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Why Do We Grant Sports Stars So Much Privilege In Our Society?

May 24, 2010

Those who know me well know how much I dislike the way we glorify sports and sports stars in our society. I am not saying that no one should be playing sports, nor that all sports should be unprofessional (although, I wouldn’t complain if that change took place). What I dislike is how sports figures earn far more than they are worth, and they are given far greater leeway than the rest of us if and when they mess up. They have taken the place of idols in our contemporary situation.

While some sports figures might do some good for society (just like some religious cults did good), for the most part, I think they are few and far between. Others, if not the majority, act as if they don’t care about society and the sacrifices people make to ensure their own livelihood continues to exist without difficulty. We not only honor them with praises, but we give to them, as if we were tithing, from the wealth of our bounty. It’s not just the stars, but the teams and their owners as well who get these benefits. The fact that cities feel as if they have to finance the costs of sports stadiums without getting any return from them should tell us what is going on. Such subsidies point to the standing sports have been given in our society; such entertainment is seen to override necessities (such as paying teachers, hiring more police, paying for our jails, et. al.).  Even if we would not want to call them idols, we must at least recognize that sports stars appear to be a religious class in our secular society. They play the role of mediators, appeasing the citizens through their rites of play, and so what is given to them appears to be what was once given to priests in a bygone age.

Now, I understand the history of sports, and that they have often held an important position in society. Not only did Rome have “bread and circuses,” the team one supported had political and religious connotations.  Sports could and did unify people. It is for this reason why the religious significance of sports must not be neglected, and why it appears it has grown, creating a Comteian social religion.

While I would never pay to see a sporting event, I can understand others will. I do not think we need to get rid of sports, but I do think there needs to some sort of reform so that sports and sports stars are not given special treatment in relation to the rest of society. Just because one is a sports star, one should not be given a life of privilege. This is a problem not just with professional sports, but with sports in general. Take for example what happened in Carmel, Indiana this year. As Jason Whitlock on FoxSports reports, four high school basketball players are being protected and being charged with lesser crimes than what they have done:

A prosecutor in Carmel, Ind., hid behind the grand-jury process so that misdemeanor charges would be filed against a group of senior Carmel High School basketball players who ‘hazed’ a group of freshmen players by allegedly pulling their pants down and violating them with some type of ‘anal penetration,’ according to a lawyer for one of the alleged victims.

[....]

The Carmel school system, the prosecutor and the parents of the alleged perpetrators have “managed” the investigation of this crime since day one. If they had had their way, the ‘hazing’ would’ve been ignored or handled by school administrators. In 1998, when the Carmel swim team was engulfed in a similar hazing incident, the prosecutor hid behind a grand jury and declined to seek any criminal charges against the swimmers.

For those who have been following the case since February, it is clear something rotten is going on here. Many see this as a cover up, and think it is similar to what happened in the swimming incident.

Is it an issue of privilege, so that the prosecutor is giving a preferential option for rich basketball stars? Is it an issue of race, where the charges would have been different, if the majority of the players involved were black? Is it an issue of sexism, where the charges would have been different if the victim had been a girl? I suspect elements of all three are indeed in play here. But there is more. I can’t help but think that because the deviants involved in the attack were sports stars, they are being charged with lesser crimes. If they were ordinary students, even if they were rich, and they did this in the bathroom of the high school, I expect things would have ended up differently.

I feel great sorrow for the victim and his family. Not only did he suffer on the bus, he has suffered all kinds of injustice since the incident. He had to change schools because of what happened to him. While the prosecutor seems to be doing him no good, hopefully the civil case will reveal what truly happened, and how far corruption has been involved in preventing the criminal case from being what it should be. It’s quite clear, this is “more than a simple hazing incident.”

Of course, one might say that this is an isolated incident. In Carmel, it is not. But more importantly, if one looks around, one can easily find all kinds of problems with sports teams, and all kinds of cover-ups being done to help protect the stars. Yes, there have been false accusations, and those should be taken seriously as well. But false accusations should not lead us away from investigating what goes on with our sports, and what kinds of privilege we give to those involved with them. Is this what we truly want? If we rightfully complain about priests and pastors who sexually abuse others, shouldn’t we also get tough on sports stars who do the same?

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20 Comments
  1. M.Z. permalink
    May 24, 2010 7:47 am

    Yes, there is certainly a disproportionate adulation of sports figures and a gross tolerance for their immoral behavior.

