The Ludicrous Seriousness of Sports

I don’t watch professional sports, but made one brief exception last night to watch the third, and final, period in the NHL playoff game. I was wandering the streets of the town in which I live – it’s not very big – praying an evening Rosary, and stopped by the door of a house of a friend, where a number of other friends were watching the game. There was a sticky note near the handle, with a smiley face, scribbled on which was a friendly ‘Come on in!’. So, discerning God’s will in the message, I went in, perhaps providentially, for that hour, as lovely as the company was, reminded of why I don’t watch professional sports.

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m all for sports, and all for people making money. It’s just when the two go together – especially when there’s lots and lots of moola at stake – that the phrase becomes more oxymoronic, a contradiction and incompatibility.

I’ve wondered why this is the case, for I have felt it intuitively. Stacking wood this morning, it dawned on me, as I recalled the intense bearded – one might even say sullen – faces of the multi-millionaire players from last evening.

Sports is no longer fun. The players didn’t look like they were having fun. No longer leisure, but work. Not enjoyable, but an ascetic exercise, with gritted teeth and fierce mien. This is fine, if you don’t deep down really mean it. But money changes things, as it always does.

There is a reason why participants in the Olympics cannot be professionals, a rule more kept in the breach. Many of the athletes, at least the top ones, are well compensated for what they do, without being strictly ‘professional’. This is a long way from Jim Thorpe being denied his gold medals in the 1912 Olympics – pentathlon and decathlon – because he once played two seasons of semi-professional baseball.

The move from sports – at least, the Olympics – from amateur to professional is one of the sub-plots of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. The pro-sprinter, who wins after devoting his life to running a short distance very quickly, afterwards walks away sorrowful, like the rich young man in the Gospel. For after that, what else is there? Is life all about running, or chasing a plastic disc or ball around a stadium?

Nothing wrong with these activities; I’ve done them on and off myself many a time. But enjoyment and leisure, should be the order of the day, a break from real life, not real life itself. The Latin term for sports is ‘ludo‘, whence we derive the adjective ‘ludicrous’, literally, playful, a lifting of body and spirit, exhilarating and exuberant.

The over-weening seriousness dawned on me even more vividly when, towards the end of the desultory game, as the minutes ticked down, images were shown of the tuxedoed ‘keeper of the Stanley Cup’ polishing the treasured relic reverently with white-gloved hands. This, in an era when chalices which hold the blood of Christ are hauled around by all and sundry, with track pants and unwashed fingers. I have heard of people weeping and gnashing their teeth when their favorite team loses a regular game. Someone asked me how Conor McDavid and teammates will be welcomed back to Edmonton. I hope with open arms for giving it the good old college try, as ambivalent as I may be about it all. He will retire to his McMansion(s), one way or the other.

Which brings us to the final point: The subtle idolatry of sports, not unconnected with the monetary aspect, which has the danger of replacing religion as cohesive principle in the lives of players and spectators. Sundays are now devoted to hectic tournament schedules, not to Mass and the true re-creation of body and spirit. Our streets and squares are named after here-today-gone-tomorrow sports idols (or, perhaps worse, politicians). One thing we can say about la belle province, Quebec is filled with places sharing the names of true heroes, the saints, who won the only contest really worth winning, against the world, the flesh and the devil. And they did so, joyfully.

There are things of which to be serious, and things not. As the 2024 Parisian iteration of the venerable Olympics looms large, let’s put sports back in their proper place, and have fun while we’re at it.