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Sport As a Calling and the Role of America’s Professional Sports Teams

The Athlete’s View - Summer 1998

Joel Kirsch, Ph.D.
American Sports Institute

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on professional sports teams in America. This first part is on the current positioning of professional teams. The second part, which will appear in the fall issue of The Athletes View, will be on how professional sports teams can become as important to a community as its educational, religious, and health care institutions.

America is considered to be a sports-crazed nation. Author Joyce Carol Oates refers to sport as America’s religion.

For a country that is known around the world for its many freedoms, why do so many Americans freely choose to attend in person or watch on television professional sporting events? What is it about professional sports that calls to us?

Sport is a discipline that engages its participants fully—physically, mentally, spiritually. Further, in order to make it and stay in professional sports, the athletes must continuously work at honing their skills. If they slack off in their efforts, there are always others there, ready to take their places. So being a professional athlete includes, among other things, continuously striving for excellence in a balanced and integrated physical, mental, spiritual way.

This concept was known to the ancient Greeks as areté (‘are-uh-tay). During the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., those who lived the areté way were the most revered because they were believed to be fulfilled by their integrated and balanced body/mind/spirit lifestyle. This included the athletes, more so than the politicians, physicians, poets, etc., because the athletes’ lifestyle included physical as well as mental and spiritual discipline. What about philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? They, too, were athletes. All three were accomplished wrestlers.

Despite the fact that a minute fraction of one percent of us will ever be professional athletes, the great majority of Americans who have participated in sports at whatever levels know something very profound that the pros know today and the ancient Greeks knew centuries ago. Participating in sports engages us totally. Participating in sports fulfills us. Participating in sports is bliss. Participating in sports is joy. Participating in sports is a calling.

Current television baseball analyst and former San Francisco Giants catcher Bob Brenly once said, "You can talk about money, about notoriety, but the reason 99 percent of us play pro ball is for the feeling you get at the end of a game, like that, a feeling that . . . I don’t know. You couldn’t pay enough money for that feeling."

When we wholeheartedly participate in sports, we are fully alive. When we are hitting a ball, completing a pass, or sinking a shot, we are connected. When we are running miles at a time, gliding down a snow-covered mountain slope, or cycling great distances, we are flowing. When we are turning in the air, hovering over a crossbar, or poised above a net, we are floating. Through sport, we connect, we flow, we float. We are alive.

The reason we watch the pros is because they connect, they flow, they float like no one else can. We, too, can do these things, just not as well. But we know what the pros know. The professional athletes show us what the species is capable of doing. They take us to levels most of us have a sense of but, for whatever reasons, cannot manifest.

Professional athletes play for professional sports teams. How then do the professional teams position themselves in their respective communities and in America, in general? Do these teams focus on being fully alive? Do they emphasize connecting? Do they promote flowing? Do they pay tribute to floating? Do they espouse an areté way of life throughout the entire organization?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. What the athletes know and feel, what we who have participated in sports know and feel, is not what American professional sports teams are about. Without passing judgement on them, currently, professional teams are about winning, losing, and money. This is their focus. This is what they emphasize. This is their way of being.

Even though change is often difficult, what would happen if professional teams changed their focus? What would happen if they still did everything they could to try and win but connecting, flowing, floating, an areté way of being, and similar elements were all a part of the teams’ player development, working operations, media relations, and connection with their communities? What if these elements became the operating style or way of being of the teams?

If they chose to operate this way, professional sports teams could become as important, as integral to their communities and the nation as our educational, religious, and health care institutions; and this could be done without spending large sums of money.

The questions then become: Can the teams do this and stay in business? Just how risky would this type of venture be? Would the teams even want to do this?

To borrow a well-known expression, If they do this, the people will come. If the professional teams can create for their fans a sense of connectedness, flow, float, and set the highest standards for an areté way of operating, the fans will come, more so than ever before. They will come, win or lose, for the experience of being totally alive. And they will come because of areté.

If the teams can create this type of experience by changing their way of being, the fans will come because, as one former major league player said, "You couldn’t pay enough money for that feeling."

But how do the teams make this change? What do they have to do to create this experience for their fans and become as important, as integral to their communities and the nation as our educational, religious, and health care institutions?

A Vision for America’s Professional Sports Teams—As Important as Our Educational, Religious, and Health Care Institutions

The Athlete’s View - Fall 1998

Joel Kirsch, Ph.D.
American Sports Institute

Second of two parts.

The value of a professional sports team to its community raises debate in every major city.

There are those who say that a community with a professional sports team enjoys great economic and public relations benefits.

In the opposing camp, people believe that a community would be much better served investing its time and resources in social programs that address more important matters, such as education, health care, housing, and community character.

No matter which side of the debate people take sides with, one thing is certain: No one would argue that professional sports teams are as important to a community as its educational, religious, and health care institutions. Yet, this could be the case.

What, then, are some of the things that professional sports teams could do to change their way of being, to change how they operate, in order to position themselves in their communities so that citizens would value them as much as they do their educational, religious, and health care institutions?

Starting Rallies and Democracy — Players for professional sports teams often talk about how they are inspired when the fans in the stands rally behind them. The players often refer to these fans as the extra player—the tenth player in baseball, the sixth player in basketball, the twelfth player in football. Professional sports teams could readily use the energy and enthusiasm of these fans to promote democracy as well as win games.

Teams could have campaigns where its players are quoted in the media on how they are inspired to do well by the fans when the fans participate by cheering before the players start a rally. There could be public dialogue sessions between the fans and players about how this happens.

