June, 2000

Long live sport! These are the words of a commercial, words that stir my blood and boil it at the same time. Sport was my first love, my friend, my mentor. The gym was my second home. Sport taught me the love of teamwork and the love of teammates. It taught me focus and perseverance. It taught me how to win well and lose well. Sport taught me how to be with other boys, then other men, in a kind of intimacy that felt good and safe. Sport taught me an important way to be in the community of men and to be confident enough to do important work.

My blood boils when I see my first love, today, and she looks and acts little like I remember her.  My blood boils when I hear that winning is the only thing. I'm mad when I see this in-your-face modeling of supposedly good sport, or when I see violence masquerading as winning strategy. I cringe when I see older men idolizing young boys with million dollar salaries.

There is a definite need for sport in our culture, especially for boys. In many ways sport helps the father do his job of focusing and harnessing the testosterone driven impulses of the growing boy. Sport teaches impulse control and delayed gratification. One of the father's jobs involves being an alternate ego for a boy to shore up the boy's developing and undisciplined one. He is there to help his son to build a sense of a competent self through teaching disciplined behavior. He is there to ultimately make a man, and recognize a man.

Sport also teaches a man a male form of intimacy that is congruent with his predisposition and his seemingly hardwired talents. The intimacy of the team, of working together for a higher cause, of being pushed relentlessly by allies to unimagined accomplishments is the stuff of male intimacy. This is the elation of the hunt revisited, the win that feeds the village. This is the elation of a job well done, a job that ultimately serves the community.

Maybe winning is paramount, today, because modern competition precludes much in the way of friendship among men. There must be something for modern man to replace the loss of male intimacy. Winning may be that thing. Because a major piece of what makes a life worthwhile for a man has been eliminated by a marketplace mentality. Men are stuck with the hollow pride of besting other men instead of befriending them.

Competition has not always been like this. Michael Meade points out that the Greeks thought that competition was a common (com) petition to the gods to bring out the best in each contestant. Competition was really a form of bonding for men. It was a vehicle for self fulfillment, yet not at the expense of others.

Michael Gurian says that "Nurtured competition is crucial to male development and self-image." Nurtured competition means guided competition, by wise fathers and elders. Nurtured competition involves older men holding to the innate values of competition and not letting boys drift into athletic narcissism. Older men not only show boys that focus, impulse control, and delayed gratification are important for success and self-esteem, but also keep reminding them that their talents are given them for a purpose higher than their bank accounts.

Today, instead of older men guiding younger men in terms of competition and the values underlying success, we have younger men defining success for older men. Instead of older men teaching a kind of aggression-nurturance that Michael Gurian talks of, a nurturance that leads to male bonding, we have the sport of marketplace competition that leads to male isolation. This is why my blood boils when I hear of modern sport.

Sport has been seduced by our culture. It has been seduced by the marketplace. Winning has become a job. Some would say that modern sport prepares a man for the dog eat dog atmosphere of the modern marketplace, where winning is so important. Yet, do we want a society based solely on the ethos of the marketplace? 

Sport used to point to something more, to values and goals beyond the marketplace, beyond mere winning. Sport spoke to a spirit in men and women that sacrificed individual marketplace success for other joys and more important aspirations. When winning is the only thing, we all lose. We lose something in the soul.

When I think of the joy I have felt over the years upon completing that fast break because my teammate and friend fed me a perfect pass, I realize that I am still in love. I haven't given up on sport, or on men as friends and teammates. To be sure, when I am successful, I must continue to fight a regressive impulse to tell myself secretly, as the commercial says, "I'm better than you are." Yet, sport is in my blood. I am stirred to protect the best it has to offer.