Sports and Fraternity: A Role For Sports in Our Trying Times
by Benjamin G. Rader
These are trying times. We learn from reading our daily newspapers, watching evening newscasts, or listening to talk shows that this is a time of division and strife. Whites and blacks are divided. Men and women. Young and old. Traditionalists oppose modernists. There are many other divisions in our society.
Today, we are a fearful people. We are afraid to speak to strangers; we are afraid to walk and talk on the streets of our own neighborhoods. Fear has diminished the quality of our lives.
And then there are the countless outsiders, those who feel that they do not belong and that their way of life is under assault. These mostly young men drift about aimlessly, living in mobile homes and cheap motel rooms. When seduced by the sirens of despair, these drifters endanger our lives and perhaps our society's very existence.
Let us contrast this image of division and strife with another. More than a decade ago, in 1979, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers met the heavily favored University of Oklahoma Sooners at Lincoln in their annual football rivalry for the Big Eight championship. Year after year, the Sooners had sent the Cornhuskers reeling to defeat, usually in the waning moments of the game. Few if any expected Nebraska to emerge victorious in 1979, but with only seconds remaining, a game saving tackle in the open field at the five yard line preserved a Nebraska victory, 17-14. At the conclusion of the game, I, along with nearly 76,000 other fans, arose and stood in stunned awe. Students poured out of the stands and onto the field. They climbed onto the metal goal posts and their combined weight finally twisted the tough metal and brought the posts crashing to the turf. Across the state, a state not known for its spectacular scenery, for great public buildings, or its distinguishable history, the citizens celebrated. Nothing in the state's history had so united its people.
The Nebraska victory suggests the possibility that sports may serve as a counterweight to the division and strife of our trying times. This is the theme that I intend to explore this morning. I propose to show how the sports-world, with its remarkable capacity to evoke wonder, mystery, and imagination, is a stunningly different kind of universe from that which we occupy in our day-to-day lives. The sports-world elicits sharply distinct experiences from those that we normally experience. I propose to show that participation in the sports-world possesses potentialities for binding our wounds, strengthening our sense of resolve, and restoring our communal bonds.
To understand this enormous potential for sports, let us look first at the importance of community, or, what in other words, may be described as brotherhood or sisterhood in religious terms, or fraternity in terms of the West's revolutionary heritage. So, let's trace that revolutionary heritage.
There were three great watchwords of the French Revolution. These were liberty, equality, and fraternity. This triad -- Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity -- embodied the fundamental principles of the 1789 revolution. By championing liberty, fraternity, and equality, the revolution heralded a new era in human history, an era that witnessed the collapse of ancient tyrannies and efforts to construct more humane societies.
Two of these principles -- liberty and equality -- were central to our own revolution -- the American revolution. Thomas Jefferson elegantly stated them in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," wrote Jefferson. In order to rally themselves on behalf of their revolution, Americans repeatedly called upon two of these principles -- the ideals of liberty and equality. And, in the end, Americans have enjoyed considerable success in building a society that places a high value on liberty and equality. Even as early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the perceptive French traveler to America, was astonished at the equality of Americans. By equality, he meant, of course, the equality of white, adult males. Women, blacks, and native Americans were emphatically excluded, but, unlike anywhere else in the world, ordinary white men -- through their representatives -- did govern. Unlike elsewhere, they actually held political power in the United States. Later on, African Americans and women enlisted the principles of liberty and equality on behalf of their own revolutions.
In short, America has embraced liberty and equality as fundamental to our way of life. But one of the three revolutionary axioms of the French Revolution was conspicuously missing in America. That principle was fraternity. Americans never explicitly made fraternity a part of their revolution, nor their vision of the good society. Neither Jefferson, nor the authors of the Federalist Papers mentioned fraternity.
