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Sports and the Need for Heroism

Sports and the Need for Heroism

I’ll be the first to acknowledge the corruption that has entered into modern sports, especially at the professional level. We witness overpaid athletes, self-aggrandizement, the cult of the body, political agendas, and obsession with money and the ephemeral admiration of the masses that passes like a firework: a blaze of glory and then darkness.

The fact that most young Americans dress like they are athletes (whether they are or not) demonstrates the excessively high regard we have for athletes and bodily achievement. I am reminded of the Greeks and Trojans in The Iliad who held the body in such high admiration that warriors threw themselves into danger just to recover the physical remains of a fallen comrade. The body was arguably more important to them than the soul, which, in their vision of the afterlife, becomes a mere shadow of the person who lived on earth. There is something disordered about all this.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t find value in athletic endeavors when kept in their proper place. I would go even further: I believe that sports provide something critical for society, particularly for the males of society. At the very least, they reveal an innate need.

I’ve been a fan of basketball since I was a kid. We didn’t have TV when I was growing up, but my dad and I used to watch NBA games on the internet when we could unearth them from its obscure corners. We were long-suffering fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team whose days of glory blazed briefly when I was too young to know about it and promptly dried up when I started watching. They’ve been notoriously bad for twenty years. Until this year.

For the first time in a generation, the Timberwolves had a shot at winning an NBA championship. They’d made it to the Western Conference finals, one step away from the championship series, though they’d been badly battered by the Dallas Mavericks. And while they’ve now been eliminated from the playoffs, just their presence so deep in the post-season was a victory after so many years of failures, mockery, and dismissal.

So why should you care? I’m not sure. I’m not sure why I care, though I have a hunch. Of course, I don’t know any of these men personally. I know that some of these men probably lead questionable lives off the court, that their league is a financially bloated and politically warped organization, that so much of the world surrounding the game is flat and phony. I know that winning a basketball title is a very small matter in the overall scope of history, the fate of nations, the swell and fall of truth in the world, and, most importantly, the fate of individual souls.

So, what’s the attraction for me and millions like me? I think the answer has to do with a societal need for heroism and the possibility of achieving difficult victories—a need that sports, however inadequately, tries to fill.

These reflections are the fruit of a conversation with my father after Game 7 of the Timberwolves vs. Nuggets series. I beg the indulgence of non-basketball fans as I lay out a little more context.

The Denver Nuggets are the reigning champions of the NBA and, by extension, of the world. The best-of-seven-games series between them and the Timberwolves was hard-fought, each team delivering blows to the other, back and forth, leading all the way to a deciding Game 7 on Denver’s home court.

In that game, the Timberwolves struggled to gain momentum in the first half, looking tentative, even fearful. The beginning of the second half was no better, and in the third quarter, the Nuggets held a 20-point lead (which is sizable in basketball). Yet, somehow, the Timberwolves didn’t give up. They clawed their way back into the game, inch by inch, clutch play by clutch play, refusing to surrender. The intensity of their effort is burned into my mind by the image of the point guard, Mike Conley, on the floor after chasing down a loose ball, yelling with frustration, veins bulging on his sweat-flecked neck, after he was unable to keep possession of the ball. He was giving it everything he had, as were all his teammates, and their efforts paid off. They took the lead late in the game and held on to defeat the reigning champions in one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history. Each player contributed at key moments to propel the team to an unforgettable win.

The Timberwolves’ performance was nothing short of heroic. It sunk into my mind so deeply that I thought about it for a long time afterward. I asked my father, who had had a similar reaction, why the game affected us in that way. It is, after all, just a game.

“Heroism,” he replied. “We have a need for heroism. And these guys—whatever their lives look like apart from this—acted heroically on the court.”

“Yes,” I said. “And I think we need to see impossible victories sometimes. We see so many defeats in our lives, in the world. It’s good to be reminded that victory is possible, even when all the odds are against you.”

It’s not that the game itself matters. It’s that there’s a kind of beauty in seeing a group of men come together, relying on each other, giving all their strength for a common cause, and refusing to lose what appears to be a losing battle.

Admittedly, this is a low level of heroism. I am fully aware that it’s just a game, and oftentimes players take it far too seriously, spending the best of themselves on something undeserving of their efforts. And the fact that we seek out this kind of heroism in something as trivial as sports implies its absence elsewhere in our society.

Properly speaking, sports and sports heroics ought not to be an end in themselves (apart from recreation), but rather they ought to be a preparation for the accomplishment of great deeds in the real world. This is one reason sports benefit boys so much; the lessons in humility, perseverance, discipline, and teamwork learned on the court or the field serve to train boys for their future work as men, where those same virtues will be needed when it really counts: in the raising of families, developing careers, struggling in the political arena, fighting against social evils, and, perhaps, defending the homeland.

This last point brings up a historical observation. Past civilizations—from Greek hoplites to Roman legionaries to Native American tribesmen—often drew a less distinct line between citizen and soldier than we do today. In many cases, if you were a man, you were also a soldier, simply by default. Should the tribe or city-state come under attack, you would, of course, bear arms because no standing army existed. Thus, men’s natural need to compete, prove themselves, and accomplish heroics was more than met by the challenges of warfare. Your team members were not only your compatriots on the battlefield but your neighbors as well. I imagine that such citizen-soldiers naturally felt a strong sense of rootedness, loyalty, and belonging.

Warfare today is completely different. It is the province of “professionals” and “experts.” The average man will never see combat. And that may be one reason he seeks an outlet for deep-rooted natural inclinations for competition, aggression, camaraderie, loyalty, and heroism in sports. Are sports the proper fulfillment of his manhood? Certainly not. But I think, at their best, sports serve as a training ground for how to fight the larger battles of life.

Perhaps our society would be less sports-obsessed if we had something bigger to look to for filling that void: a stronger sense of community and shared purpose and a realization that combat can mean far more than either basketball or bullets. Every man can see life itself as a battle, a battle between good and evil and truth and error, one where heroism and camaraderie are needed more than ever.

Image credit: Unsplash

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Walker Larson
Walker Larson
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    Mark Tapson
    June 9, 2024, 12:33 am

    Good one, Walker, as always. And yes, heroism and camaraderie are needed more than ever. Thanks for getting that message out.

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