In Aeschylus’ great play, Agamemnon, sports metaphors occur just three times, and in each case, they are put into the mouth of Clytemnestra, the queen of Argos. This is brilliant writing, for Clytemnestra dominates the action, and she is characterized as being like a man in her ambition and ruthlessness. The metaphors are an important, though subtle, part of this. Early in the play she tells the Chorus that a chain of bonfires has informed her of the victory of the Greeks in the Trojan War: “Such was the assignment of my torch-racers the task of each fulfilled by his successor . . . .” Later, she tells them that she awaits the return of the warriors, but “. . . they must still, in order to come home safe, get round the second lap of the doubled course.” And after she has murdered Agamemnon, her straying husband, leader of the Greek army, she says: “For me, I have long been training for this match, I tried a fall, and won—a victory overdue.” No one else in the play speaks like this, but no one else in the play appears to have as much testosterone.
Sports surely originated in displays of hunting and martial prowess: the javelin and discus, running and jumping, wrestling and boxing, and driving chariots. This is apparent in the funeral games for Patroclus in the Iliad. It is obvious in the gladiatorial games of the Romans. And it is thinly disguised in modern team sports. Nevertheless, the modern mythology of sports tells us that participation in sports builds character, a notion that persists despite frequent athletic scandals involving dope, rape, steroid use, and even dog fighting. We also hear that the martial arts build character, but the same movies and TV shows that proclaim this contain their own contradiction: why are the bad guys also experts in martial arts? Why don’t they have more admirable character? Ah ha! . . . the word, “character,” is being used differently here. It doesn’t refer to the effort to make principled decisions and abide by them, but to notions such as: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That would be excellent advice for a completely unprincipled mercenary. As “Lippy” Leo Durocher said, “Nice guys finish last.”
Business recruiters are said to like candidates who have participated in sports, and business people are also said to like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Participation in sports has never hurt a candidate for public office either. In fact, watching sports seems to be the favorite leisure activity of a large part of the male population. It is long past time to present the other side of the issue. Our colleges and universities have become trade schools which prepare “students” to enter professional sports. At best, sports programs are a distraction from what is important. At their worst, organized sports—particularly team sports—have a malign influence on society because they develop two of the worst aspects of our character: competitiveness and tribalism.
Why is it regarded as admirable for someone to defeat others? The desire to perform well is admirable, but the desire to beat someone else is rather contemptible. If one has the conventional religious views—as many people claim to—one might even say that it is un-Christian. After all, we are supposed to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and the meek are supposed to inherit the earth. “Good sportsmanship” is touted as the palliative for competitiveness, but it is a virtue more talked about than practiced, and it is easy to see why. Competitiveness is simply the word by which we camouflage aggressiveness, and aggressiveness is a latent vice in boys and men, one easily tapped. On the other hand, there is no latent tendency to generosity or kindness. We have to teach the virtues; the vices come naturally.
Tribalism may be even worse than competitiveness, although the two go together, but it presents a strange paradox. We have our Raiders fan who is a Bud drinker and detests the Steelers and Fords, and we have our Steelers fan who is a Miller drinker and detests the Raiders and Chevys. The vehicles of both are decked out with stickers to consolidate their claims—to assert their identities. Why should someone want to put himself into such a narrow box? The closed-in rigidity of this behavior suggests that it is more important to mark oneself out by allegiances than it is to make independent choices or to judge matters as the facts warrant. But that is the very nature of tribalism, and it is a kind of chest-beating. We see it taking over in The Lord of the Flies, and in the neighborhood gangs it is the law. “Don’t tattle” is the schoolyard counterpart of omertà, the Mafia code of silence.
You can see the most ardent members of rival tribes massed in the stands at every football game, reducing themselves to stereotypes and feeding on the group emotion. They wear the tribal colors, wave flags, yell themselves hoarse, and even paint themselves up. The irony is that they probably think of themselves as rugged individualists. And, of course, sports violence is a fact around the world.
Note The quotations are from Louis MacNeice’s translation of Agamemnon, which is included in L.R. Lind’s Ten Greek Plays in Contemporary Translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company, 1957.