Are Sports a Rational Pleasure?

College football season in the South is one of the most unique – and most passionate – of American traditions. It ignites a competitive spirit in both the athletes and the fans, as all good sports ought to do, to such an extent that Saturday afternoons in the fall are reserved for practically nothing else aside from watching one’s own team square off against its opponent of the week – along with one’s “backup” team, the team of one’s parents or siblings, one’s “backup, backup” team, etc. As with many southern universities, students at the University of Georgia attend the game in some of their nicer attire – the men wearing a nice pair of shorts or slacks with a Polo pullover or button-up, and the ladies donning sundresses. The fans jump, cheer, hoot, and holler for their team of choice, and return home at the end of the day satisfied that it was well-spent, but was it?

An odd question to ponder, to be sure. After all, not many Americans are terribly concerned with the moral considerations of going to a football game. Aside from the occasional drunken fistfight between opposing fans or even those cheering for the same team (which would be an indictment of drunkenness rather than sporting events), what harm is there in a football game?

None, actually. But the question was posed to me nonetheless, and its irrationality needs dissection and refutation.

According to the anarchist who asked it, sports (not just football) are an irrational pleasure – a distraction, so to speak, from all the issues currently plaguing the United States. Equating modern sports with the blood sports of antiquity, he argued that modern professional and collegiate sports leagues are supported publicly — either directly or indirectly — and thus serve as a contemporary version of “bread and circuses” to pacify the masses. He maintained that, since the sports themselves are played purely for the purpose of attaining a higher score than one’s opponent, they do not actually accomplish anything and serve as nothing but a proxy for “legitimate” achievements – the competitions between producers on a free market, or the competitions between philosophers in the marketplace of ideas.

He went further: sports, according to this anarchist, are a breeding ground for collectivist sentiment. Supposedly, they produce an “us versus them” atmosphere, uniting or dividing spectators for no reason except the colors that they wear. By his logic, sports squelch individualism, reducing men into nothing but brightly-colored mobs howling for the success of “their team” and for the blood of “the other team.” He did not confine his argument solely to the point that many nationalist forces have utilized sports competitions to iterate and enhance their collectivist ideologies, but that sports qua sports are inherently collectivist.

These charges are best addressed one at a time. One of his central points of contention was the publicly-funded nature of most modern sports leagues. Given that taxpayer money is expended to construct massive stadiums to host these teams, not to mention funding the public universities which often host their own athletic programs, the anarchist maintained that it was immoral to utilize these programs financed through tax revenue. Though he believed it was acceptable to attend public universities and drive on public highways because the current nature of America’s mixed economic system offered him almost “no other choice,” sporting events were something which a rational individual could avoid using. Thus, they ought to forgo sporting events so that they will not assist in the perpetuation of government subsidization of athletics.

This objection is, however, meritless. Man’s fundamental ethic is his own self-interest, and the principles of self-interest demand opposition to any government program which violates individual rights. Even so, those principles do not demand self-sacrifice. As it applies to so many government programs, there is no rational reason not to make use of publicly-funded sports leagues. The rights of the taxpayers have already been violated – the money already expropriated, allocated, and spent. Whether the program is as vital to man’s existence as healthcare or as superficial as sports leagues is irrelevant. If man must suffer the detriments of unjustifiable government programs, then he should not forgo the benefits of the same programs only to the benefit of some deadbeat who will gladly accept his share.

Should such public programs be opposed? Absolutely, but opposing them does not require that man further injure his self-interests in the process. Provided that man does not support such programs and that his participation does not directly further existing violations of individual rights (e.g. it is moral to work for the government if one’s job is not to specifically violate others’ rights), then it is completely moral for him to accept the benefits of those programs.

Another of the anarchist’s complaints was that sports serve as a distraction from many of the serious issues in the world today. Surely, they do produce a distraction, and a well-deserved one. Man ought to enjoy his life. He should not consume every waking moment of his time with the problems of politics, among others. He not only deserves time to enjoy his life, he needs it – man ought not fight day in and day out for his individual rights and for a culture which respects them without occasionally reminding himself why life is worth fighting for in the first place. The cause of individual rights does not require man to live his life as an ascetic until they are fully recognized – indeed, that would be contrary to the point. The end of a capitalist system is not the individual rights, but the lives of those to whom the individual rights belong – more accurately, the only ultimate end is man’s own life. It is therefore senseless to forgo the end while simultaneously trying to achieve it. More than that, it is contradictory.

Man ought to pursue his self-interests, even in the midst of a system which inhibits that pursuit. He ought to attend sporting events, to admire art, to read literature, to watch movies and television, to enjoy music, etc.  So long as the enjoyment of such things does not give way to irrational naiveté and blissful ignorance towards the very real troubles of life, then it is no vice. And certainly, condemning the enjoyment of life is no virtue.

The next complaint is closely tied with the preceding one. Because nothing “tangible” comes of sporting events, the anarchist claimed it was irrational to pursue them. But not all values are physical. The players themselves can find value in athletic self-achievement, fine-tuning their bodies and abilities to best perform the highly strenuous yet rewarding tasks required by their sport. In addition, they can make a living from such performances as audiences around the country are willing to pay rather handsomely to watch sports competitions.