Then, when the fans provide the impetus for a rally in a future game, they would feel that they’ve participated in an integral way to help produce the rally. The players could turn and point to the fans, acknowledging their role in the rally. The fans would go crazy. The energy created would permeate everyone and everything. There would be a synergistic effect between the fans and players.

The teams could promote this process as something that not only inspires the players to victory but as a way to promote democracy in several ways. The team could encourage parents who take their children to these games to talk to their kids afterward about the experience. The parents would explain that if many individuals support a cause and make something happen, collectively, each and every person’s participation is crucial.

During the voting season, the players could continue to talk about how their fans inspire them and do public service announcements, encouraging the fans to vote, and how this, too, inspires the players.

Math: A Sport Natural — Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, averaging, estimating are all math-related processes that are a big part of sport. Thus, sport can be a natural math environment for kids.

If they chose to do so, professional teams could hand out at each game single sheets of paper that would enable fans—kids and adults alike—to do all sorts of math-related activities.

Baseball teams could have sheets where fans could have the current batting averages of several or all of the starting players listed with room to compute the averages after each at bat. Then, when the player came to bat the next time, the batting average would be posted on the scoreboard so everyone could check their work.

Football teams could do the same regarding the completion percentages of the quarterbacks for both teams. Basketball teams could do this with field goal and free throw percentages.

Health and Fitness for All — Teams know the devastating affects of injuries to their players. Players know they have to be healthy and fit to perform at the professional level. Health advocates know the physical, emotional, and financial benefits of everyone being healthy and fit.

Team trainers and physicians could host a weekly, radio call-in show in which the training, rehabilitation, and nutritional practices of the players are discussed. Players could also be on the show, talking about their specific fitness regimens. In addition, listeners could call in to ask questions that deal with their personal health and fitness issues.

Certainly, people would feel special, knowing they were receiving health and fitness information from the trainers and physicians of their favorite team. And kids would be more readily open to appreciating the value of health and fitness.

Taking A Stand Against Violence — We all know too well how violence is an everyday occurrence in America. The recent tragic shootings in schools across America, the ways in which younger and younger children are harming one another, and the road rage of so many adults is sending a clear message that something is amiss.

Is violence currently a part of sport in America. Absolutely. Does it have to be this way? Absolutely not.

Major League Baseball teams could play a major role regarding violence in sport and violence in America by having their pitchers sign pledges that they live by that they will never, ever intentionally throw at a batter. In addition, the hitters could sign pledges that they live by that they will never charge a pitcher if hit by a pitch or believe a pitcher intentionally threw at them.

The impact of these pledges would certainly reduce violence in baseball and could lead to discussions and editorials on violence in America and ways to reduce it. As the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s acclaimed Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) has shown, violence is a pattern of behavior that is learned, and is something that can be unlearned.

Ritual and Ceremony: Being in Sync — There are a number of rituals and ceremonies at sporting events. The standing and playing of the national anthem before the games, the seventh-inning stretch in baseball, the meeting of the team leaders for the coin toss to start a football game, to name a few.

The idea here, as with America’s religious and judicial institutions, is that rituals and ceremonies provide a sense of meaning and purpose to the events with which they are associated. In an age when so many of the events in people’s lives and so many things in the media are being questioned as to whether or not they fulfill us, whether or not they provide a sense of purpose and meaning, these rituals and ceremonies give us purpose and meaning.

Professional sports teams could include other forms of rituals and ceremonies before and during games to bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning to their athletic events.

For example, a clap-in is done in some martial arts training classes to signify the start of the classes and to demonstrate respect for the art and those who have come to train. Professional sports teams could select one fan per game to join a player on the field, court, or ice just before the start of a game to lead a clap-in for all the players and fans.

Here, just after the national anthem, with everyone still standing, the player and selected fan would position themselves side by side, facing the fans. The players on the home team would also face the fans. Everyone would then fully extend their arms straight ahead with palms together. Then, on the count of three, with the designated player and fan leading the activity, everyone at the event would clap twice in rapid succession and in unison.

The clap-in would provide purpose and meaning in the sense that everyone would do this together, as one team, as one community. The same effect is created when people all rise together for and participate in unison in rituals and ceremonies in our courthouses and in our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

In addition, the context for the clap-in would be established to represent not only the start of the athletic event, but also a demonstration of respect for the art of sport and respect for all those who have come to play and come to watch.

An important factor in all this is how a team’s players would feel. Players who feel good about a team and the community that supports them are motivated players who are willing to put out the extra effort it takes to win a championship. Also, these players might take less money than other teams’ offers to stay in that community when it’s time to negotiate contracts.

What about attendance? If the teams do this, will they—the fans—come? The answer to this rests with other simple questions:

Would parents be more or less likely to take their kids to a game if they knew there would also be something educational, something more than dot racing? Would people want to join their friends at a game, knowing they might make a difference in its outcome?

Professional sports teams are not here to supplant the missions of our educational, religious, and health care institutions. However, teams could redefine their role in their communities by helping to promote and support learning, health and fitness, and spirituality as they strive to win championships.

In the end, with these kinds of changes in a team’s way of being, it wouldn’t be just the team’s fans who would extol the virtues of having a professional sports franchise in their community. The regular fans would be joined by the educators, health care advocates, and the spiritual leaders of that community who would wholeheartedly stand by and be counted among the team’s most enthusiastic supporters.

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