Glorification Of Sports Is Our Modern Major Mental Illness
I know some people think I’m not a sports fan – and I’m really not – and that’s why I harp on the negative side of sports news.
But the truth is that I’m a humanist and a doctor, and I continually wonder why our society is so dedicated to dangerous and destructive activities that – if they were not so profitable and so glamorized – should be considered insanity.
Every time a person – especially young people – dies during an athletic contest or practice, every time there is a tragic injury or accident while “playing games” I shudder.
Somebody died at a triathlon, and somebody else had something wrong.
Of course, the uneducated and, generally speaking, minimally-informed people who comment on such things say they think it must have been something in the water.
When I was much younger, with school colleagues engaging in athletic competition, I thought the ideals and standards of running faster and competing to be better than other people in jumping or swimming or hitting balls, was stupid.
This was an idea infrequently expressed by anyone, not just because it was unpopular but also because it was likely to be censured. I certainly was, since I wasn’t bashful about making my feelings known.
Of course, I was open to attack because I was large and ungainly. I certainly couldn’t excel at the activities I criticized, so that must be the reason I was such a Negative Nellie.
Nobody would credit my intelligence and reasoning powers – sports and such activities were noble. The ancient Greeks and other heroes had made them so.
That made me a subversive.
However, I had the vague notion from earliest age that this was an ideal that brought nothing to civilization. The ancient Greeks were not a great civilization because of the Olympics.
Likewise, the most revered modern athlete did not make mankind any happier or more successful or more comfortable. Sports served only perhaps to bring some people vicarious glory.
People might be distracted from The Great Depression or various World Wars for a brief moment, but would not be eased in pain — psychological or physical – as they might be by intellectual achievements like those of Edison or Salk or Freud.
I still remember the opening from that television staple, the “ABC Wide World of Sports,” which my grandmother — by then permanently sedentary — seemed to enjoy. “The Thrill of Victory; the Agony of Defeat.”
So people who are weekend warriors cannot quite experience that at the same intensity. My belief is that for hundreds or thousands of years we have been off the mark on that one. Athletic prowess risks much and gains no more than what was gained by, say, Greek mythology, which does not risk any human lives at all.
I have written before on the death of school athletes. Very young, high school age people, who through a coach’s “Win At Any Cost” attitude or parents’ denial or lies or simply school policies diminishing the importance (and expense) of physical examinations and electrocardiograms are at risk of untimely death.
I have always shamelessly prayed for and yelled for and fought for a culture where the length and quality of human life are primordial in world values. People are so blinded by what they want and believe in that they cannot see how they have compromised this.
It is hard to predict what the high school child or adolescent will become, since so many of us reinvent ourselves regularly in an outside world. We may do so through necessity for survival or through taste for life-adventure.
But if the child is left to die, in athletic “accomplishment,” traded for sudden cardiac death, we will never know what they would or could have been.
There is no crueler theft, nothing material, nothing of wealth, is more horribly stolen when we steal a wealth of possibilities in the name of athletic glory.
I am not the person I was in high school, the overweight klutz whose idea of defending a basket from a shooter was merely raising her right arm to a 45 degree angle. I am a woman ensconced so well into middle age that I have learned the value of exercise or sport or at least human movement as health maintenance.
To become that, I think it is part of my joy. It is not torture nor going “for the burn,” let alone going for a victory. The cheetah is faster, the bear is stronger, and when someone looks at other species, human athleticism seems pitiful in its impotence. We are not going to be stronger than the others. We risk our lives for the mythology of being stronger than each other.
I have often felt but never before dared to say it as emphatically as I do now. It is sick — sick unto the very marrow of our beings — to glorify athletic competition at the risk of life, to choose a single dangerous degenerate and non-contributory road when another road is choosing life, choosing an infinity of possibilities.
If athletic competition is chosen, it must be chosen with a full knowledge of potential deadly consequences, with an attempt to mitigate all risks with protective devices, health examinations and medical histories and everything we know how to do. The purpose must be understood as well.
“Choose life,” said Martin Buber, and I would go further — Choose life with its rich fan of possibilities.
I remember a chief of surgery who was sending his son to college, and told us all with pride (I was a surgeon then) that he “made” his son go out for athletics, because he would never be able to do more with his body than he was at that age. His son became the swimming champion of some small Midwestern conference. A great achievement; his dad was proud.
Me, I could not now if I tried name the Midwestern athletic conference. I am sure his name is on some ignored plaque in a student union somewhere. I doubt dad even got the son a pre-emptive electrocardiogram to remove the chance of sudden cardiac death, although he probably could have had it done free. I think the sense of adolescent impermeability makes people take unnecessary risks.
He was so proud of his son’s “achievement,” although I remain certain his swimming prowess improved no life for more than a few seconds of cheering. In that way, it seems to have improved his father’s life.
Of course, we have also forgotten most of the names of winners of prizes. My idols are not those who got the applause, but those who, may have come up with, say, a polio vaccine, such as Dr. Salk. I met the swimming champion but once, and I doubt he had the wattage to come up with a vaccine.
It can be argued that I worship wattage because I have a fighting chance of having enough to accomplish something.
I have learned that many people are attracted to genius that is non-intellectual, like athletic or even musical. It is somehow more accessible.
I do not want what is more accessible and I do not want what risks death.
I have but one life and I want one that makes a difference.
I believe in exercise now as I never have before, but not competitive athletics. My dance, now in mature age, has strengthened me and given me joy.
I will not risk my life for any kind of athletic accomplishment.
I cannot and will not agree with the risking of life for anything as ephemeral and meaningless as that great oxymoron, “athletic accomplishment.”