  2. Rodak permalink
    May 24, 2010 8:08 am

    You ask, “Why?” Sports star are merely one facet of our adulation of celebrities. Pop stars, movie stars, and (formerly, but not so much any more,) literary stars and artists, also receive special treatment. But this is really nothing new. Achilles and King David fall into the same category; as do several Elizabethan dramatists, and such figures as Bellini, Mozart and Picasso. The list is a long one. What was Achilles but a celebrated jock, whose sport was manslaughter?

  3. May 24, 2010 9:22 am

    Henry –

    I share your lament over the disproportion of money that goes to athletics today. But this lament is really directed at free market enterprise rather than sports as such. The fact is, currently, the market demand for athletic arts is simply higher than, say, the liberal arts (or education).

    But really, sports is just another art – something designed by human innovation in order to express the glory of the human form in the midst of tension, struggle, and competition.
    I think it is important to acknowledge its sublimational component insofar as a society where sports are readily available to its people lessens the tribal instincts within all humans to perpetrate violence on individuals or other groups.

    And I agree with Rodak that the problems you highlight are not really about sports as they are about celebrity-ism. Any sort of ‘special’ privileged treatment of an individual or group based upon what they do or might do in the future is part of our culture’s obsession with the celebrity. But, as Rodak righly points out, this is a timeless thing.

    Ultimately, by targeting sports as your whipping boy and by also admitting your utter distaste for all things sport, your complaint appears to be nothing more than an opinionated rant – even if it does express insights that I share. But maybe that’s what you wanted, so no harm done, right?

    And even though I share your lament for the financial disproportion with respect to athletes, I do take delight in watching many kinds of sports – a fact I was compelled to note since this is a World Cup year, which begins in only a few weeks!…(can’t wait)…..

    • May 24, 2010 9:28 am

      Brendan

      Obviously I have problems with the free market enterprise as it now stands, but the sports market is more than an issue of the free market enterprise. If it were merely addressed on the free market, cities would not be paying for the costs, and getting none of the benefits of stadiums.

      Secondly, I have no problem with people enjoying sports. It’s why I said there should be reform. The reform might need to go beyond sports (I have problems with the entertainment industry, and how it is often run, too).

      But this leads to point three. I think there is more at issue with how we treats sports than, say, Hollywood — schools, for example, continue to give more to sports than to drama departments. There is far more going on with sports, and far more is granted to those involved with sports, than other areas. Academics are finding their funding cut, but coaches continue to get raises. Schools are suffering, but not their sports (and indeed, they keep asking for more for their sports). Cities run around giving all kinds of dispensations to teams, and raise taxes to keep teams there — while not doing anything with what really needs help. The priority for sports transcends those for other forms of entertainment, which is why it gets more in general than other forms.

  4. Rodak permalink
    May 24, 2010 9:59 am

    I think that the higher priority (if such exists) given to sports is due to the fact that “all sport is local.” We are emotionally involved with teams representing our schools, our cities, or our regions, in ways somewhat different than we are involved with distant celebrities.
    On the other hands, however, people idolize and follow many sports figures who are NOT connected to them “locally.” Tiger Woods would be one example. In team sports, the huge popularity of such figures as Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James transcends the teams for which they played.

  5. May 24, 2010 10:22 am

    The connection between sports and the military in the u.s. needs to be further explored, as Noam Chomsky has suggested.

    • May 24, 2010 10:37 am

      Michael

      I’ve thought about such connections as well, though I didn’t want to engage it here. There is a wealth of issues one can and should bring up with sports. Their history is often violent, and indeed, often games were often played as celebration over one’s enemies, turning their body parts (like their head) into a thing of play. The way people center around their teams I think also goes with the way sports becomes a projection of war.

      Interestingly enough. there is a good Doctor Who audio story on this theme — written by one of the Seinfeld series writers, Darin Henry, called: The Game. It’s about a planet were sports turned into controlled war, and has led to genocide:

      The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa find themselves caught up in the politics between the Gora and the Lineen, which expresses itself in the form of the planetary obsession — the arena sport known as Naxy. While the Doctor discovers that the game has very deadly penalties, Nyssa has to deal with famed negotiator Lord Carlisle, who claims that the Doctor is his best friend.

  6. Rodak permalink
    May 24, 2010 10:53 am

    I fully agree that a line needs to be drawn where academics are being cut while coaches get raises.

  7. May 24, 2010 11:16 am

    As always, the conversation has taken some very interesting turns and directions.

    I do think, though, that some distinctions ought to be registered given these new arising directions.

