Do Sports Matter?

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers, What role should sports play in a society? What role do they play in ours?

Timothy is a critic of contemporary Western sports culture:

In some societies, sport competitions stand in for military competitions. Unfortunately, not ours. In some societies, sport competitions and betting on the outcomes was pacification of the masses by the emperors and kings of the time. Our sports mostly represent that, with citizens willing to destroy their bodies, searching for glory and in most cases wealth for the entertainment/pacification of others. The days of sports teaching teamwork and good sportsmanship have unfortunately left us in pursuit of the holy dollar.

Sharon prefers informal play to athletic teams:

My children rejected all “organized” sports because they are inevitably organized by adults. They gloried in “disorganized” sports in which participants made up their own rules, played in some unorthodox manner, and had barrels of fun. I never heard quarrels or had consolation chores over some critical championship lost. We had no pulled muscles, no concussions—just healthy exhaustion and a run on lemonade and cookies.

Aaron looks down on fandom:

Sports-fan identity is an excellent example of the author Kurt Vonnegut’s “granfalloon”: the mistaken belief that because you share a particular and singular interest, you are part of a meaningful group identity. Screaming and cavorting fans, stuffing their mouths with food and drink instead of being active and exercising themselves, seem like a metaphor for a dystopian future—or perhaps a dystopian present, if you compare their antics with the crowd events on January 6.

In contrast, Kathryn writes:

In the United States, identifying as a fan of a particular professional sports team is often a healthy outlet for the temptation to join an in-group. It’s obvious that I arbitrarily like my favorite soccer team because they happen to play in my city, not because there is something intrinsically superior about them, but I still get chills clapping and chanting in unison with tens of thousands of fans as the players walk out before a match. I feel a sense of civic pride when the whole region unites to support a local team on a playoff run, or to celebrate a championship with a victory parade. I try to be suspicious of this same group-joining impulse in other domains, but I lean into loving my favorite sports teams.

Beth laments the place of sports in educational institutions:

There is way too much emphasis given to sports, especially in schools. We need to disassociate schooling and sports teams, much like other countries do. I taught high-school math for a few years and there were several times when parents, a student athlete, or even the principal would ask me to reconsider a star athlete’s grades because the athlete did not meet the academic requirements necessary to play their sport. They wanted me to just change the athlete’s grades so that they would be eligible to play.

The purpose of attending school is to learn. It is not to play sports so you can go into professional leagues. Gym class teaches you the basics and provides a physical outlet. But when you look at the state of our schools, where money is hard to come by for books and to pay teachers and all of the other aspects of running an education system, and then you look at the multimillion-dollar stadiums built for sports, you can see where society’s priorities are. Sports should be played at a club level independent from schools.

For those that can’t afford the club, there should be scholarships available. We should get rid of college sports, again to emphasize education and research, which are the true foundations of universities and colleges, and have minor-league opportunities for athletes to participate in either in conjunction with college or completely outside of college.

Whereas MR believes that sports complement education:

“Mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body) is a motto by which my grandfather raised my father to be a Ph.D. student and Olympic athlete. Learning to work within a set of rules, to support teammates, to treat opponents with respect, and to have self-discipline were building blocks that resonated throughout his life. The desire to push oneself to learn and develop, in sports, music, art, or any other activity, is a driving factor for success. Sports is an activity most kids can use to learn that lesson. The goal is not winning; it is about learning to do better than you thought you could.

Steve asserts that sports are less important than art and music:

Sports are fine as a form of entertainment. I enjoy a good baseball or football game as much as the next guy. But as schools gut or eliminate their music and art programs to concentrate on athletic superiority, our students suffer the loss of these skills that have been proven time after time, in study after study, to contribute to their intellectual well-being.

In contrast, Mike argues:

Sports deserve the same role in society as literature, performing arts, sculpture, cinema, and other expressions of human culture, skill, and creativity. Like many arts, sports have rules and expectations that their most creative and memorable practitioners find ways to bend or move in a new direction. Sport may be enjoyed directly––even if you are a rank amateur––as well as viewed as a spectator when one wants to watch an expert performance. Team sports especially can provide a collective joy (and sorrow), civic pride, and even elements of transcendence that the finest art aspires to.

Dianne remains confounded by the popularity of sports into old age:

I’ve never understood the fascination with sports that is a huge part of our culture. Many sporting events are incredibly violent. And if not violent, then abusive to the participants and any animals involved. Thoroughbred horses? OMG! I lived in Kentucky where the discussions about how horses were trained and managed made me sick. Reading about that football player, Tua [Tagovailoa], who suffered a dramatic neurological event while playing his game and then was not treated immediately? That man will suffer for the rest of his life! Of course, he did sign up for it, and he knew the risks, didn’t he?

