Does the culture of competitive sports brainwash players by an idea of winning at all costs?

Does the culture of competitive sports mean young people are being brainwashed by an idea of winning at all costs?

With the recent close of the NCAA National Championships [a US college sports league] the American media has worked itself into a frenzy debating the issues surrounding the firing of Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice for being abusive towards his players. It’s one of the peculiar conditions of modern culture to entrust the education of young people to men and women who are trained in the art of scoring points on fields and courts, then become outraged when said person doesn’t do a very good job of it.

And so megabytes have been wasted on condemnations of Rice’s abusiveness as well as counterclaims that abusive coaching can be necessary and may even make some of those who endure it better people. What both the critics and apologists have singularly ignored is that sports are not about morals. They are not about character building or life lessons; or treating young people with respect and consideration; or developing them into well-adjusted human beings. They are about winning – at the cost of all other considerations if need be. Rice’s real sin wasn’t being abusive, it was that his particular brand of abusiveness didn’t produce a winning record.

One of the nastiest ideas at the heart of modern sporting culture is that the means always justify the ends. Abusive behaviour can be re-written as ‘determined belief’ if it leads to success on the playing field or court. That’s why many of the greatest athletes of our times seem to have had have parents who might stand accused of inadvertently limiting the moral and psychological development of their progeny by pushing them into incessant practicing from a young age.

For Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal and almost every gymnast that has ever lived, the ‘greatness’ they achieve requires such incredible amounts of sacrifice from such a young age that most children simply cannot be expected to do it without a very hefty push. This is also why many of the greatest athletes of the age are questionable human beings: Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, uh, Tiger Woods, again. These people are not trained to be kind or thoughtful, they are trained to win.

There are those that think that organised sports are more than this, or should be about more. I am one of these people, but in order to take the maniacal emphasis on winning out of modern sport, you would have to destroy their current incarnation and rebuild them from scratch. You would probably have to rebuild much of society too, because sports have always been about the subtle indoctrination of children in the dominant concerns of a culture.

What we think of as team sporting culture can be traced back to the English boarding schools like Eton in the late 19th Century. It was here that sports like football and rugby were encouraged to teach young men how to be competitive, patriotic, team oriented and aggressive. In other words, how to be better soldiers so that when the time came, they could march off to the front lines of some backwater colony and put down a rebellion with manly vim and gattling guns.

To this day, there is not one popular team sport anywhere in the world that is not a war game.

Or, as it turned out, march off to the front lines of Europe to die in two consecutive world wars. To this day, there is not one popular team sport anywhere in the world that is not a war game.  War games can potentially teach you many things, but all of them relate to winning wars. And all that stuff about being a good loser and having dignity in defeat? I believe that’s called rhetoric. When was the last time someone got a scholarship for being a good loser?

This is not secret information, it would take an hour of your time to read it in a sport history book or pick it up off the internet. Yet the pundits have either never bothered to find this out or choose not to acknowledge it because it points to an uncomfortable fact. This is that there is nothing inherently honorable about team sports and touting them a valuable institutions of socialisation and learning is utter bullshit.

Consider the case of the aforementioned Rice. Here is a guy who was, until last week, paid $750,000 a year to make kids – who are supposed to be students and are therefore not paid a cent – earn untold amounts of money for the administration that is ‘educating’ them. Basically, he is the overseer of a group of indentured servants. If any one of these servant/players is injured or cannot perform up to the level expected of them, they may be cut from the team and stripped of their scholarship with all the honour afforded a race horse who is about to take a ball-peen hammer to its head. Depending on the economic situation of their parents, this might mean they can no longer go to university and get the education they were supposed to be getting in the first place. Not that their education really matters to a system run with all the compassion and scruples of the average glue factory. Even if Rice were the nicest, gentlest person in the world, his job, by its very nature, would still be mind-bogglingly abusive. He might have insulted his players, but even an insult carries some acknowledgement that its object is a human being. Sports have no such requirements. An athlete is only the sum of their numbers: if they do not perform, they do not exist.

So what does this kind of system really teach the young humans who are caught up in it? To answer this, I draw on my own years of experience playing as a nationally ranked junior tennis player. I quit before I got to college because, among many reasons, I didn’t want to be beholden to a university who would exploit my skills to make their sports program look good, and I was part of the extremely lucky few in America who were able to afford an education without needing a scholarship.

Yet as a junior tennis player, I learned:

1) To never pity my opponent.

2) That winning was often a mind game in which demoralisation was the most powerful of tools.

3) That losing can be worse than death.

4) That the weaknesses of others should be exploited remorselessly.

5) That weakness in general is an unacceptable personal trait.

6) That insignificance is always just a loss away.

7) That ‘cheating’ is a very nuanced term.

8) That if you are standing atop the podium, whatever you did to get there is vindicated.

In other words, it was fantastic training for war, or, in another context, the bitter anarchy of the adult workforce, but less so for any of the higher ideals typically associated with human enlightenment and progress.

This is not necessarily a critique of sports in and of themselves. In fact, I would argue that their very atavism is what makes them fun and valuable as recreation in our modern age. This is, however, a blazing invective against the way that the global industrial sporting complex has made so many sports into giant, voracious machines that devour youthful bodies and publicly chew them up for the enjoyment of the braying masses, all the while singing anthems about nurturing young people and teaching them valuable life lessons.

Regardless of the shiny uniforms and polished public images of the athletes, we are still basically just spectators at the Roman coliseum. To write seriously about the abusiveness of a gladiator’s coach without addressing the abusiveness of the system that compels the gladiator to fight is the most loathsome and abhorrent type of moral myopia that it’s possible to perpetrate in print.