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article imageThe Shame of Professional Sports Op-Ed

By John Rickman     Aug 9, 2007 in Sports
Professional sports permeate modern American society and it may be difficult for some people to grasp the fact that this was not always the case. Once there was a strong belief that professionalism would destroy sports and help promote bad morals.
They were right!
To better understand how we got to where we are today it might be helpful to look at how two different cultures have looked at physical activity and what caused them to change. Traditionally there has been a world of difference between Western sports and Eastern athletics.
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The sand of the desert is sodden red-
Red with the wreck of the square that broke;
The gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England's far and Honor a name,
But the voice of the school boy rallies the ranks.
'Play up! Play up! And play the Game!"
From 'Vitai Lampada' By Henry Newbolt
There has always been a close connection between sports and war. In most cultures the majority of sports played were literally warrior skills. Archery, javelin throwing, wrestling and boxing, were, for most of their history, studied for their practical application to the battlefield. The athletes themselves were often warriors, and even today they tend to be viewed as quasi-warriors. They are also often perceived as bullies or even criminals. The news is full of athletes beating up wives and girlfriends, getting into barroom brawls or even committing murder. During the collapse of the former Soviet Union, sports teams formed one of the cores around which many criminal gangs formed.
While sports were often used to train warriors, even such non-military sports as football, cricket and rugby have often been promoted for their positive effect in training one for the “war of life.” Wellington was completely serious when he said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on “the playing fields of Eton.”
Another warrior turned sports promoter was Badden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. In 1908 Powell told his Scouts that football was "a grand game for developing a lad physically and also morally, for he learns to play with good temper and unselfishness, to play in his place and 'play the game' and these are the best of training for any game of life."
Western attitudes towards sports, particularly as regards their application to war, character building and the pursuit of individual distinction date at least to the age of Classical Greece. Although many Greek ideals had gone into an eclipse during the ages of darkness that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, sports continued to play a significant role in the lives of Europeans. During the Middle Ages even priest and monks played sports. Among the noblemen, sports continued to play its primary role as training for war, and indeed some forms of sport, such as the joust, could scarcely be distinguished from true war.
Unlike some parts of the world, particularly China, where the peasants were content to leave war and violence to the professionals, European peasants maintained their own warrior traditions handed down from their Barbarian ancestors. As William McNeill has noted, “peasants and townspeople were in the habit of defending themselves; they did not meekly submit to their social superiors." As a result of this, many of their sports, such as archery, boxing, wrestling and quarterstaffs, had martial applications. But there were also a large number of other games that didn’t have a direct military application, as is evidenced by the fact that kings and lords were forever passing laws forbidding them on the grounds that they distracted the people from the more useful “martial sports.”
In China, things were quite a bit different. Although for most of the first two thousand years of its history, China had been a warrior nation and presumably played warrior sports, by the late Han there began to develop a growing antipathy towards all things military, including sports. A famous Chinese proverb holds that “good iron is not beaten into nails; a good man does not become a soldier.”
Although there were undoubtedly some members of the scholar gentry with a knowledge of military affairs, and even a very few who could command armies, by the eleventh century the famous poet and commentator on the classics, Wang An-shih, could write in one of his famous memorials, “the educated men of the land regard the carrying of weapons as a disgrace…none of them is able to ride, shoot or has any familiarity with military maneuvers.” As for the peasants, he noted that “no one who could maintain himself in his own village would leave kith and kin to enlist in the army.” By the Ching Dynasty, the anti-military bias had reached such a point that the scholar gentry had adopted the affected style of extravagantly long finger nails, rendering themselves unfit for any manual endeavor, let alone sports.
As for the peasants, they avoided drawing any unnecessary attention to themselves on the premise that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” With such an attitude there was little incentive to pursue sports in search of personal glory.
This is not to say that the athletically inclined had no outlets for their energies. The majority of Chinese sports prior to the coming of the westerners fall into two main categories. The first is qi gong which covers a variety of exercises and calisthenics such as Tai chi which are designed to promote health, fitness and longevity. The other category, Wushu, or martial arts, while ostensibly designed for self-defense, also sought to provide health and fitness plus personal tranquility for its practitioners. “Traditionally, wushu has been regarded as more than merely physical activity, as it incorporates ancient Chinese philosophical concepts and religious elements.”