    First, shouldn’t we define a “sport”? I ask this because it appears that the ‘competitive’ component involved in sports has surfaced as a point of criticism/controversy. But surely this is not exclusive of sports. Competition, it seems, is embedded within human nature itself – for good or ill, depending on how one wants to view post lapsarian existence.

    So, and secondly, the question is, how ought societies deal with this aspect of human nature? For if we are to criticize sports for its mode of seeking to temper the competitive nerve in us, then what about mere games? What about video games (a burgeoning industry to say the least)? What about politics, which has now taken on a number of ‘sports entertainmnet’ qualities? Is all competition to be shunned as something to eventually be outgrown?

    Third, are sports unique somehow in the way they seek to mediate this competitive sense of human nature (beyond the obvious particularities, of course)? And is this unique mode of mediation the object of scorn, or is there something else about sports in particular that is being criticized?

    I guess I just don’t see the – for lack of a better term – objective content, with respect to the essential nature of sport, of the conversation. Maybe there isn’t one, and maybe the conversation is really an expression of mere opinion. But then this also ought to be clarified.

    As I said, I agree with you Henry on many of what I would say are accidental aspects of sports (its dominance in the “free” market, its becoming a conduit of celebrity-ism, its eclipsing the importance of education, etc.). But these are not essential to sports qua sports; rather they derive from the use of sports by a given society. And this use/essence distinction is an important one to make since it clarifies the real “target” of criticism.

  8. May 24, 2010 11:59 am

    Brendan,

    To put it simply, the argument here is against the misplacement of sports on the hierarchy of values, giving them more value than they should have. While I think Michael’s points are valid, and should be explored, my own point is not that sports should not have a place in society, but one more to their level of relative good. Of course one could say, and I think many would say, it’s central position indicates what our society thinks of its relative value — and I would agree it is, but again, that value is too much, and indeed, taking on religious characteristics to displace those lost in the secularization of society.

  9. May 24, 2010 12:49 pm

    “I fully agree that a line needs to be drawn where academics are being cut while coaches get raises.”

    Actually in many ways the reverse is now true especially if you are in a BCS Conference. I don’t think any SEC school takes money from State Government and in fact they are being being asked to give more to the general funds of the Schools.

    That is one reason we have all this Conference expansion talk. People say “Oh well it is just about the money” Well what is wrong with that. So far that has allowed not only direct payments to schools out of the surplus, but also kept the Olympic sports alives and further because of Gender equality legislation made sure more programs are not cut.

    So in reality for many schools the Sports Departments with with Conference Contracts with TV and such are not robbing academics.

  10. May 24, 2010 12:57 pm

    Henry,

    Right, I never took you to be saying that sports should have no place in society. Your post clearly states that you can understand why others enjoy sports.

    But, since you have offered clarification regarding your broad intention (the misplacement of sports on the hierarchy of values) a few questions come to my mind:
    1) what is this hierarchy of values? I assume it is relative to what a society values. If that’s the case, then, my second question is:

    2) why attack sports? Why not things that seem to be far more pernicious to society: lending practices (which are little more than usury); the value of entertainment; various commodities (cars, appliances etc.); the political arena (which I know you have also criticized on other occasions)? Again, this is just a question in order to clarify your overall meaning. I’m sure that part of your reasoning invovles the fact that sports tend to influence in an unrecognized way. But I would contend that politics does this as well.

    3) if you are intent on arguing against the misplacement of sports on this hierarchy of values, is it not more a critique of society and its hierarchical judgment than it is of sports per se? In other words, your post is directed to the use of sports rather than the essence of sports.

    Just some thoughts to move the conversation forward.

    • May 24, 2010 1:14 pm

      Brendan,

      To answer #3 — it is both a critique of society and a critique of what we give to sports more than it is a critique of sports, but I think there is room for a critique of sports, so as to help establish question #1, what exactly is a hierarchy of values and how should we define it for society. As for the criticism of sports, there are many reasons — but I think, in part, because it has not only achieved a disproportional place in our society, it has become a means for distraction to help prevent talks of #1 (more than other parts of the entertainment industry, though other parts should be criticized here).

  11. May 24, 2010 1:37 pm

    Henry,

    You make a good point about how some aspects of society can inhibit that society from taking a harder look at itself (I think the military is another example). Still, I have lingering questions.

    So what exactly is sport? It seems you would force yourself to define it relative to its disproportionate place on the hierarchy of values, sort of putting the cart before the horse.
    But clearly sports are, in essence, independent of their status on the hierarchy of values. So, again I ask, what is a sport?

