Almost nothing is more common in sports than to hear a sportscaster going on about how some athlete is a fine young man or young woman. How they work hard, sacrificed for their sport, are respected by their teammates, and volunteer with children. We enjoy the thrill of athletic competition and rejoice in a game well played or a move perfectly executed, and it is natural that we hope these athletes are as excellent off the field as on.
We want heroes like Eric Lidell of “Chariots of Fire” fame, who overcame insurmountable odds in athletics and live heroic lives of sacrifice as well. But as we regularly witness in college and professional sports, and, recently, the Olympics these fine, young athletes are too often, unfortunately, not fine young men and women.
We have almost come to expect this from professional, and increasingly, college sports, but somehow the Olympics maintained its luster. Yet as the Winter Olympics came to an end on Sunday, more stories about lewd and vulgar behavior continue to emerge. From reports of supplying Olympic Village with over 100,000 condoms to racy photographs and admissions of wild nights and pornographic addiction, one lesson seems apparent: Don’t let your babies grow up to be Olympians.
Sports are often said to build character. They can and do. They teach hard work, patience, self-denial, and teamwork. But, especially in a sports-obsessed culture like ours, they also have the tendency to breed narcissism. Athletes become privileged entertainers who have been coddled and told they are special from the moment they showed prowess. They are adored, their misdeeds overlooked. It starts small, but those misdeeds can become a way of life as much as the sports themselves.
We want our sports stars to be role models, but instead they are increasingly purveyors of cultural decadence, selfishness, and a distraction from the serious moral challenges of living a life of real virtue and heroism. When Charles Barkley declared that he was not a role model, he was right. In his inimitable way, he was trying to tell us something: Find your real heroes elsewhere.
Yes, to become a professional or Olympic athlete requires great dedication and sacrifice, but it doesn’t really matter much unless those traits transfer into other areas of life. Instead, sacrifice and self-denial seem to be limited to one’s own search for glory.
The moral crisis that pervades sports is part of a larger social breakdown that is compounded by a culture that is afraid to speak about truth and virtue—much less moral evil and sin. Moral relativism has become the norm and freedom means doing what you want instead of submitting to some higher standard (at least outside of the sports arena). Authentic pursuit of virtue has been replaced by mere volunteerism and fashionable political activism, and the idea that young men and women should strive for moral excellence and self-control is viewed cynically. The 100,000 condoms for Olympians are emblematic of the message given to young people in a myriad of ways: They are expected to act like animals, unable to control themselves. But they are not animals—they can control themselves, and many do.
This may sound like a curmudgeonly grumbling about young people just having fun. I wish it were so. It would be less of a problem if entertainers—whether Olympic athletes or actors and rock stars—did not play such a central role in shaping our culture. Our post-industrialist, highly technological culture is dominated by entertainment. But the entertainers are barbarians within the gates, and their behavior is emulated by young, adoring fans who see that moral virtue and steady character are not requisite for athletic and social success.
This has long term consequences for our freedom. George Washington warned that a free society required a virtuous people with maturity and self-control. Liberty is not the property of adolescents unable to control their passions. Yet American cultural life is increasingly described by what Diane West called “the death of the grown up.”
We want our athletes to be heroes, but we also glorify an adolescent culture that follows its whims. The two are mutually exclusive. C.S. Lewis described the problem decades ago: “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst, we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”