Posted: March 18th, 2023
Philosophy of Sports
But it’s good for you!”
An overview of American Sports — collective and individual anxiety about just having fun
One of the reasons that the ancient Greek ideal of sports came into being is no doubt the individualistic nature of Greek physical excellence, as embodied by the first Olympic Games. Ancient Olympic, Greek athletes competed in sports such as boxing, horse and foot races, wrestling, and the events of modern track and field, including the contemporary Olympic pursuits of the shot-put and the discus. Even the modern ideal of national excellence was absent from the first, Greek games, “The ancient Olympics were rather different from the modern Games. There were fewer events, and only free men who spoke Greek could compete, instead of athletes from any country.” These Olympics were about individual glory, not working together as a team. This may be why a. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale University President and Commissioner of American baseball asserted: “The Greeks saw physical training and games as a form of knowledge, meant to toughen the body in order to temper the soul, activities pure in themselves, immediate, obedient to the rules so the winning would be sweeter still.” Sports were part of the Greek philosophical ideal, in short, necessary to produce a sound mind and body in perfect harmony.
In contrast, the English, public school idea of sport was embodied in seeking an “aim beyond the field to the battle ground of life, and they emphasize fellowship, sacrifice, a sense that how one plays is an emblem of how one will later behave.” These games were designed to formulate a better, collective society by fostering communal ideals, much like the British school system itself. “They teach that victory is ultimately less important than the common experience of struggling in common.” English sports designed to foster this message were largely collective, such as rugby, cricket, and even the supposedly ‘lower class’ (but now intensely popular) sport of soccer or European football.
Of course, it is easy to poke holes such a dichotomous theory. The Greeks won glory for their polis, or city-state, even though they competed at individualistic pursuits, and the British today still laud great players like David Beckham, who used to play great soccer for Manchester United, just as Britons of the past praised great batsmen and bowlers in cricket. However, Giamatti’s assertion does highlight, however schematically, a tension in justifying the value of sport in a society. Does sport teach the individual self-assertion and help the individual realize a state of self-actualization, or does it infuse an individual with all-important team and societal values?
Practicality, far more so than either Greece or Great Britain, has been a value prized in the American hierarchy of values. To justify the existence of sport in America in schools, neighborhoods, and the popularity of sports as public pastimes, America has used both justifications, that sport mentally and physically improves the individual citizen, an also provides a means of fostering civic engagement. The idea of being “openly at play” makes Americans uncomfortable, and America searches to find a logical justification for what may be a human need to play and engage in physical activity, almost desperately using both individual and collective justifications for the popularity of sport.
Sports historian Benjamin Rader, in contrast to Giamatti, would likely concur it is difficult to see American participation in sporting culture as either/or, or individualistic vs. collective notions of justifying sport participation. Rather, Americans have used both ideals because American love of sport might be characterized as a relationship of schizophrenia and anxiety — and guilt. For example, the early Puritans attempted to strike an “assault” upon the presumably licentious British public culture of sport. American Southerners of the backcountry, however, in a rural environment, enjoyed sport as a way to legitimately enjoy themselves, prove their masculinity, and pass the hours in a rough environment.
As America evolved, club sports like boxing and race-horsing became popular, collective enterprises — yet places where individuals could monetarily profit, unlike the amateur ideal of Greece and England. This ability to profit and make a career from sport, however unstable shows the ‘practical’ side to even early American sports crazes. Within these early sports, there was always both individualism and collective spirit in force, when justifying them in communities of enthusiasts. The individual might cheer on a specific boxer, watch as a collective member of an audience, and identify with the boxer because he represented an ethnic group, region, or collective value, and profit on a bet. Baseball transferred this identification with the collective onto the persona of a team, yet individual players, like Babe Ruth became striking stars, eclipsing the prominence of the team.
The tension between individualism and unity in sport may be best embodied today in modern attitudes about in youth sports. On one hand, parents want schools that teach students how to excel in basic academic subjects, and gym has increasingly been pushed to the side, in an effort to teach students subjects that will get them a job (American pragmatism) or meet state standards of proficiency. The only way to justify including gym is either to argue that sports foster a better sense of community in students, or that they serve a purpose to increase individual physical fitness at a critical period of the child’s life and thus combat childhood obesity.
Rather than collective sport, in this ‘reading’ of physical fitness, personal health is the stress. One study justifying the continued need for gym class found: “Children enrolled in fitness-oriented gym classes showed greater loss of body fat, increase in cardiovascular fitness, and improvement in fasting insulin levels than control subjects.” Fitness and individual improvement against one’s own personal benchmark rather than team excellence is was the hallmark of these classes. The word ‘fitness,’ as opposed to sport in general, connotes usefulness and practicality of physical effort that does no ‘work’, rather than fun is the focus of such pleas to keep gym in schools.
Even fitness clubs geared towards adults tend to emphasize the practical importance of self-improvement rather than pure play or pure joy in physical movement. Sculpting the body to become more socially desirable, or for health reasons is the purpose of the local gym, not to become a better runner from logging hours on the treadmill, or to become a competitive boxer from a suburban kickboxing class at a martial arts studio.