When we think of fraternity, our first thought is probably of a Greek letter society on campus, and indeed, this does give us some idea of the meanings of the concept. But by fraternity, the French meant far more than a group of young males sharing common values and bent on a good time. Fraternity implied community, a sense of belonging to a larger group, of sharing common experiences for both women and men, a feeling that unites all citizens of the republic. The French understood the importance of fraternity, of belonging, of being an insider rather than an outsider. They knew well the pain, the emptiness, the anguish, the loneliness, and sometimes the despair of being an outsider. On the other hand, in a fraternal society, all belong; all are insiders. None feel ostracized, none feel alone, and none suffer the misery and agony of not belonging. A fraternal society promotes a primitive solidarity, perhaps similar to that of our distant ancestors who roamed in groups on the African Savannah.
While Americans failed to elevate fraternity as a value equal to liberty and equality, several founders of the republic recognized the importance of fraternity. They knew that unity in the new nation would be difficult to achieve. Unlike Europe, America had no hereditary aristocracy, no state established church, no rich set of traditions that could serve as pillars of order and community. In principle, they rejected both hierarchy and patriarchy as social ties. How were Americans to encourage a sense of belonging, solidarity, and fraternity? Even John Adams, in general temperament a spartan New Englander, recognized that rich, shared experiences -- those that spawned excitement, emotions, mystique, and wonder -- could promote fraternity. In a letter to his wife, Abigail on July 3, 1776, he wrote that American independence "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."
Unfortunately, Americans failed to take up Adams's recommendations. Indeed, Americans have tended to associate pomp and ceremony, and sports and games with the aristocratic and decadent societies of Europe. They associated pomp and parade with the past rather than the future. Thus, we only reluctantly and with excruciating caution adopted symbols, rituals, and festivals of national purpose. For example, the Fourth of July was not regularly celebrated until the 1830s, and even today does not elicit the same fraternal feelings that Bastille Day does in France. A uniform national flag was not adopted until 1912, more than a century after the revolution, and the nation did not approve the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem until 1931.
Instead of a rich tradition of pomp, pageantry, and ceremony associated with older, more traditional societies, Americans have looked to the present and the future. We have often sought to escape from the past. This meant rejecting the mysterious, the irrational, the emotional, the festive, and the carnivalesque. In our enthusiasm for conquering the continent and getting ahead materially, we have neglected one of the profound yearnings of the human specie -- the craving for fraternity, mystery, and fantasy. We have cut ourselves off, or even denied our more primitive instincts for community solidarity.
The costs arising from the absence of fraternity have been great. The lack of a sense of belonging helps to explain our trying times. The vague feeling of being an outsider helps to explain America's loss of confidence in recent times, the disappearance of positive heroes, the decline in confidence in the professions, and our growing hostility toward government. In short, the absence of fraternity helps to explain the division and strife of our times.
What resources do we have to counter the division and strife of our trying times? Historically in America, there have been opposing forces -- fortunately, forces that encouraged fraternity. We have a set of national icons -- our marvelous capital city, our great civic buildings, our flag, and our national anthem. Religion and education have sometimes been a force for fraternity as well, but they have also sometimes been a source of conflict. That Americans today thirst for fraternity or community -- sometimes unconsciously -- can be seen in the current popularity of downtown renewal projects, revivals of old neighborhoods, and an interest in genealogy and in local history. We now even have a cable television channel devoted to history.
But the opposing force to modernity, a powerful force that potentially promotes fraternity that I want to focus on today, is sports. One of the fundamental reasons sports have flourished in the United States as well as in the other industrial nations, I would like to suggest, is because sports appeal to pre-modern impulses for fraternal solidarity. Sports have the potential power to grip our psyches as do few other of our experiences. The response of Nebraskans to the victory over Oklahoma in 1979 illustrates this great power. It is this enormous power to engage our deepest feelings that so distinguishes sports from other aspects of our time.
