The sporting soul

Posted on February 13, 2010


David Brook’s column today is one of the relatively rare ones on those two pages of The New York Times to fall right into the wheelhouse of this blog. The fact that it popped into the NYT’s current “top-10 most popular” list gives me some hope there could be an audience for This Sporting Life.

First, a confession. As an academic philosopher, I’m mildly ashamed that it is Brook who is introducing me this late in my career to the apparently great mid-20th-century Harvard sociologist, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who wrote:

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport. This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

(The interesting syntax of that first sentence anticipated Paul McCartney’s famous line “But in this ever-changing world in which we live in….” by a decade or two.) Of course, that American student at that time was almost inevitably male and, well, from a social class that was able to afford Harvard before their were many scholarships. But it is broadly true with respect to male and female students today who cut a much more representative socio-economic swath through the nation. It rings true at ACC schools, at any rate. I certainly couldn’t imagine how I would teach politics and business ethics if I couldn’t draw on sports analogies.

But the subject of Brook’s column is not about how life is like sports, but about how our lives are made better by sports. Specifically, he gives a lengthy shout-out to my colleague and friend, Michael Gillespie (pictured above), who has just published a new essay on the role of college sports in moral education. The book it appears in was sponsored by my Institute.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of [the Greek, Roman, and British-Victorian] traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

But Gillespie, himself a former college half-back, warns that there’s a darker side to big-time collegiate sports today. Namely, that they are a little too big-time. And Brook steps into defend what he considers “some of the virtues of big-time college sports.”

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

Note that what he says about college sports is probably true of big professional sports too. Heard much recently about the “Who dat?-nation” and how it unites and provides hope for a whole city and region? College sports, however, are able to take this communal/identity experience to many parts of the country that the pro teams neglect — as I have certainly learned in my three years on Tobacco Road.

Brook and Gillespie are not really engaged in debate here. Gillespie is talking about what participating in college sports can do for the moral life of the participant in these sports, and Brook is emphasizing what sports can do for the fans. Both themes, but especially the latter, are a big part of what I hope to explore in this blog. And for giving me the push to take this blogging experiment public (after toying with in private for a couple of weeks), Brook gets the last word.

…sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.

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