeasance, including rape, murder, assault, and drunken driving. (For a literary example of this phenomenon, see John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run. Like so many real life jocks, Rabbit Angstrom is a winner on the basketball court but a louse and a loser in his personal life who abandons his pregnant young wife and calls her a mutt).

When it comes to sports, people are inclined to ignore one of life’s basic lessons: an unexplainable alchemy of talent, luck, and preparation add up to worldly success. The winners are not necessarily superior to the losers, and Jesus doesn’t love them any better than He loves anyone else.

Hollywood understands all this
. Witness the perpetual onslaught of tedious formulaic movies where our hard-working and virtuous hero almost always wins. Movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid are more cliche than storytelling, where lovable underdogs prevail against opponents who are simply depraved monsters.

There are many outstanding sports movies which defy and often even ridicule our expectations, including Dodgeball, Happy Gilmore, CaddyShack, Raging Bull, White Men Can’t Jump, Eight Men Out, Moneyball, North Dallas Forty, Million Dollar Baby and Friday Night Lights.

by Richard W. Bray

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