As the NCAA meets in Indianapolis this week to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing collegiate athletics, it's a good time to contemplate the role of sports of in society. Not suprisingly, it's a question that goes back to Plato:
Sports are many things, and one of those things is an imitation of heroic culture. They mimic the martial world; they fabricate the condition of war. (Boxing doesn't fabricate war; it is war, and, to my mind, not a sport. As Joyce Carol Oates says, you play football, baseball, and basketball, but no one "plays" boxing.)
This fabrication is in many ways a good thing, necessary to the health of a society. For it seems to me that Plato is right: The desire for glory is part of almost everyone's spirit. Plato called this desire thymos and associated its ascendancy and celebration with Homer. A major objective of his great work, The Republic, is to show how for a civilization truly to thrive, it must find a way to make the drive for glory subordinate to reason.
Plato believed that war was sometimes necessary, but that going to war should be up to the rulers, the philosopher kings, who have developed their minds fully. Some of us, Plato says, have a hunger for martial renown that surpasses others', and those people are very valuable and very dangerous. They need praise when they fight well (material rewards don't mean much to them), and they need something to keep them occupied when no war is at hand. Sports are a way to do that.
Does sports build character? As it consumes so much time, attention and yes, money, it's important to consider this question not only for the players who play, but also for the supporters and the institutions who sponsor the spectacle. The players are indeed representing the universities and colleges whose emblems they wear and we would always do well to internalize this fact - to continually re-examine the question of what are we about and how our actions comport with that answer.
Image: University of Georgia