How does sport do this? First, sport helps to satisfy the human yearnings for shared artistic expression. The various sports embody such common artistic standards as universality, grace, beauty, and symmetry. Indeed, one of the most important virtues of sports has been their relative resistance -- as compared with the modern fine arts -- to the erosion of standards. Excellence in sports, unlike many forms of modern art, is widely understood and appreciated. Years of childhood training prepares millions for appreciating the artistry of sports.
Sports also suggest how fundamental conflicts may be contained and reconciled. Sports vividly exemplify how such opposing impulses as the individual versus the community, play versus work, and self-control versus indulgence can be checked and harmonized. Players should strive to win, but not at all costs. Winning should be subordinated to the rules of the game. For many Americans, sports convey a more powerfully articulated set of values than religious doctrines, family maxims, or the laws of the state.
Sports also promote an impulse that, on the face of it, runs contrary to fraternity. They reward true merit. Unlike the marketplace, where victories may result from personal connections, or from chicanery and guile, competition in sports exists under ideal circumstances. The ability to hit a curve ball, to break tackles, and to sink jumpers from the circle is rewarded regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. Achievement is unambiguous. It can even sometimes be measured precisely by home runs, yards gained, victories, and knockouts. The subjectivity of the boss is far less important in the annual evaluation of one's performance in sport than it is in other occupations.
Being true meritocracy, sports are especially well-suited to produce heroes. We need those who have performed the extraordinary feat, those who have transcended the capabilities of ordinary humans. How did the old man of the sea, a Hemingway protagonist, inspire himself to land the big fish? "I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel," said Santiago to himself. In order to have the will to act, even to live, we need heroes. Shared heroes promote fraternity.
Miss Jane Pittman, a fictional heroine in a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, explained why Jackie Robinson was a hero to African Americans. "When times get really hard, really tough, He [God] always sends you somebody," she said. "In the Depression it was tough on everybody, but twice as hard on the colored, and he sent us Joe [Louis] . . . after the war, He sent us Jackie." The breaching of baseball's "color ban" by Jackie Robinson in 1946 not only inspired countless blacks to carry on in the face of the degrading daily insults of racial segregation, but it revealed how sport could embody the revolutionary principle of equality. Baseball's integration suggested that if whites and blacks could play baseball together, then why couldn't they attend school together, share the workplace, live in the same neighborhoods, and marry one another? Why couldn't sports promote fraternity among all races?
At bottom, however, it is not sports as an art form; it is not the capacity to show how opposing impulses may be reconciled; it is not the power to produce heroes that makes sports so important as an agency of fraternity. It is unique power of sports to seize and hold our psyches that explains why they have such a large potential for nurturing fraternity or community. Why is this so?
Sport is an authentic drama. It is real, not fake, drama. It is not the drama of the stage, the cinema, nor of the circus. The outcome is unpredictable. There are real winners and losers, the players actually feel pain and elation. The nine-year-old Little Leaguer knows that the baseball about to be delivered by the towering twelve-year-old is hard and can hurt. The courage of a gimpy-kneed quarterback is genuine, not that of a Sylvester Stallone pounding movie extras into oblivion in the jungles of southeast Asia. The drama on the field of play is closer to that of the battlefield than that of the stage. As authentic drama, then, sport enjoys an enormous power to grip both our unconscious selves, and our conscious selves.
Few forms of experience equal the intensity of sports. Like such classic forms of release as sex, drugs, or drink, sports can transport fans and players alike into another realm of consciousness. Unlike alcohol or narcotics, however, the game achieves this state by intensifying and concentrating awareness, and normally, sports does this without harmful side effects, withdrawal pains, or perhaps permanent emotional upheavals.
The state of consciousness induced by sports is so intense that nothing can intrude upon it. The boy shooting baskets on the playground imagining himself to be Michael Jordan forgets about his fights with his sister and the homework awaiting him on the kitchen table. The tiny pre-adolescent girl walloping a wide-angle tennis ground stroke across court while imagining herself as Monica Seles forgets her mother's anger about her messy room and her fights with her big brother. When we play, time stands still. Game time replaces clock time.