I attended the University of Kentucky in the mid-1970s, where sports was THE most important aspect of the school. Students outside sports had to wait for the entire sports program’s participants to get their classes selected before anyone else could be confirmed in a class. Don’t get me started about people my age (I’m in my eighth decade) who still live and breathe their college football team’s every move. Their lives revolve around sports, and football and basketball seasons are the worst! Why can’t these people move on? Rabid adherence to every aspect of the games is just amazing and confounding to me! I read somewhere that if the highest-paid faculty member in a school is a coach, then it’s not really a school; it’s a sports venue with an academic side hustle!

[Read: The case against the death penalty]

Whereas Dave believes today’s Americans undervalue sports:

Sports are among mankind’s greatest achievements and an essential part of the human condition. We’ve had sports in some form as long as we’ve had civilization. Yet their importance to society is undervalued as we live more of our lives online, staring at phones or TV screens. Physical education in the U.S. continues to be underfunded in spite of an obesity epidemic. We all could stand to spend more time outside playing, as human beings just weren’t built to be spending 12 hours a day staring at a computer screen.

I dislike how popular culture often presents athletics to be incompatible with academics––like we’ve internalized the logic of ’80s teen movies where nerds and jocks are mortal enemies. Just the other day I read a fascinating New York Times article about NFL players who play chess. The NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has proven himself to be a great writer, providing insightful commentary on the issues of the day.

I’d also point you to Jon Bois’s hypertext web novel, 17776. It posits a future where humanity unexpectedly becomes immortal, but at the cost of being able to have children. Famine is eradicated, war is meaningless, and money holds no value. In such a world there’s not much to do, but humanity overcomes existential ennui through sport. Football fields are expanded to take up entire states, and games often last millenia.

When everything has lost meaning, we’ll always have sport.

And Merideth’s longtime skepticism toward sports changed in motherhood:

I am uncoordinated and didn’t play any sports growing up. I never understood why many people are passionate about sports, or why some people who are as uncoordinated as I am are passionate about watching a certain sport, even to the point of flying their favorite team’s flag outside their home. My perspective has changed, both because I accept that different people have different passions and because I have a teenager who demonstrated an aptitude for coordinated movement from the time he learned to walk at 10 months old. He tried soccer, but it wasn’t for him. Same thing with basketball. And then he discovered volleyball when he started high school. He is passionate about playing volleyball. He has practiced bumping, setting, and spiking almost every day. He loves practicing with his teammates (his team is co-ed, which I love), and he is learning to manage the intense anxiety he experiences when he’s on the court.

Based on what I have witnessed in my son and his teammates, sports are beneficial for youth that enjoy them. While I believe there is too much emphasis on sports teams whose players have million-dollar contracts, and while I am concerned that many boys perceive sports as their ticket out of poverty, I also believe that young people who have an interest in sports should be supported in their sports interests just as other kids are supported in their music, coding, dance, and activism interests. Or their passion for reading, which is the passion that I expected to pass on to my volleyball-obsessed son.

C’est la vie.

Most correspondents defended sports against its critics in one way or another. Claire regards sports as a useful teacher:

Youth should be encouraged to participate in anything that helps them move through life with competence and effectiveness. Sports offer conditions that reinforce: discipline, self-possession, graciousness, leadership, fearlessness, camaraderie, and the spirit of play and adventure.

Ann waxes poetic:

My son is 25, coaching both an 11- and 14-year-old girls’ and boys’ program as part of the Red Bulls Academy youth soccer program. Having grown up in the inner city, [attended] public schools, and with a learning profile different from the “one-size-way’ education system offered by the Department of Education, he embraces soccer as the world’s diversity liberator and global equalizer. The “beautiful game” [is] a physical in-/out-of-body expression combining mind/strategy, heart/relationship, and of course soul/team identity.

Sports teams ping a string within us that is still resonant from many eons ago, mimicking the tribes of our not-so-distant past. They allow the full exuberant expression of identity, yet within an unwavering framework of authority, a vital context allowing different ideologies regarding how to play the game. For sure, each team’s leader, at any given time, puts forth a particular prescription for success by developing an organization with a specific culture based on prioritized values, beliefs, rituals, and behaviors. I often contemplate how we might capture the magic of this condition at a grander scale.

Cathy focuses on how sports have benefitted her personally:

I am a 75-year-old Chinese American. As a kid, I played school softball and public-park tennis. I have played tennis my whole life, even now. I walk the golf course. I hike. I love to move my body. Sports focus my mind. And I have many friends from these activities.

Brandt touts the value communities find in sports:

Sports is more than just a game. It is the lifeblood of a community, and it can bring people from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions together. I am currently taking a course about the history of baseball. We talked about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. For the people in Brooklyn, this loss was visceral; it was real, and it endured for generations.

