The idea that athletics and philosophy are connected may sound strange at first, but is that just because we’re too attached to modern ideas about both?
Think back, first, to a time before commercialism took over sports in a big way, and amateurism was more the norm. (That’s not to say, of course, that there was ever a golden age: the very first piece of literature in the “West,” Homer’s Iliad, already talks about a guy cheating in a chariot race! And doing so for—what else?—fame and fortune.)
Think back, second, to a time when philosophy was seen by many as a way of life, rather than just a set of beliefs. Once we see philosophy in this way, then it’s not a stretch to imagine—as many ancient writers did—that athletic training can cultivate skills we need for the whole of our lives, both on and off the playing field.
On this view, sports don’t just contribute to our physical health; they also make us better people. We become more disciplined and better equipped to deal with failure; we gain habits of focus, determination, and co-operation; and we learn to value fairness. (Where I come from, the phrase “that’s not cricket” means “that’s not fair”: at least one sport is officially all about even-handedness.)
What’s more, athletic training is a school for self-knowledge. Every time we train, and every time we step onto the field, we learn something about our limits and our potentials. Athletics give us vital information about who are; they are nothing short of a confrontation with the self.
Maybe that’s why professional sports produces great individuals like Serena Williams and Lebron James, people whose sporting prowess is coupled with a clear and powerful determination to make the world a better place. We might also think of those who have the courage to speak up for justice, even at the cost of their own careers. Excellent role models like these should really make us take very seriously, once again, the ancient idea that athletics are good for the soul.
Still, not everything in the (Madison Square) garden is rosy. When taken too far—as it often is these days, unfortunately—athletic training can lead to serious injuries. Incredibly, schoolkids are now getting Tommy John surgeries, formerly reserved for major-league pitchers. And those who play, or even just practice, American football are exposing themselves to lifelong brain damage, even if they do not sustain a concussion.
And it might perhaps be argued that every spiritual benefit of sports has a negative counterpart. The sense of honor can easily flip over into narcissism; a focus on sports can mean a loss of focus on other things, such as studies; for every positive role model, like Lebron and Serena, there is a John Rocker, a Michael Vick, or a Tonya Harding; and that healthy team spirit can be accompanied by a disdain—at best—for the opposing team and its fans. (One NFL team was even caught offering bonuses for players who injured the opposing quarterback.) Plus, needless to say, fairness is hardly ubiquitous in sport. Think of all those steroid-taking baseball players, diving soccer players, and ball-deflating quarterbacks…
I don’t know how to settle such difficult questions, but I like to think that all is not lost: I still think we can gain a lot from athletics, as long as we keep our heads about us. I for one am going to keep kicking a ball around with my friends once a week, and watching my beloved Liverpool on the telly. And in the process, hopefully I’ll continue to learn some things about myself, and to reinforce my love of fairness, without becoming a diving, single-minded, disdainful narcissist—or blowing out my knees.