It seems yet again (and again) that we find ourselves scratching our heads about the lives of well-known athletes asking the question, “what happened?” Lance Armstrong has managed to anger people all over the world by his confession on Oprah Winfrey’s television network that he participated in a culture of deception using an host of performance enhancing drugs while winning seven Tour de France titles then followed that by several years of passionate denials. Armstrong admitted that he likely would not have won several Tour de France races in a row had he not cheated in some way. We are reminded that there is a culture of “doping” in the world of cycling so that cyclist can acquire that extra advantage that they were not given by nature. But are we surprised that there is cheating in the world of professional cycling? Are we really that surprised that someone, when challenged about their actions, would lie about them? (more…)
ESPN.com is reporting that Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, just two years after retiring from the NFL, tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been associated with dementia, memory loss and depression found in many deceased NFL players. Naturally, as more data and deaths point to football’s brain injury risks, there will be more and more calls to action. A fundamental question in this discourse is this: “who has the moral responsibility and authority to regulate sport at any level?”
I have friends with boys under seven-years-old who have decided that their sons will never play organized tackle football. The correlations with long-term brain damage is too great of a risk for my friends to expose their children to for the sake of playing the game. Every week it seems that we hear about an college or NFL player leaving the game because of a concussion. A few weeks ago, three NFL starting quarterbacks–Michael Vick of the Eagles, Alex Smith of the 49ers and Jay Cutler of the Bears– all suffered concussions. Because of the frequency of concussions in the NFL, some are raising questions about whether or not the game should still be played at all. The question for parents is simple, “is tackle football worth the risk?”
Professional baseball player. Starting catcher for the Detroit Tigers. Starting catcher in the 2011 All-Star Game. At only 25, Alex Avila has already created a terrific career. Yet, he is very mindful of what might have been.
In a recent interview, Avila notes that his Cuban roots could have led to a very different life for him and his family:
Both of my grandfathers actually fled from Cuba during the Communist Revolution in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that they share in Tommy’s [Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers] conservative political outlook. When your own government won’t allow you to participate in the most basic freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to own private property — then you want to come to a country where such things are allowed. We take those freedoms for granted, but they aren’t automatic anywhere, even here, unless we work to preserve them.
If my grandfathers hadn’t escaped from Cuba, they may not have survived, and the same is true with my parents, who were very young at the time.
Avila also credits his family’s strong Catholic faith and his father’s gentle support for his success.
Lord Acton said, “…at all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare…” It appears that Avila is one of those sincere friends.
Read the entire Avila interview here.
Sports are still able to foster human virtues, especially classical virtues like courage and fortitude. Like any good thing, sport all too often risks becoming an idol, not because of any fault within the institution itself so much as the fault lying within each human participant.
If there’s anything that distinguishes modern sports from classical antecedents, I suppose it would be the wealth that is often attached to high-profile sports today. You might call it the professionalization of sport. Yesterday’s cover story in USA Today examined the extent to which nominally non-professional sports, like college basketball, have become major industries. This is even more the case with overtly professional sports. It seems to me that in the ancient world, there was a great deal of glory or prestige that was associated with victory. But in addition to that aspect of sporting endeavors, we have the added prospect of great wealth for those who excel at golf, tennis, basketball, or football.
Glory may have been an appropriate motivation for pursuing sports in the ancient world, although there’s no doubt that this kind of fame-seeking can become idolatry in its own way. But I’m sympathetic to the view that sports’ ability to foster human virtue is at least potentially compromised by the additional motivation of wealth-seeking. For every athlete that excels today from a deep “love of the game,” there are a dozen others who are in it just for the paycheck.
Fr. Kevin’s talk raised a number of questions about the status of sports in our society. Here are some of them:
- Have we lost a healthy sense of leisure and play, to the point where sport and entertainment have become similar to a religious ritual or duty?
- Is the desire to win at all costs inherent to sports? What’s the point of playing a game if not to win?
- Why don’t religious leaders criticize athletes who cheat, such as flopping Italian soccer players? Are such standards culturally conditioned?
- Are there different virtues associated with different sports, depending on the rules and culture of the particular sport?
- Do big business and corporate sponsorships entice athletes to cheat?
Obviously, there were not many clear answers to these questions, but Fr. Kevin did his best to encourage an healthy appreciation of sports, and reminded us that while St. Paul most probably was not an athlete himself, he definitely knew that living with, in and for Christ is the greatest prize of all.
I think most thinking sports fans are aware of the ambiguities of their passion and try to keep it in check. But at the same time, the desire to train, compete, and win helps us recognize that excellence/virtue actually exist. This recognition is essential to fighting the good fight against egalitarian complacency and mediocrity; it is also essential to the entrepreneurial vocation.
From the question of performance-enhancing drugs to antitrust issues in the BCS, government involvement in professional sports is a common occurrence nowadays. Then-President-elect Obama said that he would favor a playoff system for Division I college football and that he would “throw” his weight around a little bit in pursuit of that agenda. Congress recently announced plans to take up the question of antitrust issues with the BCS.
The powerful influence of professional sports on today’s culture raises complex questions about the intersection between business and government, as well as education and moral formation. Perhaps nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the midst of March Madness.
It is timely then that tomorrow the Acton Institute’s Rome office hosts a talk by Fr. Kevin Lixey, LC, head of the Church and Sport Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Fr. Lixey’s talk is titled, “Fighting the good fight: The promise and peril of sports as a training ground for virtue,” and is introduced in this way:
2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote “athletes are disciplined in every way.” But in nearly every country and every popular sport, the news reports as much scandal as inspiration. Can sports still foster human virtues? Or has the desire to win at all costs, please the crowds and increase profits destroyed the nobility of athletic competition? In this year dedicated to St. Paul, would he still use sports as an example for Christians?
So this week’s PowerBlog Ramblings topic takes up Fr. Lixey’s question: “Can sports still foster human virtues?”