In my previous post my alien friend challenged the notion that sports are inherently valuable. My actual view is not quite as extreme as that of this unrelenting extraterrestrial (who enlightened me on many other subjects, I should add). I do believe that athletic competition has value in many respects, even if this value is always, or usually, instrumental in nature. In this post and several others to follow, I will count some of the ways that sports are valuable. In so doing, I will ground my reasons in biblical values. So my analysis will constitute a sort of Christian theology of sports.
1. Professional athletes provide clear examples of excellence. Whatever your own vocation might be, whether you’re a teacher, carpenter, dentist, social worker, accountant, or auto mechanic, you will only excel if properly inspired to a high level of performance. Professional athletes in particular inspire us to excel at whatever we do. For one thing, the fact that someone is a pro baseball, tennis, or basketball player tells us that he or she is one out of a million. Consider how even those baseball players that we criticize as among the worst in Major League Baseball are still in the top percentile compared to all baseball players in the world. And so it goes for all professional athletes. When we follow professional sports, we regularly expose ourselves to excellence, and this is all the more pronounced among the superstars, whose feats on the field or court often leave us shaking our heads in amazement.
In Philippians 4:8 the Apostle Paul tells us, “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” I take this to be a strong endorsement to appreciate many things in the world of sports, since there is so much excellence to be found there. Dwelling upon excellence of any kind is inspiring, motivating us also to aim high and require of ourselves similar self-mastery. Paul implicitly recommends this in 1 Corinthians 9 where he compares spiritual discipline to athletic competition. And elsewhere he recognizes the significance of sports at least as a powerful analogy for “training for godliness” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7). This point should not be lost on us Americans, who glibly declare “no pain, no gain” when it comes to becoming better physical specimens but balk at the idea of hard work in the spiritual life. Let’s admit it—prayer, Bible study, fasting, and the other disciplines of the faith are hard work. But the payoffs are great. Athletic competition provides a wonderful image of this truth, as Paul explains. If only for this reason, sports have value for the spiritually devout.
You said, “Professional athletes provide clear examples of excellence.” This seems reasonable even if we conclude that sports are instrumentally, not inherently, valuable. But what if we changed the statement so that it read, “Professional torturers provide clear examples of excellence,” or perhaps something else like, “Professional thieves . . .”? Professional torturers and thieves undoubtedly have mastered certain crafts (respectively) and therefore probably could be legitimately regarded as excellent practitioners of their respective crafts. But maybe we shouldn’t confuse mastery of a technique or skill with excellence.
Despite the morally questionable nature of these crafts—we can substitute other activities if these aren’t morally questionable enough—do you think we’re warranted in saying that the respective practitioners of them provide clear examples of excellence? Or do the unethical features of these activities nullify the excellence otherwise demonstrated? (Or, to put it another way, perhaps the disvalue of these activities defeat or balance off the value of the excellence otherwise exhibited?) This would seem to suggest that the activity itself influences whether excellence is present or absent, which, I suppose, could be taken to suggest that only inherently valuable or a-valuable activities can provide clear examples of excellence.
I wonder if there’s a way to preserve the alleged excellence of even morally questionable activities, such as by changing the above statement to read, “Professional torturers/thieves provide bad examples of excellence,” or, “Professional torturers/thieves provide clearly examples excellence which shouldn’t be appreciated.” This strategy seems to be unavailing, however, for how much value is exemplified or derivable from bad examples of excellence or from examples of excellence which shouldn’t be appreciated?
As you note, a thief or torturer can be skilled, but given the vices that essentially characterize such practices, they could never be construed as virtuous in any sense. So we need not worry about any moral confusion there. As for the clear examples of (non-moral) excellence they might provide, I agree with your suggestion that any potential moral benefit from this is nullified by the immorality of such actions. So when we talk about, say, the efficiency of the Nazi officers who ran Auschwitz, rather than providing any kind of moral inspiration, their skills are actually mocked by their wickedness. And I suppose this would be true in less dramatic instances that occur in all of our lives at some point—wherever one does something immoral in a skillful way.