There’s a chance I’ve done somewhat of a disservice to this enterprise of highlighting value and virtue in sport. It’s been done through my repeatedly referencing sport as a “catalyst,” “vehicle” and “springboard” for discovering such virtues as justice, fairness, teamwork, trust, and more. In short, by my treating sport as a means to some other end, I’ve ignored one of the greatest things about sport: playing for the sake of playing.
In the movie “Jerry Maguire,” sports agent Maguire pleads with his client, who’s a boisterous professional football player struggling with a contract deal, based on just this ideal. Instead of focusing on his sport as a means to the end of making money, Maguire urges him to, “Get back to the guy who first started playing this game. Remember? Way back when, when you were a kid”—when he played for the sake of playing.
I frequently tout sport as a great inroad to other goods, as though sport were a means to these ends. To harp on this view of sport alone would be to miss some of the real beauty and uniqueness of sport: getting lost in it to the point that any sense of self-awareness vanishes and you become more like a Zen master lost in a moment than a human being trying to accomplish yet another objective in pursuit of future objectives.
At a speech during our school’s recent graduation ceremony, USC president, Max Nikias, offered various suggestions for graduates. One was to develop an appreciation of the arts (another, fittingly, was to explore philosophy and ethics!). The arts, he suggested, are one of the few things in life that humans do for the sake of itself, not as a means to an end. As I nodded in agreement, I recognized sport also has the potential to do this, maybe even better than—or, to avoid any competition, as well as—art. It’s just that much of the focus on sport has become ends-focused: scholarships, college admission, awards, money. I hadn’t realized this about my own writing, primarily because the ends focused on here have been maybe more noble than the pursuit of money and fame, but ends none the less.
In a quest for meaning, existential philosopher Albert Camus examined the Greek myth of Sisyphus, shedding some positive light on it. The gods condemned Sisyphus to what they considered a horrible fate: rolling a heavy boulder up a hill only to let it roll back down the hill and then repeat, for eternity. Sisyphus didn’t have an overarching end or goal: it wasn’t that he needed to perform this task a certain number of times, nor did he build anything with the boulder, get paid for each completion, etc. It was because of this the gods saw it as the ultimate torment.
Camus, though, flipped this quandary on its head. Sisyphus had before him a task that was an end in itself: something he could do just for the sake of doing. Thus, the famous quote of Camus’, “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Of additional interest here, Camus was an avid soccer goalkeeper. He once wrote, “What I know more surely…about morality and obligations, I owe to [soccer].” Goalies experience an undue amount of suffering, and so maybe he defended Sisyphus’ suffering as happiness through this lens.
This approach provides a motivating foundation for an athlete’s working hard: that he not worry if it will help him achieve some outward objective—hit the ball farther, earn scholarships, etc.—but, instead, pursue the training for its own sake. This all allows the suffering an athlete often experiences to become tied up in the overall pursuit itself. And then to play. Just play.
Focusing on the ends has been examined through a different philosophical lens yet with equally profound results. German philosopher Immanuel Kant based much of his entire moral theory on this concept. Kant wrote that we ought not treat others merely as a means to an end but, instead, we ought to treat people as ends in themselves. To put it colloquially, we shouldn’t use people. In relationships, for example, treating someone merely as a means to your ends—maybe because their parent is the CEO of a company where you’d like to work—not only yields a less enriching relationship, but is an unethical way to treat someone.
Likewise, participating in a sport as an end in itself—because one truly enjoys it—will also provide a more enriching experience. At base, play truly is one of the few things we do as an end in itself. When my four year old plays soccer in the front yard, he’s lost in it. And at a higher level, we hear of top athletes being in the zone: consciously unaware of all they’re doing yet doing it seamlessly. At times, conscious awareness can actually serve as a barrier to optimal performance: the more we treat play as an end in itself, the better we perform.
It all seems a bit odd, that some of the greatest heights one can achieve occur when one is not conscious of the moment. This sentiment often frames the paradox of meditation—that one has successfully meditated when one is totally unaware of their meditating. Likewise, in some sense, with sport. True play, allows us to jump outside ourselves for a moment. And given how consciously aware we are continuously throughout the day and in all facets of our lives, we come to realize that getting lost in a moment really does provide some of the richest experiences we can have.
How great it would be if sport could demonstrate to youth the power of doing something just for the sake of doing it. A great catalyst and vehicle for learning this indeed…Oops, there I go again.