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Sports & Capitalism: A Match Made in America

February 25, 2010

Let me begin this post with an honest question:

If grace, justice and forgiveness had even half as much expression in American public life as the hyper-competitiveness and consumerism that accompany today’s American sports, could capitalism and the inequality it promotes (and depends upon) survive?

Doug Irwin, one of the kids in my youth group, recently shared a great story with me. During one of Doug’s basketball games last week, a parent from the opposing team took issue with a foul that had been called on his son and wasted no time in voicing his disapproval from the stands. But after shouting and carrying on for several moments, the father, presumably expecting the referee to overturn the call, stood—with the score still 5-6!—and did what any loyal father and “unbiased” sports enthusiast would in the aftermath of such a flagrant injustice: he stormed the court, of course.

With one of Doug’s teammates still in the act of shooting his free throws, the dad walked out onto the court, crossing directly in front of the shooter, and made a B-line for the referee. A brief confrontation ensued before the father, apparently realizing his actions weren’t going to change anything, turned and headed for the scorer’s table. Parents began to yell as he tore the score book to shreds and threw it to the ground. And just for good measure, as he finally made his way out of the gym, he cut out the lights—the old kind that take 15 minutes to heat up and come back on.

The kicker: it was a church league game.

In case you were wondering how—never mind why—a society successfully perpetuates an unforgiving, ruthless system like capitalism, I’d like to suggest one answer: We surround our kids with sports; we teach them that sports are more meaningful than just enjoyment and general well-being; we teach them to consume sports, both collegiate and professional; we teach them to compete, to win at all costs; we teach them to view the world in terms of sides; some even teach them how to act like a total jerk in public.

And, through it all, we teach them that grace, justice and forgiveness are nothing more than ideals.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 9:32 am

    Astounding story! A church league! Amazing! What if we took the words of Jesus seriously and “competed” for the lowest place.

  2. DAD permalink
    February 26, 2010 2:48 pm

    Keep your prospective and don’t paint your entire picture of the world around you with the small misguided brush carried by the out or control parent you site in your blog. To take the other side of the coin ( as you know that I almost always do) – competitive sports can teach many life lessons that can shape a young person into a well rounded adult. I’d wager that the Dad you site probably never suited up or he would remember such lessons as Respect for Authority. I realize that you sited this example just to support your point. I don’t think that capitalism is at the root of all that is wrong with the America that exsists today.

    Keep blogging and I’ll keep using some of my life experiences to try to take some of the sharp edges off of your writings. Remember to keep your words sweet – you never know when you may have to eat them. What is written on the internet is there forever and who knows, perhaps someday you might want to run for political office. NOT!

    • February 26, 2010 3:30 pm

      You’re right; it is an exaggerated example, and intentionally so. The problem is that we fail to recognize (refuse to admit?) the more subtle–though no less significant–connections between our competitive lifestyles and capitalism. Sports in America nurture a competitive spirit in all of us, which in turn drives our economic system. (Of course, there’s another connection here which I didn’t address in this post: namely, the way in which sports–and the stories surrounding sports–distract us from the injustices going on all around us. But we inherited that one from the Greeks.)

      I suppose the real question at the root of this post is whether or not competition is truly the virtue that American society makes it out to be.

      I agree; capitalism is not at the root of all that is wrong with the America that exists today. But when I consider the fact that it turns even basic needs–food, water, shelter, health care, etc.–into commodities (exclusively), I can’t help but think of how it leaves no room for true virtues like grace, justice and forgiveness.

  3. sis permalink
    February 28, 2010 3:33 pm

    I agree with both dad´s point of view and yours matt.. but i do have to say that even though competetivness can drive us into great danger it also helps us to be better people, work together in as a team. Ii see people each day , mom´s at school, people one the news that do wonderful things and make me want to be just as good as that person and strive for much more! As for the dad who you mentioned in the story above… in today´s society there are a lot of those kinds of people and it has nothing to do with sports, I see it in education, the way they raise their children, the way that children have the authority in the family. But that is a different blog and a different issue. lots of love.

  4. Kendall permalink
    March 5, 2010 11:45 pm

    If anything, I think natural human competitiveness begat capitalism. Using Weber’s model of Protestantism and Capitalism, sports could actually be antithetical to capitalism in that (for most) they take us away from what we should be doing to better ourselves, or (more importantly) prove ourselves in the eyes of god. However, certainly as college and pro sports have become robust economies in the last 50 years Weber’s system could hold for those select few who make the upper echelon. There’s a beautiful and influential book waiting to be written about Religion, Identity, Sports, and Capitalism, and I sure as hell wish I was the person to write it.

    Also, this is a little problematic in that those same values that capitalist-minded parents are passing onto their kids can be located in non-capitalist countries as well (e.g., China). Also, to go back to the point above, these values have been passed down so long that they far preceded capitalism.

    All this nitpicking aside, your initial question is intriguing to consider. And to answer your question w/ a book suggestion: What happens when those traits (I assume) you identify with religion and/or general good-ness become entangled with capitalism? Of course, m’boy Rich King has already written a book on it!

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