Sports [affiliation] can be [a part of] one’s identity just as much as other demographic characteristics. Although my dad has spent more than twice the time on the East Coast than in Cleveland, Ohio, he still roots for the Browns, Guardians, and Cavaliers as passionately as in his youth. I was with my dad on Father’s Day in 2016 when the Cavs broke the “Cleveland Curse.” He had not spent time in Ohio for close to 30 years at that point, but he exuded happiness and utter joy. Watching the countless people come out for the Cavaliers championship parade astonished me and brought to mind how unifying sports can be for a city, especially a city that had been downtrodden for decades. Remember the joy that communal sporting events can bring to billions of people.  

Glenn muses on high-school football in the South:

It is not unheard of for more people to crowd into the bleachers of the local high school on any fall Friday night in Texas than the census number posted at the city limits. Is that healthy? I don’t know, but I enthusiastically imbibe in the spectacle of it all. It is a real instance of community in a culture where the word is overused but seldom realized.  

I love the sport. I managed to play, as a young boy, back when we all thought we were bulletproof. But was it healthy? I don’t know. I enjoyed watching my boys play the game, but I slept better when they no longer played, because I knew they were not bulletproof. Was that healthy? I don’t know. I still enjoy watching grown men play a kids’ game and get paid obscene amounts of money to satisfy our voyeurism for a violent sport. Is that healthy? I don’t know, but I still tune in and get emotionally involved.

I won’t defend or denigrate the sport. But growing up in the deep South, I can tell you there is one aspect of the game that is very important. There is something similar to a soldier’s-fox-hole brotherhood that develops between teammates over the long course of a season. It starts with two-a-day practices in the blistering heat of August and continues with the smelly locker rooms, long bus rides, wins, losses, injuries to body and pride, and brief moments of shared glory, all lending to a unique bond among teammates.  

In the early days of desegregation in the South, football was a sanctioned opportunity for racial animosity and violence. But over the long course of a season you come to value ability over skin color and, after all, you all share the same jersey and mascot. Football is a merit-based and color-blind obsession in the South, in the bleachers and on the field and in the locker room. It is a means of social mobility, both up and down the social ladder. This is true not just for the gifted athlete that moves on to the next level but for the small-town local boys that get invited to parties and events, and sometimes just to hang out in homes and neighborhoods they would never visit were it not for the game. Our politics may be vastly different, but on Friday night we are all involved in a common purpose and pulling for a common team. Is that healthy? Absolutely!

Don praises golf:

I was a professional golfer many years ago. Playing an individual sport taught me many great lessons: integrity, honesty, perseverance, sportsmanship, accepting defeat, and more. These lessons have stayed with me and guided me throughout my life. In addition, it made it possible for me to attend a great university on scholarship. There is a real push to encourage minority and underprivileged kids to play golf. Golf has always been thought of as an upper-class white man’s game, but many charities and the PGA are doing great work, and a generation of kids are being exposed to a sport that probably has more emphasis on rules and values than any other professional sport.

[Read: 21 reader views on the masculinity crisis]

Errol is grateful to have become a sports fan as an adult:

Growing up, I would fail gym class because I refused to dress out. I found sports so boring and annoying, yet a part of me always felt like I was missing out, because I would see people just have the best of times when watching or attending these events. It’s difficult to get into sports as an adult, however, because no one wants to teach you anything about the game. You’re supposed to just inherently know what third and forever means, or the difference between a fastball and slider, or the terms center-back, dribble, biscuit, etc. With a subject that was so far removed from my experiences, [watching televised sports] was like watching complicated math equations in another language on the screen.

That is, until I started dating a woman who was wildly into every single sport you can imagine. Soccer, baseball, basketball, F1, tennis—everything! But football was her favorite by far, and I would sit on the couch with her on Sundays while she would (begrudgingly) give me insight into what was happening. I remember once she was visibly angry that her college team was losing, and I saw a touchdown and said, “Hey, they got a touchdown!” To which she gritted her teeth at me and said, “That’s the other. Fucking. Team.”

Just like that, my sports fandom was born. We’re not together anymore, but I have four jerseys in my closet, all from different teams. As I was born and raised in a state with no [professional sports] team, I chose to be a true American and spread my fandom across the country. When people walk in my apartment and see Bengals, Saints, Dodgers, Royals, Lightning, and Blackhawks, they’re confused. But I don’t care. I get to enjoy it my way, and my fandom is no less than anyone else’s. I love how sports can give instant camaraderie when you see a stranger wearing the same logo, and bring people together in ways no other form of entertainment or activity can. It’s about history, rivals, human excellence, teamwork to the highest degree, and in cases such as tennis and golf, it’s also about individual concentration and dominance. There’s an excitement to seeing stories unfold with heartbreaking and uplifting turns that no one can predict as people put every aspect of their brains and bodies on the line. I’m so grateful that someone took the time to educate me on professional sports, because even on the bad days when all my teams lose, I didn’t spend one second of that day wishing I had done anything else. It can be dark, and toxic fans can and do exist, but that’s true of just about anything.