As for the audience, the spectators can derive value simply from watching feats of human strength, agility, and strategy to achieve an objective goal. It is not the act of defeating one’s opponents which is rationally attractive, but the sheer demonstration of human ability against the best opponent nature has to offer man: other men. Of course, most men do not likely think so abstractly about athletics, and many may very well only seek the irrational pleasure of beating the other team. That is not the concern here. Rather, that rational value exists in both participating in and watching sports is counterargument enough.

The anarchist’s final objection was what he perceived as the inherently collectivist nature of sports competitions. As an individual’s choice in sports program for which he cheers is often determined by irrelevant and arbitrary factors (e.g. geography, the team supported by one’s parents, the team supported by one’s peers, etc.), then the anarchist argued that the very existence of sports leagues and the subsequent fandoms was dangerous to an individualist ideology. Though many anarchists would likely view any group of individuals rallying around any banner but the black flag of anarchy as a threat to “individualism,” the truth of the matter is that the enjoyment of sports is entirely individual phenomenon, not a collective one.

Granted, the choice in one’s favorite sports team is not a deeply philosophic decision, but it need not be. Man can be rationally content to support whichever team he so chooses without a definitive justification. When considerably younger, for example, I was fond of the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League simply because I associated them with the gold rush from which they derive their name. At present, I tend to follow the Atlanta Falcons (though I have never been wholly invested in the NFL anyway). True, the choice was governed by largely non-rational considerations – i.e. those which ultimately mean little in my hierarchy of values with my life as the standard a value. Perhaps the Falcons were easier to follow and cheer for because they were located closer to where I live (not to mention because they have since come to perform better than the 49ers), but overall the decision was of the same status as determining the foot with which to lead when getting out of bed in the morning: insignificant. Excepting cases in which one team develops a reputation for foul play or some other immoral action, the decision to choose a preferred sports team is devoid of moral judgment and thus ought not be judged on a moral scale. How one arrives at his picking a favorite sports team is no reflection of any collectivist or individualist sentiments he may or may not hold, and it is no reflection of his moral status as a man.

That aside, what about the examples of collectivist behavior which do often arise from sporting events. Cases in which the fan of one team sincerely hates a rival team, for no legitimate reason, have certainly been documented. In 2010, University of Alabama fan Harvey Updyke poisoned the oak trees of Toomer’s Corner, landmarks of rival school Auburn University, following his team’s loss to Auburn that same year. In 2011, thousands of Canadians rioted in the streets following the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks to the Boston Bruins in the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But are these occurrences inherent in the nature of sports competitions, or do they stem from the preexisting philosophic errors held by the criminals acting so irrationally?

All evidence supports the latter conclusion. First, the Canadians have an unfortunate history of hockey-related riots, win or lose. A more likely explanation for such behavior is that local anarchists were merely looking for any reason they could find to vandalize, loot, and clash with police. In nations other than the United States (even America’s stereotypically mild-mannered neighbors to the north), collectivist ideologies are markedly more prevalent – hence why most Americans consider rioting in response to a sports game unfathomably ridiculous. Combine this with a group of degenerates looking for an occasion to torch cars, to smash windows, and to elicit “police brutality” for public viewing, and a riot will result. The sports themselves are not to blame; the philosophies of the rioters are.

As for Updyke’s vandalism, it was greeted with scorn even from the team he claimed to support. Following the incident, a small group of University of Alabama alumni started a group entitled “Tide for Toomer’s” which publicly denounced the act and, little over a month after creating the group, raised $50,000 to repair the damage caused by Updyke’s vandalism. The page has received just short of 60,000 followers on Facebook, and similar pages were created by the students of other Southeastern Conference schools in support of Auburn. There will always fools and criminals inhabiting the earth alongside honest men. It is unfruitful – indeed, immoral – to place the two on the same moral plane, or to attribute criminal actions to anything but the philosophy of the criminal himself.

Sports do not facilitate lead to collectivism any more than guns lead to murder. It requires irrational behavior on the part of individual men to produce a problem. Naturally, athletic competitions can serve as a medium for irrationality of a vandal in the same manner as a gun can serve as the medium for a murderer’s criminal act, but neither case ascribes any intrinsically immoral status to the mediums themselves.

Ultimately, it boils down to keeping things in their proper perspective. If one watches a sporting event in which one’s personal favorite loses to another thing, he ought not feel malice towards his team’s opponents. Rather, he should admire them for their athletic ability, even if the outcome was other than what he desired. Because in the end, that is the value of sports: athletic performance and physical achievement.  The fan of one team should feel no more resentment towards another team for what they were able to achieve any more than one producer should resent another for how much he was able to achieve.

In sum, sports are most certainly a rational pleasure when enjoyed by rational individuals. There is no legitimate reason why one should not enjoy watching an athletic contest, though he certainly should object to government subsidization of athletics. Though irrational individuals may act rashly in response to sports, that is a result of their own irrationality, not that of sports themselves. And finally, one can choose to support whichever sports steam suits his fancy, whether it be the team of his hometown or the team of a city he has never visited.

So feel free to enjoy the Thanksgiving holidays and all the football that goes with it – politics can wait for another day.

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