"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," the Bible cautions in Ecclesiastes. Try telling that to today's athletes. Everyone involved in competition is bulked up, slimmed down, buffed, toned, bodysuited, and following a fitness regime the National Academy of Sciences would find complicated.
Swimmers are trimming their eyebrows to get that extra edge. Male sprinters shave their chests to reduce aerodynamic drag. Olympic athletes are training years in advance for their moments in the spotlight. College and pro athletes endlessly assert that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Even weekend athletes get caught up in the intensity. Fights break out at soccer games and middle-school sporting events, and sometimes it isn't kids fighting, it's the parents.
What should a spiritual person think about the ethics of competition?
Most religions don't address this question directly, at least not in the sense of granting guidance on organized sports. The Olympics existed when many sacred texts were written, but there was nothing like today's organized-sports mania. Then men and women spent their days in exhausting physical toil and could hardly be expected to chase balls as their form of leisure.
Faith traditions do, however, address questions of competition indirectly. All counsel fairness and good behavior, and of course support sportsmanship, though no religion really uses that word. The Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--generally preach that people ought to attempt to do well at whatever they do, to set good examples, because the outcomes in the material world matter. Buddhism does not exactly bar people from sports competition, but would view it as important not to become wrapped up in winning or losing. Hindus might say that obsession with sports competition would be wrong to the extent that someone must always lose, causing bad feelings in others and, in turn, bad karma. But then, some of the Hindu gods are traditionally depicted as playfully engaged in various sports.
Beyond this, a few other connections between sports and faith are worth noting:
- Catholicism. You just won't find a parochial school without a basketball court, nor many parishes either. For some reason--maybe the faith's American roots in urban industrial areas--U.S. Catholics just love basketball. Once every Catholic education, at least for boys, included a course in boxing too, though that is declining. From roughly the late 19th century till the early postwar era, most Catholic schoolboys and many priests were boxers. For the boys, boxing was supposed to pound out the energy that caused those unspeakable, you know, urges. For the priests, boxing proved that being celibate did not mean they were not manly. In early-century urban America, being good with the fists also helped many Catholics deal with daily challenges, although probably Jesus would not have wanted to know the details.
- Episcopals. At every upper class Episcopal day school-- including St. Alban's in Washington, D.C., where the young Al Gore matriculated--the football field was as important as the classroom. Boys were to learn masculinity and teamwork by playing football, and tackling hard. Good sportsmanship and teamwork skills would serve them when they ascended to the management ranks of society--which Episcopalianism, from the 19th century till recent decades, assumed as its proper and fitting role. It didn't matter if Episcopal private-school teams got pounded in games against public schools. The boys on the winning public-school teams would someday work for the boys on the losing Episcopal teams, after all.
- Judaism. OK, so there aren't exactly a lot of Jewish third basemen in Cooperstown in the Hall of Fame. Sports have never been a strong suit of Jewish culture. It has not been completely overlooked, however. In the 1960s, Israel made a commitment to fielding an Olympic team, both for reasons of international goodwill and to communicate the notion that living in the Holy Land made one healthy and strong. There were even Jewish weightlifters! Israeli emphasis on Olympic competition waned somewhat after the 1972 Olympics, when PLO terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli team at Munich.
- Islam. In the United States, Islam in sports is associated with prominent converts such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Overseas, when you think of Muslim athletes you think cricket--Pakistan has recently been awesome in international cricket competition, much to the chagrin of jolly old England.
- Evangelicals. Revival-period evangelism was a show unto itself, but modern evangelism often starts with wholesome entertainment in order to bring people together and put them in a receptive mood. Thus music and sports are important to many evangelicals. Athletes in Action is a group of evangelical former collegiate athletes that travels the country making appearances and staging events, usually basketball games, after which the players discuss their faith. Some of the Athletes in Action squads are quite good and routinely defeat players from Division I college basketball teams in exhibitions.
- Latter-day Saints. The Mormon faith takes pride in sports stars such as Steve Young, since athletic prowess is considered a testimonial to the virtues of no-alcohol, no-caffeine living. No exemptions are made for the discipleship requirement, though. When the Mormon star Shawn Bradley was a high No. 1 draft pick of the NBA Philadelphia Sixers, the team had to wait two years to get him, as he went off for unpaid missionary work.
- Southern Baptists. Football, football, and more football. Episcopalians may play prep-level football for sportsmanship training and not be too concerned about the scoreboard. In the Southern schools of the Baptist belt, especially in Texas, football victories are very serious business--a secular religion unto itself. A Texas high school was the source of this year's Supreme Court decision in which justices ruled that prayer could not proceed the kickoff, even though attendance at football games is a voluntary act. Generally, the Supreme Court will not allow prayer at public events that people are required to attend but will allow it at voluntary gatherings. During arguments, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opined that prayer might be allowed at high school football games because no one was coerced into attending such events. "Mr. Justice," one of the lawyers responded, "I believe you may not be familiar with Texas high school football." Out went the prayer.
- The Puritans. Stark and anti-fun as they were, the Puritans did endorse one form of sports--footracing. Footrace contests, conducted by barefoot contestants, were a fixture of early New England town life and may have been part of the first Thanksgiving. Footracing as a favorite public spectacle survived through the Midwest in the late 19th century.