The experience of sports stands in sharp contrast to that of our daily lives. Ideally, it shares little or nothing with the abstract experiences that we encounter in reading insurance contracts, wrestling with 1040 income tax forms, mastering quadratic equations, memorizing the kings and queens of England, or writing home for more money. The experience of sports pushes bureaucracies, systems, numbers, science, and the abstractions of modern life to the background. The sporting experience restores the wonder and exuberance of childhood. Bill Bradley, Rhodes Scholar, star player for the New York Knicks, and U.S. Senator, explained that on the basketball court there were times when, "I feel the power of imagination and the sense of mystery and wonder I accepted in childhood before my life hardened."
The intensity of the sporting experience can bind us together. Even professional baseball teams in the past strengthened the sense of community. Before the Dodgers departed from Brooklyn, the Bums gave the residents of that New York borough a distinct identity. To this day, Brooklyn has never recovered. It is said that high school football teams in Texas tie local peoples to their community like nothing else short of a natural disaster can do. Early in this century, Notre Dame football teams became a great rallying point for the nation's Roman Catholic population, a group under assault by extremist Protestants represented by the revived Ku Klux Klan. World War I and II made those who wore khakis Army-rooters, and those who wore bell-bottoms became Navy fans.
The last stanza of Ernest L. Thayer's classic poem, "Casey at the Bat," expresses the emotional power of sports to weld a diverse people into one:
"Oh! somewhere in this favored land
the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere,
and somewhere children's hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing,
and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville --
Mighty Casey has Struck Out."
After the mighty Casey had struck out, Mudville no longer had room for joy, laughter, shouting children, brass bands, or bright sunshine. A pall hung over the village. But even in gloom, there was fraternal feeling and, then there was always the next season. Next season, Mudville would once again have the opportunity to experience the magic and the mystery of sports.
Ideally, then, sports provide us with powerful common experiences and conveys some of our culture's most cherished values and beliefs. It is a priceless art form. It is a true meritocracy, a counter-world to modernity. It rewards individuals on the bases of true merit. It reveals the possibilities of reconciling individualism and community. It provides us with heroes. But more important than any of these potential values, the most significant of all, is sports' contribution to fraternity.
The power of sports to promote fraternity and community is the theme of this talk. What I have said here represents some of the potentialities for sport as an agency promoting fraternity. Reality may, too often, be another matter. We must ask ourselves, how well do modern sports function as a counter-world of fantasy and primitive solidarity? To what degree can we experience sports as something decidedly different from the humdrum of our daily lives? Do modern sports in fact tie us together? Do they run counter to today's world of rationality and individualism? How effective are they in preserving what is good and positive about the pre-modern world? These are some of the subjects that will be addressed in this symposium.
And here we may be brought up short, I fear. Even a superficial examination of sports today quickly leaves us with the impression that our modern sports world looks too much like other features of modern life. Even the most dedicated fan senses something is sad and patently absurd when our sports pages are filled with more news of the boardroom, the bar room, and the bedroom than with the feats of the athletes on the playing field. Our games are suffused, too often, with the hardened calculations of adults rather than the impulsive enthusiasm of children. Heroes have often been transformed into celebrities -- here today and gone tomorrow -- the instant creations of the media. Both in our daily lives, and in the sports world, primitive solidarity has too frequently given way to personal aggrandizement.
For sports to serve our society well, I conclude, we must seek to sever it from the forces of modern life. We must try to preserve sports as a counter-world, as a world that is in the main opposed to the experiences of our day-to-day lives. Instead of the humdrum world of our daily lives, sports should be a world in which mystery, wonder, the unexpected, the carnivalesque, the bizarre, and genuine drama still reside. Only then can sports counter the powerful forces of division and strife. Only then can sports promote fraternity -- the missing principle in our revolutionary heritage.