Sport has never really recovered from the bad name the Romans gave it.

The Greeks held athletic competition in very high esteem, putting it on the same pedestal as music, theater, and sculpture. The pursuit of excellence was fundamental and the men who attended the Olympics tended to also play themselves. No one banged on about the moral lessons games should impart, winning the wreath was everything, and successful performers expected to be compensated handsomely.

Then came the Romans, bread and circuses or, more to the point, spectacle and barbarism. The decrepit were pitted against imbeciles, women against dwarves, and Christians were fed to lions, whatever it took keep the spectators entertained. The performers were often slaves or the indebted, and the spectators were strictly segregated. Finally, the Romans replaced symbolic death, that is, athletic defeat with gladiatorial, funeral games in which to quote historian Allen Guttmann, ‘the dead were honored by additional deaths’.

Not surprisingly, Christians took a pretty dim view of the way the Romans played. For example, a fifth-century bishop named Salvian, claimed that, “In these games, the greatest pleasure is to have men die, or, what is worse and more cruel than death, to have them torn to pieces, . . . so that the victims seem devoured as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of the beasts.”

Christian reformers, however, went too far, throwing the baby out with the bath water, condemning sports as a species rather than the twisted form it took in Rome. Puritans viewed it as the Devils workshop, outlawing watching and even unnecessary walking on Sabbath; more moderate figures tolerated it as a harmless diversion, so long as it was kept in perspective; and educators have tried to save it from its excesses by turning it into a vehicle for moral reform.

The latter project is misguided, and doomed to come up short. The problem is that no child ever started playing sports because it was going to help build character or teach morality. Kids want to play because playing is fun: kinesthetically, socially, and aesthetically; the ethical life-lessons they may learn are thus extraneous to their reasons for participating.

Given this, we should question the ubiquitous role that coaching has come to occupy. The natural evolution from play to work is stunted as soon as supervision and discipline come into the frame. At that point playing often becomes a chore, in the sense that the intrinsic love of a sport is compromised by extrinsic concerns such as approval and/or securing playing time.

My view is that there should not be any kind of organized athletic competitions until children reach adolescence. In other words, there should only be pick-up games, and supervision, when required, should be passive. This would allow kids to develop passion for the activity naturally—far fewer kids would burn out—and they would also learn more life lessons. I can honestly say I learned more about life playing pick-up games, having to choose sides and settle disputes about rules, than I did from playing on organized teams.

I would also suggest trying to find ways to minimize the roles that coaches play during high-level athletic competitions. Players naturally want to play. They want to defeat their opponents by demonstrating their superiority; they want to play them off the pitch, the rink, the field, or the court—not just win. Coaches are the figures who settle for ties, circle the wagons to protect leads, and generally inhibit self-expression.

Bobby Knight once suggested that coaches should not be allowed on the sidelines during games; the idea being that players would learn a lot more if they had to sort out the difficulties they are facing. I agree. Not only would this be more educational—players would learn a lot more about leadership, teamwork and problem-solving. But, more importantly, the games themselves would be far more unpredictable and adventurous.

I also believe there would be more sportsmanship because players would be more committed to aesthetic excellence. At present, asking players to focus on playing fairly is roughly akin to asking beauty contestants to focus on being Miss Congeniality. That is just not why they entered the pageant. On the other hand, if a players love of a particular sport was allowed to evolve on its own terms, meaning without supervision at a young age, then he or she would be much more likely to prioritize achieving aesthetic excellence. Then cheating would be akin to painting the Mona Lisa with a black eye: it would be more than a blemish; it would undermine the integrity of the entire performance.

In sum, the best way to reinvigorate sports ethically would be to reinvigorate them aesthetically, restoring the Greek ideals excellence and physical perfection.

~ Ken Pendleton