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The Sporting Mind Discussion
Please answer the following questions, two page long. Materials attached.
“The Sporting Mind” reading talks about sport being a good way to talk about social and ethical issues, because most young people relate to the context. Do you agree? Can you describe some examples of how sport facilitates discussions about larger societal issues?
After Hitler came to power, the sociologist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy emigrated to the United
States. Rosenstock-Huessy began teaching at Harvard and converted his lectures into English. He
noticed, though, that his students weren’t grasping his points. His language was not the problem,
it was the allusions. He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics,
community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few
years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.
“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,” he would write. “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.”
Rosenstock-Huessy was not the last academic to recognize that sport organizes the moral
thinking of many young Americans. Professor Michael Allen Gillespie of Duke University has
just written a fascinating essay, for an anthology called “Debating Moral Education,” on the role
of sports in American ethical training.
Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions.
First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little
interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage
and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.
Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena.
Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while
the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of
Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a
hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play
and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the
other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and ruleabidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.
Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three 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
Gillespie appreciates the way sports culture has influenced American students. It discourages
whining, and rewards self-discipline. It teaches self-control and its own form of justice, which
has a more powerful effect than anything taught in the classroom.
But, he argues, college sports have become too Romanized. Seasons have become too long and
the arenas too gargantuan. Athletes have become a separate gladiator class, and the recruitment
process gives them an undue sense of their own worth. Spectators have been reduced to an
anonymous mass of passive consumers of other people’s excellence. Coaches have a greater
incentive to satisfy the braying crowd with victories than to teach good habits.
Gillespie values sports, in other words, but wants to reform college sports into something smaller
and more participatory.
I’m not so sure. I think he misses some of the virtues of big-time college sports.
Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as
my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At
first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult,
though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.
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.
The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie
theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college
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.
There are the obvious recruiting scandals and greedy coaches, but for all the sins, big-time
college sports have become emotional reactors, helping to make university towns vibrant
communities. Gillespie is right to appreciate the moral power of sports. But bigness has virtues
as well as vices. Big-time college sports are absurd, but we would miss them if they were gone.
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