Among these were concepts of natural symbolism and the principle of yin and yang whereby mastery is achieved by balancing the forces of the cosmos such as hot and cold, hard and soft, offence and defense and other complimenting opposites. While it may have done all that, what wushu did not do was produce an effective fighting art capable of withstanding Western aggression. Shrouded in mystery and incense it proved dismally unsuited to stopping troops equipped with breach loading rifles. One group, the Fists of Righteous Harmony Society, a wushu cult that thought they could stop bullets with their magical powers, found out during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, that the only thing they could stop bullets with was their bodies, which was unacceptable.
Reeling from one defeat after another, the Chinese were fast developing an inferiority complex. The final straw came during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, in which the Chinese were soundly defeated. Accustomed to thinking of the Japanese as their rather backwards country cousins, the Chinese took defeat at their hands particularly hard. A belief grew up in China that the “historical physical weakness of its people was the root of China’s political weakness.” Women began to agitate against foot binding and men began to talk of the need for Chinese women to become physically stronger. The country was ripe for a change and one major factor in that change was the establishment of the Chinese branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1895.
The YMCA was part of a new movement in Western sports philosophy known as “Muscular Christianity.” The term probably comes from a review of Charles Kingsley’s Two Years Ago, a novel about a “muscular, manly, cheerful, self-reliant, boxing, rowing, globe-trotting, grizzly-bear-shooting, extrovert doctor,” and a poet with “huge beautiful eyes,” who possesses none of these qualities and who comes to a bad end.
The book is set against the backdrop of the Crimean War and one of its themes is that war is “the most necessary human art after agriculture,” and that “under its influence there are noble elements underneath the crust, which will come out all the purer from the fire.”
Kingsley, a novelist, Anglican clergyman and history professor, was a leader in the Christian socialist movement and an avid sportsman. Together with fellow writers Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days, Kenelm Henry Digby author of The Broad Stone of Honor: The True Sense and Practice of Chivalry, and Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby, they formed the intellectual backbone of the Chivalry movement in British and American life.
The Chivalry movement and its sports sub-movement, Muscular Christianity, was a grab-bag of hazy notions of rugged individuality, team spirit, democracy, aristocracy, socialism, imperialism, self sacrifice and the obligation of “gentlemen” to “play the game,” defend the weak and uphold the right. About the only thing that held all this together with a belief in the character building effects of sports.
That, and a fierce disdain for “professionalism” in sports.
Although the English belief in the character building benefits of sports date back at least to the Middle Ages, the modern roots of the Chivalry movement lay in the quest of the rising middle class for meaning and personal identity in a strange new world.
That identity was sought in very disparate and contradictory ways. While some sought democracy and justice for the working class, others promoted the ideals of the aristocracy or sought to build an aristocracy of naturally superior people, a sort of social Darwinism. Still others advocated a social Darwinism for nations and sought to justify empire as the chivalrous duty of superior peoples. Kipling’s famous “The White man’s burden,” is the best known example of this later ideology in England.
Each of these causes had one thing in common. They were all to be championed by “knights” of superior moral virtue whose bodies and characters had been molded by sports.
In America, two very diverse men, President Theodore Roosevelt and philosopher William James, were spokesmen for the ideology of social and moral transformation through athletics.
Roosevelt saw sports as an important tool in reforming the world in America’s image and preparing the stage for American global supremacy in the Twentieth Century. James, an ardent anti-imperialist, claimed that sports could replace war as an organizing principle of human behavior.
The one thing the two could agree on was that sports built character and esprit de corps. For the Muscular Christian, sports was a means to an end not an end in itself. The end was the transformation of society.
This was totally at odds with traditional Chinese thinking on sports, which viewed them as a source of personal health and personal tranquility with no reference to the impact on the larger community.
