Friday, May 13, 2011

The Beauties of Athletics

I am frequently asked why athletics belongs in a university. I often explain the moral worth of athletics as an expression of human excellence of athletics. But I believe another justification exists and it accounts for one reason why athletics is watched and admired by so many persons. Athletics exhibits and embodies beauty.

As an academic and closet Platonist, I reflect on the beauty of athletics and sports with ancient Greek sensibilities. The discus thrower statue here on the blog distills that ideal. Great and even bad athletics can exhibit precision of form, line and function that brings pleasure to the eye and resonates harmony and admiration for many of us who watch and play sport. Different cultures might admire different aspects of the beauty of sport such as the Egyptian gymnasts here on the blog or the ancient Mayan stone etchings of beautiful athletes playing for the gods and the winners will be sacrificed as a gift to the gods.

Recently I was reminded that sports and athletic competition reveal another aspect of beauty that my emphasis upon the Greek ideal missed. I asked my class in Intercollegiate Leadership to identify the three most beautiful moments in individual sport and in team sports. The class met in groups to discuss this, and I assumed they would come up with Platonic moments fusing form and function, power and grace, like a perfectly executed double play (my candidate) or the serene power of a fully extended eight or a perfect jump shot. Not to be.

When the class started their presentations, I knew immediately I had lost control of it, and that my students were teaching me. One group spoke of the unity of feeling and commitment for a team when the team lost!! They talked about the beauty and memory of that feeling of total emotional support and feeling that they all shared.

Another group talked about the occurrence in 2008 year at an NCAA softball game. A senior at Western Oregon University hit her first ever home run ever and while rounding first base, he knee gave out. She collapses in pain and could not even crawl back to touch first base.  A senior member of the Central Michigan team came over and with a a fellow teammate lifted her up. Together they carried her around the bases making sure she touched each base and got credited with her home run. Central lost the game, but it did not matter.

Another group found the video of Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler's Aryan superiority Olympics. They spoke not of the power and grace of his wins, but of the courage and symbolism that a black male from America could disprove the Aryan racist theories before the world and on the home grounds of Nazism. Even the German spectators applauded the magnificence of Owen’s accomplishments.

I could go on, but my class taught me that the beauties of sport transcend my obsession with the Greek statue approach. The beauties lie deep in the moral community of commitment and shared joy and pain of a team dedicated to a goal. The beauties reside in the ability of athletic competition to evoke true sportsmanship in its players. They can compete fiercely, but respect the game and each other. Rather then cheat or demean each other, in the midst of the heat of competition, players can respect and recognize and support other's achievement, joy and pain. Finally the reminded me that the narrative power of sport and its symbolism create stories that become myth, that embody valor and value that lie at the core of the best of our humanity.

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