Aggressive Media, Part 3

Aggressive Media, Part 3

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.[1]

The form of aggressive media that most exposes my aggressive tendencies is that of sports. This is particularly humbling to confess because I consider myself a non-violent person, even as I faithfully follow and cheer for my favorite teams. When I was younger, I loved participating in sports. While not blatantly evil, sporting events do organize one group of people against another in battles of strength, will, and/or intellectual prowess. It is the nature of games that one team wins and others lose. Each group attempts to exploit the individual and collective weaknesses of the other in order to triumph. It is that exposing and exploiting of weakness that causes a conflict within me because, as a spiritual person, I feel obligated to build others up instead of taking advantage of their all-too-human frailties.

Even so, I am a sports fan, including the often-violent American football. My justification is in claiming it is the grace and beauty of a well-executed long pass and catch that draws me. But I sheepishly confess I also enjoy watching powerful hits and bone-crushing runs through the middle of the line-of-scrimmage. Of course, individual players get hurt in every game, sometimes seriously, but the more debilitating and chronic injuries manifest in the years after a player’s career has ended due to the accumulation of lesser injuries. Most serious players, amateur and professional, have numerous physical ailments and many suffer serious mental and emotional issues – all for the love, and sometimes financial rewards of a game. Those of us who are fans make the short-term financial and fame rewards possible. In that sense, I am partially responsible for a great deal of suffering.

Let’s face it – competition, in all its manifestations, involves a greater or lesser degree of aggression. Wherever there are few winners, there will necessarily be many losers. If we do not win whatever is at stake from our opponent, even if only bragging rights, we find ourselves lacking something we desire, perhaps our sense of self-worth. Competitive games typically do not promote a spirit of abundance and plenty for everyone. Rather, they promote a philosophy of scarcity, where the winner takes a lot and everyone else shares what is left. This is true in sporting events, but it is also true in business, college admissions, and too many other competitive elements of society where bounteous rewards go to the most skilled, the smartest, the cleverest, the luckiest, or the most privileged and leaves others with considerably less.

Perhaps what bothers me the most about bigtime sporting events, aside from the player injuries, is the aggression directed toward the opposing team – not as much by the players as by the fans. A saying I enjoy using goes like this: My two favorite teams (hypothetically, of course) are the Kansas City Chiefs and whoever is playing the Dallas Cowboys. It is a not-so-subtle jab at the Cowboys and their fans, driven by the fact that the Cowboys have a long history of winning more consistently than the Chiefs (recent history excepted). Even good-natured ribbing over sporting prowess, as a player or a fan, has an aggressive component – maybe not a seriously harmful one, but aggressive none-the-less. Today’s sporting competitions are less-violent remnants of fight-to-the-death competitions in coliseums of old where thousands of spectators would watch someone be killed by another fighter, lion, bear, or other deadly opponent, all for the purpose of entertainment. In that sense, our aggressive appetites have moderated over the years.

The philosophy of scarcity and attitude of winner-take-all would not be as destructive if it were limited to sporting events. Unfortunately, the application of who deserves abundance that is drawn from sports is too often applied to more critical areas of life, including who has a right to what quantities and qualities of healthcare, food, housing, education, clean water, and countless other essentials. That is where the violence, though more subtle, has even greater and lasting impacts. And because the inequitable and unjust systems of distribution were created by social forces generations in the making, they are difficult to identify and extremely resistant to meaningful adjustment.

Do sporting events promote violence? I hope not, because I enjoy them. Perhaps if we better distinguished between what is a game and what is a life-and-death struggle for many, and if we adjusted the reward distribution systems accordingly, we would at least cease treating human suffering as a game. Perhaps we can find ways to enjoy activities with others without also needing to prove ourselves superior and expecting corresponding rewards.

This is the 16th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to engage with my thoughts, or if you would like to explore contemplative spiritual direction, please contact me directly at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.


[1] This quote is attributed to a number of coaches, including Vince Lombardi, famed coach of the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps the earliest attribution (1948) is to Henry “Red” Sanders, football coach for Vanderbilt University.

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