Even team sports have become increasingly regimented young students and prescriptive in nature. Students who are talented in athletics, rather than play with a mixed group of individuals at school often play on traveling teams that cut students of inferior ability. Students specialize at an early age and go to training camps, rather than have fun with their friends. Parents who support children on such teams often nurse a very specific, practical goal beyond just encouraging their child to have fun. For their individual, although the sport may be a team sport, the parents dream that the child will gain a scholarship and a better chance at getting into a top college, in an increasingly competitive academic environment. This sort of dream is individualistic but not the Greek ideal of pure, personal excellence as described by Giamatti. This is a practical American ideal of success and self-improvement through calculated effort, not a purification of the body to elevate the soul.
Even the need to decrease obesity in children is often justified, not for the child’s well-being, but by statistics that indicate that childhood obesity can lead to lessened job prospects later on in life. The fact that childhood obesity disproportionately affects the poor makes gym classes a way to reach out economically to people in need, much like school lunch programs, as impoverished children and teens lack places to play and have physical outlets after school. Fun as a need is not the point. Rather physical activity is administered like medicine to the individual, to make a better person and a better citizen.
As well as American individualistic justifications of allowing a sporting culture for schoolchildren and busy working adults, there is also the rhetoric of the collective good. Politicians note the collective burden upon the health care system created by obesity. The financial toll of obesity upon all Americans is cited as one reason to encourage individual physical prowess — unhealthy, collective fitness leads to a bad economy. To be fit is not simply good for the person, it is patriotic, and thus sport is justified. Presumably to pass the President’s Fitness Test. Presidential physical fitness means one is a good citizen, even though the draft is no longer mandatory. Even the physical fitness of presidents themselves, such as Bill Clinton’s fondness for McDonald’s and subsequent heart problems, and George W. Bush’s fitness as a runner, are reported in the media as examples of what this says about these men as citizens, and the public health policy they will instate for the nation.
The most popular spectator sports today are collective sports, much in line with the English ideal — baseball, basketball, and football. Even the much despised soccer is popular amongst American youths. Yet Americans cheer on their favorite individual stars in all of these sports, especially if the starts engage in charity efforts to justify their bloated salaries. The tension remains about what good sports do for both the individual or society, and Americans today are clearly using sports as a means of practical self-improvement like the Greeks as well as a means of collective identification like the English: “in the 1950’s or 1960’s, few people exercised; baseline fitness-consciousness was just above zero. Today, 20% of the U.S. population works out on a regular basis, while an additional 60%+ can be classified as…’Consciousness III’ — those persuaded of physical fitness, but who by their own admission, don’t get enough exercise. As behavior lags enlightened attitudes, 4 out of 5 adult Americans are true believers in exercise and fitness.” But the protests remain that Americans are too busy to exercise, too busy working to do something as decadent as work on their bodies for either the individual or the collective good.
One interesting trend is that today America has more female sports participants. “In a bygone era, women who lifted weights invited a spate of gender-specific epithets; but for many of today’s men, toned muscles are an ideal of feminine attractiveness. From 1987-2005, the number of women who trained with free weights tripled from 7.4 million to 22.6 million.” Interestingly, unlike male sports the female sports that have generated the most interest in the American public (and the most highly-paid female athletes) have tended to come from individual rather than team sports like tennis and gymnastics. The self-improving ‘girl power’ ethos suggests once again the American moral demand to justify sports as uplifting and beneficial to a cause, rather than pure fun. And great tennis star Billie Jean King is probably more famous for symbolically defeating an out-of-shape male tennis player named Bobby Riggs than winning matches against the best female players of her generation, although the later showed her individual excellence within the standard rules and parameters of her sport, which is really the purpose of any sporting activity. Sport must be a metaphor, individual or collective, it cannot simply ‘be’ in America — politics once again wins over sport for sport’s sake in the continued American anxiety over how much time and money we lavish on our interest in games, even while we become a nation of spectators, rather than participants.
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Crane, 2007, Tufts University, 29 May 2007, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.
Dillon, Sam. “Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math.” The New York
Times. 25 Mar 2006. 29 May 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/26/education/26child.html?ex=1301029200en=0c91b5bd32dabe2aei=5088partner=rssnytemc=rss
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Sports Research Bombshell from American Sports Data, Inc.: Sports Participation
Trends Parallel Evolution of a More Tolerant and Permissive Society.” Business Wire. 12 Jan 2007. 29 May 2007. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2007_Jan_12/ai_n17114892
Ancient Olympic Events,” Peruses Digital Library Project, edited by Gregory R. Crane, 2007, Tufts University, 29 May 2007, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.
Benjamin Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, Fifth Edition, (New York: Prentice Hall: 2004), p.8.
Rader, p.40; 47.
Sam Dillon, “Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math,” the New York Times, 25 Mar 2006. 29 May 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/26/education/26child.html?ex=1301029200en=0c91b5bd32dabe2aei=5088partner=rssnytemc=rss
Overweight children benefit from fitness-oriented gym classes,” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, JAMA and Archives Journals 2005: 159:996-997, 29 May 2007, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=31562
Sports Research Bombshell from American Sports Data, Inc.: Sports Participation Trends Parallel Evolution of a More Tolerant and Permissive Society,” Business Wire, 12 Jan, 2007, 29 May 2007, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2007_Jan_12/ai_n17114892
Business Wire, 2007.
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