Competing for Dishonorable Mention

Former Librarian of the U. S. Congress, Pulitzer Prize winner and noted social philosopher Daniel Boorstin once observed, “Hero-worship in the sense of expressing our unbound admiration is one thing. To obey the hero is a totally different kind of worship. There is nothing wrong in the former while the latter is no doubt a most pernicious thing. The former is man’s respect for which is noble and of which the great men are only an embodiment. The latter is the serf’s fealty to his lord. The former is consistent with respect, but the latter is a sign of debasement. The former does not take away one’s intelligence to think and independence to act. The latter makes one perfect fool. The former involves no disaster to the state. The latter is a source of positive danger to it.”

Over the last decade we have witnessed the tarnishing of many cultural idols. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of sports idolatry. Here in the South, Southern Baptists may be the predominant faith, but football is the real religion. When people like former Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino fall from grace, we automatically assign the failing to one man rather than the broader institution. We are so desperate in our drive to defend big-money athletics — and in some cases, even third rate athletics — that we can’t even entertain the possibility that something might be wrong with the broader enterprise.

Jerry Sandusky is another case in point. With the benefit of retrospection, we now see that a number of Penn State University officials knew something was wrong, but didn’t dare interrupt the service, even though a devil was on the altar.

Lance Armstrong provides an even more telling example. While professional cycling piques American interests only slightly more than field hockey, Armstrong managed to make it seem more relevant. He won the storied Tour de France more times than any other person. He was an Olympic medalist. He won too many other championships to list. He beat an aggressive cancer that should have killed him. He founded a philanthropic organization that raised awareness on many important issues.

He also cheated. He won through unfair advantage. Sadly, his cheating was just the tip of the professional cycling iceberg. So many of the sport’s top competitors have been implicated in cheating that the record books for a decade may be wiped clean.

Virtually every other major sport has a similar sorry tale. It’s not that the enterprise of competitive athletics is inherently corrupt, but it’s clear that we have turned an invisible corner in the drive to win. We can see it in histrionic soccer moms, overbearing little league dads, draconian gymnastics coaches… either the six year-old learns to dominate their competition or they’ve somehow failed to earn our love.

In our cultural zeal to idolatrize sports, we have forgotten the real purpose of the undertaking. We no longer focus on merely doing our best. We have permitted garish victory dances to supplant quiet noble victory. It’s not enough to have done the thing. We have to act like a foolish braggart once it’s done. This isn’t sportsmanship.

Then there’s the lie that’s been sold to the public about the proper place of athletics in colleges and universities. Most Division I programs operate at a net loss for their schools. The NCAA’s marketing term “student athlete” has become the special dispensation excuse that requires professors to socially pass star athletes. The cart of athletics is way out in front of the collegiate horse.

The more we look for gods among men, the more we will repeat these disappointments. It’s not that competition is wrong. As nature shows, it’s how we improve. At least it should be.