Cage fighting: two warriors locked in a steel pen, at battle in a mixed-martial arts contest, seek to end the fight by a “guillotine choke” or a “crucifix hold.” Such combat has been hailed by one television reporter as “the dawn of a new era in American sports.” Nor is such violent competition simply for men: women too now engage not only in professional boxing, but in mixed-martial arts for all to see on television.
College softball: a stunned and cheering crowd watches as two women playing for Central Washington University cradle one of their injured opponents, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon, and carry her around the bases. They enable her to touch each base to score the home run that Tucholsky had earned by a hit over the fence moments before her knee gave out as she rounded first. As Mallory Holtman, the first baseman who carried Sara, explained, “She deserved it. Anybody would have done it.... Winning is not everything.”
In the wide world of sports, which way are we moving? Billions around the world enjoyed the Beijing Olympics; millions in the United States watch the baseball playoffs and prepare for what we still call the “World” Series. And Super Bowl Sunday will once again capture our attention come Feb. 1, 2009. Sports is always big news. More and more, it is also big business. How much of our television, newspaper and Internet coverage and conversation are taken up with sports? How many sports metaphors continue to color our language?
In this issue we explore a few aspects of sports, including a look back at how Title IX legislation began to level the playing field for women and an analysis of the way athletic contests are becoming more and more truly “world” competitions, in which the salaries of athletes are matched only by those of Wall Street executives (before the financial crisis). Finally, the topic of sports and the spiritual life gives an opportunity for reflection on the deeper, perennial values of sports.
There is no question that as a culture we are seeing sports in a more and more positive light, not just with regard to our physical health but also for our emotional and spiritual well-being. Health consciousness is at an all-time high and has led to greater sports activity like aerobics, jogging, in-line skating, walking, bicycling and much more.
But our obsession with sports has a darker side. The greed that has brought Wall Street to its knees has also made deep inroads into sports at every level. Professional athletes increasingly earn salaries that are several orders of magnitude greater than those of the fans who foot the bill. On the amateur level, one commentator notes that “college sports is awash in money.” Indeed, many collegiate head coaches earn million-dollar salaries, far more than the best professors at their universities.
Is there a link between this desire for money and the fatal attraction to see brutality and violence in sports? Boxing (with 500 killed in the past 100 years) and football (1,000 football-related deaths since 1931) are two prime offenders. Now we also can find such carnage in extreme sports, the X Games and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Mike Tyson attacks not with his fists, but by biting the ear of his opponent. A knife-wielding fan rushes onto the tennis court to put Monica Seles out of action. Angry parents attack an umpire at a Little League game. Drug abuse multiplies too as part of the drive to win at any cost, as younger and younger players start juicing up with steroids to compete on the track, the gridiron or the diamond. The incentive to cheat also increases as sports becomes more and more commercialized.
What is the way forward? Many groups and individuals must participate in the move, in the words of Pope John Paul II, to enable “sports to be at the service of humanity, and not the human person at the service of sports.” The pope expressed the desire that sports “be a factor of emancipation for poorer countries and help to eradicate intolerance and build a more fraternal and united world.” Legal authorities can work to curb drug abuse and stem the tide of violence. N.C.A.A. officials need to redouble efforts at oversight of college athletics. Various groups, including religious organizations, can lobby for sports that help to develop such values as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity.
Marshall McLuhan wrote many years ago that we “know a culture by how it plays its games.” Indeed, sports reflect the society we live in, and our world is both violent and, as the past few weeks have shown, greedy. We would like to think, however, that sports can and should be the exception and the model. We believe deep down that we are much better than the violence, the cheating, the greed or the win-at-any-cost attitude. In the words of Mallory Holtman, “winning is not everything.”