Perry praises youth sports, save for a subset of its spectators:

My family was immersed in sports of all kinds since our children were old enough to play. T-ball, Little League baseball, youth football, youth soccer, and youth basketball were all played by my sons. It is not always an even playing field, much like life. Many lessons, both good and bad, can be learned playing sports. Players learn early that not all things are fair or done fairly. For my sons it was a way to be an individual and to play with friends. Sports helped one son graduate high school and another stick it out and get his college degree. Most of all, the sports that they played were with kids from school or nearby towns. The friendships and memories they made can last a lifetime.

The downside is the parental aspect. I have coached, managed, officiated, and been an officer for several sports and organizations. At one time, I was the problem. Early on, I was a type A parent: loud! Obnoxious! Rude! Then I began to officiate. The shoe was now squarely on the other foot. I went back to a lot of my colleagues who were still officiating and apologized. They just laughed and said I would be paid back, and then some. They were right. In youth sports, it takes adults to ruin things most of the time. I have always tried to remember that the players are the most important part of youth sports.

Patrick grew up in a college-football family––his father played at the highest level, and he played on scholarship in a lower division––but he believes there is too much money in pro sports:

There is value in camaraderie associated with cheering for the home team, giving people something to be interested in, and providing excuses for neighborhood get-togethers.

But we radically overvalue those games. Dak Prescott got a four-year, $160 million contract. That’s too much for playing a game. I don’t blame Dak. He’s getting his market value. It’s not his fault. I don’t even really blame Jerry Jones, though that’s a closer call. He knows what the team and the players he pays to be on it are worth in the market. He’s maximizing his own profit by escalating the “value” (the cost) of everything.

It’s our fault. When the average cost for a family of four to go to a pro-football game is $600, we should balk. If people would stop paying those prices, costs would come down. If we, the football-going public, simply said, “Sorry. We’ll spend $300 for a family of four instead of $600,” the owners then might spend only $600 million, instead of $2 billion, to build the next stadium, and they’d be able to pay Dak $10 million a year instead of $40 million.

Everyone would still be happy. At least I would.

In contrast, John argues that “professional athletes are UNDERpaid.” He writes:

I can’t recall how many conversations I’ve had with fans bemoaning ridiculously high salaries. Yet, these athletes have clearly measurable performance metrics driving their salaries. Their work is performed in the most public way, where every mistake is magnified. There is only one Aaron Judge; he just set the American League home run record. People buy his jersey, with his name on it; they fill stadiums and they watch on TV.

The whole, very profitable league is directly benefiting from Judge’s abilities. He will make $19 million plus endorsements [this year alone], because he is one of one. There is no other Aaron Judge. There are certainly other great ball players, but that skill goes in storied history books. Now, compare pay for athletes with pay for CEOs. I just Googled CEO pay, and every single CEO on the list makes more than Aaron Judge. Their performance is measured in dubious ways (for example, a CEO can direct his company to buy back their own stock, artificially driving up the price), and their pay is routinely separate from their performance.

Peyton wants the revenue that college athletics generates to go to the athletes:

As someone who was a college athlete and has an interest in collegiate athletic policy, I think the importance of college sports is often understated. The current college system is broken beyond repair, BUT the vision for what it could be holds massive promise. Reform of collegiate athletics presents a unique opportunity to break a cycle of generational poverty every year for thousands of athletes who otherwise might not have that opportunity. While it is common to hear stories of professionals in the NFL or NBA buying their parents a house or car, they represent a minuscule percentage of college athletes. Using college athletics, specifically revenue sports like football and basketball, to transform the economic gains of so many would give the industry infinitely more importance.

Finally there is Luke, who writes:

Rooting for sports teams is an outlet for the tribalistic urges that are best left out of more important realms. Liberals and conservatives, Christians and atheists, urbanites and rural folks, etc. shouldn’t see themselves as enemies or combatants but rather appreciate the nuance of their differences and come to understand each other. But good-versus-evil narratives are simple and compelling. Sports allows a thoughtful person to put their thoughtfulness down for a couple hours and embrace hating the Yankees.

I found Luke’s perspective very sensible, until I got to the final two words and found that they weren’t “the Celtics” (though to be honest, I can’t muster the hate I had for the 1980s-era team today).

Go Lakers!