    You see, in my view, if you indict sports as such then not only must you define what you mean by it (is pool, or foosball a sport? what about chess? what about food eating competitions? Poker? These latter two are on ESPN!) but, if your criticism is indeed targeted at the essence of sports as such, you must also explain how something like the Special Olympics – something very dear to my heart – fits into this critique.
    IF you want to exempt the Special Olympics from your critique, then you are in effect establishing that your critique is not directed to sports as such, but to their use in our society.

    BUT, if you admit that the Special Olympics (or even the regular olympics) is a good for society, or if the community involvement/service that the NBA does is a good for society, then your critique only goes so far – it seems to criticize rather unmeasurable or intangible parts of sports and society.

    In effect, it is a critique that amounts to saying: I disagree with the value that society puts on sports because I don’t like sports. The example you provided in your post, which Rodak rightly points out, was not an example that pertains to sports as such but to an accidental quality that accompanies our societal view of athletes.

    Now, if, on the other hand, you want to criticize the disproportion of money that goes to sports, which is really a critique of society rather than sports, it would require quite a bit of finesse and complexity. It certainly would have to include some data that informs us of how much “society” spends on sports in any capacity, and how much it spends on other areas.

    Imo, the only persuasive argument here is the comparison between the value our society puts on the intellect and the value it puts on the body. I think the disproportion of sports in this regard falls into the latter, though not exclusively. And, much has been done in the last 20 years or so to use sports for acquiring other, more beneficial, societal goods (the NBA, e.g., has involved itself in many socio-economic programs).

    In part, I think much of my point derives from that old adage: the best criticism comes, not from a despiser, but from one who loves what is being criticized.

  12. Alexander permalink
    May 24, 2010 6:08 pm

    Let’s not forget how sport is linked to patriotism too. For example, Mennonites have historically understood loyalty to Christ and loyalty to country to be often in conflict — especially when Jesus’ call to nonviolence conflicts with the nation’s call to war. As such Goshen college has traditionally not played the national anthem at sporting events. This has now been reversed in the name of sport!

  13. May 25, 2010 1:49 am

    A few non-disdainful reasons for the glorification of sport:

    Massive amounts of training (and luck!) are needed to become a competitive athlete.

    For many sports, there is a small risk of disabling injury or even death. But athletes risk that to accomplish amazing things, both for their own achievement and for our own entertainment and amazement.

    Team athletes often show loyalty, teamwork, leadership and comraderie (or their opposites) hard to observe elsewhere in society.

    There are often clear rules both for victory and for good sportsmanship. Many fights are actually fair contests of innate talent combined with training.

    Yet they still depend on some random happenstance, and the reaction to that randomness helps reveal those best prepared for it.

    Sports actually does help teach some people how to get along with others. A good athlete who is also a good person creates a pleasing aesthetic and ethical convergence, while the contrast between a good athlete who is a terrible person creates great incongruence.

    What better drama is there than a steroid-using bad boy going up against the athlete who volunteers with disadvantaged kids?

    • May 25, 2010 2:31 am

      Sports actually does help teach some people how to get along with others. Sometimes, not always. Lots of things take training — does that make things good? No. Indeed, I think one could make arguments for much which is actually immoral that they do all the things you suggested here — I am not saying sports are immoral, but I am saying is that one must be careful with this kind of argument.

  14. drdwheelerreed permalink
    May 25, 2010 8:07 pm

    Just added up the top 10 payrolls in MLB. They total 1.3 billion dollars. The average player on the Yankees makes 8 million a year; the average player on the Red Sox makes 5 million a year. The lowest average in the MLB is 1.3 million, shelled out by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are currently being audited.

    David

  15. drdwheelerreed permalink
    May 25, 2010 8:10 pm

    Alexander: I love your point about sports being linked to patriotism. I’ve never understood why I’ve got to sing the National Anthem at a baseball games. So I don’t… under my breath I just say the Nicene Creed… though I’m not sure I recommend this, because people look at you in a rather funny manner…

    Once my wife and I were at a playoff game between the Bengals and the Steelers. Something terrible happened to a Bengal player, so my wife and I tried to hide the fact that we were Steeler’s fans. When one Bengal fan ratted us out I loudly proclaimed: “It’s okay people! We know who the real enemy is here… it’s Osama bin Laden.” Sadly, that saved me from getting my you know what kicked…

    But it does express your point… nationalism, beer, and sports are never a good combination…

    David

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