Sunday, March 15, 2020

Farewell to Sport

In the year A.D. 394, Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals, effectively ending the ancient Olympic Games.  Sixteen years later, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths.  Big-time spectator sports wouldn't return to the Western World for almost 1,500 years.

Of course, life was fine for athletes.   There were lots of chances to wear uniforms, follow orders,  belong to teams, and do heroic things.  They were called wars, and there were lots of them.  In fact, during most of this time period, your typical royal family had a lot in common with the Mannings -- they were big, cool, rich people who could inspire the peasants and win battles.  Life in the Middle Ages was like living in a world where football players and cheerleaders had all the power, and everyone else danced to their tune.

Over time, however -- over a really, really long time -- some people got to thinking that while pageantry and history and tradition might be nice, other things might be nice too.  Prosperity, for example.  Or freedom.  By the 1600's, lots of folks were advocating for those things.  And now that there were guns, even a nerd could take down a big guy on a big horse.  Besides, smart people are pretty good at figuring out ways to make money -- and that started to look good after so many centuries of poverty.  So the Western World began to change, with power shifting away from warriors and toward merchants.  In 1790 -- two years before Kentucky became a state -- Edmund Burke wrote his legendary book, Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke didn't like the French Revolution -- in part because he didn't like the way that modern life was squeezing out all of the beauty and pageantry of the Middle Ages:

"The Age of Chivalry is gone.  That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever."

But there were still lots of wars to be fought.  The French Revolution set off a whole series of wars that tied up the Western World from 1789 to 1815.  And then there were all the wars of conquest in the western part of North America and Africa.  And then you had the Mexican War and the Crimean War.  And then we had a Civil War, and Europe had the Franco-Prussian War.  So there were still lots of options for folks who like violence and uniforms.

By the late 19th century, however, lots of folks in the English-speaking world felt that the days of great wars were past -- and they were afraid that young men wouldn't learn the proper manly virtues that had long been endued by military action.  There were lots of potential solutions -- "Muscular Christianity" and scouting were two of the most popular -- but nothing succeeded as well as sports.  The first college football game was played in 1869, the first F.A. Cup was played in 1872, the National League played its first season in 1876, and from there on sports grew and grew.  Even when real wars returned, sports kept going -- and grew rapidly as soon as the wars ended.

What made it all work, of course, were the fans.  When the Giants and Cubs had their epic battle for the National League pennant in 1908, the nation's media was stunned by the amount of fan interest in the pennant race -- and from then on newspapers (and later radio, and television) understood that they could make big money by pandering to fans.  And so they did.

Of course, there were always people who didn't like sports -- who thought that they were frivolous exercises that distracted us from Real Life.  In 1902, Rudyard Kipling complained that Britain had relied on other countries' help in the Boer War:  "Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls/With thee flanneled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals."  The middle part of the 20th century saw a huge fight over collegiate sports in the United States -- a fight that ended with schools like the University of Chicago and the Ivy League dramatically reducing (or even eliminating) inter-scholastic competition.  Later there were generations of muckraking sportswriters who were determined to tell us how terrible it all was -- and who flooded our culture with books, articles, and TV specials about corruption, violence, crime, drug use, and other problems associated with big-time sports.

But that's not all.  The folks who run sports have repeatedly taken advantage of fans.  In England, they kept cramming soccer fans into decrepit and dangerous stadiums until a 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield forced changes.  Over here, owners moved teams, changed rules, played games at odd and inconvenient times, and generally did whatever they could to squeeze every single dollar out of their supporters.

However, the love affair between athletes and fans continued.  Being a sports fan is a unique taste -- some of us are born with it, but many people never get it.  All I can say is that some of us long for more than what daily life gives us -- we want to belong to a broader community, to see heroes do spectacular things, to pass down ancient legends, wave our colors, mock our enemies, and celebrate our triumphs.  Sports gives us a chance to do all of these things.  Many human beings need more than a paycheck.  Many of us will always crave glory, and fame, and honor -- even if only as a spectator.  And I think that by taking these energies, and channeling them away from war, violence, and all the other things that make up "real life," sports have contributed enormously to our peace and prosperity.

Now it's all gone.  For the first time since 1875, American sports fans have no new games coming up.  It may be a very long time before the games come back.  I am heartbroken for all of the athletes who won't be allowed to finish their seasons.  I am sad for all of the innocent workers who will lose money as a result of the shutdown.  But I also feel like someone should speak up for us fans, who have been robbed of so much excitement and glory.  I'm disappointed that Kentucky cannot play in the NCAA Tournament, of course -- but I can't even imagine how terrible I would have felt if this had happened to a great Kentucky team, like the ones from 1996 or 2012.  Ashland Blazer was 33-0 going into the state tournament -- what are the chances that their fans will get another such chance?  What about the folks at Madisonville who have to live most of their lives in the shadow of Hopkinsville, but who this year had the number-3 team in the state?  Nothing can make up for these losses.

I'm very fortunate to be at a stage in life where I have lots of other things to think about, and lots of interesting things to do.  But I have lived through Marches when basketball was the main reason I wanted to get up in the morning, and I know that there are folks out there now who are trying to fill a gaping hole in their emotional life.  Maybe there's nothing that could be done to keep the games going.  Maybe we really had no choice but to shut everything down.  Even if that's so, we should mourn for what we have lost.

Finally, for those of us who are Christians, this is a time to understand that it's not all over.  After all, there is a Place where huge crowds cheer for a Hero, and where Glory and Honor and Triumphs over Evil are celebrated:

And I beheld, 
and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne
and the beasts
and the elders:  
and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand,
and thousands of thousands;

Saying with a loud voice,

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power,
and riches,
and wisdom,
and strength,
and honor,
and glory,
and blessing.

And every creature which is in heaven,
and on the earth,
and under the earth,
and such as are in the sea,
and all that are in them,
heard I saying,

and honor,
and glory,
and power,
be unto him that sitteth upon the throne,
and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

And the four beasts said, Amen.  (Rev. 5:11-14).

Some folks worry that Heaven will be boring -- all that cheering and singing and chanting going on forever.  But those of us who love sports have been blessed to see just a tiny glimpse of what it's actually going to be like.  And for that I am truly grateful.  Because sports don't distract fans from what's Real.  They prepare us for it.


  1. I just want to say that the time without sports was really terrible, that everything has been disrupted for almost 18 months, and that next week -- the beginning of college football season -- feels like the first time since early March that American sports is back on track. I will probably still lose my temper from time to time over sports, but I will never again lose sight of how lucky we are to have it at all.