China’s quest for a stronger population to meet the challenge of the West changed all that. Sports were embraced as a means of social transformation.
A new genre of physical culture known as tiyu, literally “body-cultivation,” developed which embodied definite ideals about modernity and the relationship of the individual and the nation. Tiyu was seen as a pathway to modernity and as essential to strengthening and sharpening Chinese bodies and minds for the struggle against the West.
By 1900 a program of tiyu based on gymnastics and military-oriented calisthenics had become a regular part of the school curriculum. Even the venerable art of wushu was co-opted into tiyu and promoted for its presumed ability to bring out China’s “national essence” of ancient and timeless Chinese virtues.
After the fall of the Ching, Republican China began to promote wushu among the expatriate population as a means of strengthening their ties to the motherland and of promoting the concept of a “Greater China” based in the transnational communities. Government-sponsored organizations, such as the “Pure Martial Athletic Association,” or Jingwu, sent ambassadors to most major expatriate population to spread the gospel of Chinese nationalism through martial arts.
Meanwhile, in the West, a conflict was developing between the ideology of sports and its reality. In England, from about 1870 on, there was a marked decline in religious sentiment. As the belief in Christianity declined, the concept of esprit de corps was substituted as the justification for sports.
In America the ideals of Muscular Christianity and amateurism remain popular, and such institutions as the Olympics, Boy Scouts, YMCA and school athletic programs continue to play lip service to them. Colleges struggle to maintain the sham of amateurism in their football and other intercollegiate sports programs, but the financial stakes are too high, in terms of alumni support and equipment endorsements, and every year sees the growing pall of professionalism spread.
Students of limited academic ability are routinely admitted to institutions of higher education in the place of more scholarly students for no other propose than to play sports. This is a concept which would have horrified the Nineteenth Century founders of American intercollegiate athletic departments, most of whom were evangelical Protestants who saw sports as a means to build character, not as a profession.
The mass media has played a major role in the professionalization of American sports. The huge amounts of money involved has increased competitiveness to a fever pitch and raised the level of play beyond the abilities of all but a few “superstars.” As a result, the average citizen sees sports participation as impossible since they do not measure up to the image of the sports superstars found in the mass media.
Nineteenth Century America boasted a baseball team in almost every small town and factory and amateur basketball and football teams were common. Today, the majority of Americans who get any exercise at all get it in “health clubs,” which stress workouts for personal health, longevity and tranquility, sort of a Western qi gong. Indeed, qi gong and wushu are far more popular in the West today than they are in China.
Throughout most of the Communist period, government has been closely involved in promoting sports to the general population as well as sponsoring top athletes for international competition. In both cases, the government’s interest has been in the social transformational aspects of sports. Mass participation is strongly stressed.
Since the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, China has been left as the sole communist superpower. It has been forced to accept a major decline in collectivization and a corresponding growth in the private sector. With liberalization has come yet another change in sports ideology. Today, China boasts a growing class of professional athletes and superstars whose pay and lifestyles are lavish by Chinese standards.
There has been a growth in private sports as well. One particularly interesting development has been the growing fad for bowling among China’s burgeoning entrepreneurial class. Bowling is seen as a means of conspicuous consumption, gift giving, networking and the development of guanxi or connections. In the bowling alleys distant, impersonal relationships are transformed into close personal ones and “social capital,” is accumulated that will one day be converted into “economic capital,”
In the past two hundred years China has gone from a decidedly un-athletic nation with a sports ideology that centered on athletic activity in pursuit of individual health and tranquility to a militantly sports-minded peoples with an ethic of modernization and social transformation through sports.
In the same period the West, and particularly America, has gone from a militantly athletic culture which pursued sports as a means of character building in aid of a higher calling to a sedentary culture whose main engagement in sports is vicarious. Today’s sports fan is content to watch paid professionals, who are devoid of any ideals higher than winning at all costs, play the games they wish they could play.
There are signs that as capitalist values develop in China the sports ideology is being transformed to one that resembles that of the West. Perhaps we will one day have to make room on the couch for the Chinese.
A nation of voyeurs.
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