In his book The Perfect Mile, Neal Bascomb chronicles the competition between Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee to be the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. Bannister’s success as the first man to break this barrier is well-known, but another feat of excellence was accomplished by Landy two years after Bannister’s record run. During the mile race at the 1956 Australian Championships, Landy was running in third when the second place runner, Ron Clarke, fell to the track as the field of runners jockeyed for position halfway into the third lap. Landy stopped and checked to see if Clarke was badly hurt. Despite an injury to his arm from Landy’s spikes, Clarke said that he was fine and took off after the other runners. Although he had lost 7 seconds and 40 yards, Landy began to sprint in pursuit of the leaders. By the first turn of the final lap, he had gained back 25 yards, and during the last turn he sprinted past the leader to win the race by 12 yards.
Landy’s actions demonstrate two kinds of excellence, athletic and moral. Certainly the victory was an act of extraordinary athletic excellence, given the physical and psychological barriers to overcoming such a large gap in an elite-level one-mile race. But it’s also clear that Landy’s behavior demonstrates excellent character, insofar as he was willing to risk sacrificing victory in order to come to the aid of a fellow athlete. Bascomb reports that a journalist at the time called the race Landy’s greatest triumph, even though it was not his fastest time, and that he had been a hero on that day to every person sitting in the press box.
Some would say Landy’s actions reveal an important truth: Sports build character.
Much more recently, Brazilian professional soccer player William Ribiero assaulted match official Rodrigo Crivellaro after receiving a yellow card.1 In fact, Ribiero was charged with attempted murder, because he kicked the official in the head, knocking him out.
Some would say Ribiero’s actions reveal an important truth: Sports don’t build character, they reveal it.
Which is it?
In favor of the first claim, many point to the variety of ways that involvement in sports can help cultivate virtue. By playing sports, we can grow in our ability to work with others as a part of a team, developing relational virtues such as patience, compassion, and even forgiveness. Sports also provide a context to build such character traits as self-control, perseverance, courage, grit, and humility. And of particular interest to Christians, sports give us the opportunity to grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.2
But if sports build character, why is moral vice so often on display in the world of sports? It isn’t just the greed, martial mentality, and ego-centric vice that we too often see at the elite level. Those same things are too often present in youth sports as well. Parents verbally and at times physically assault officials. Coaches berate young athletes for simple mistakes on the field. Some young athletes themselves see opponents on the field as enemies rather than mutual competitors, and then act accordingly.
What are we to make of this? I believe that the question poses a false dilemma. It is not the case that sports either build character or reveal it. Sports do both of these things. The pressure, the freedom, and the culture around sport can bring out the best and worst in our character, revealing our virtues and our vices. But if we are intentional about it with a determinate vision of the true human good in the company of moral exemplars and mentors, sports can be employed to help us cultivate virtue. As we pursue athletic excellence, we can cultivate moral excellence as well.
There is an important third truth about sports that Christians would do well to consider and apply: Sports can help us deepen our union with Christ.
Sports can do more than build or reveal character, they can actually be actively employed as spiritual disciplines, as practices that foster growth in Christian character and draw us closer to Jesus. Such disciplines are transformative because they open us up to God’s grace and love in deeper ways.3 Theologically my understanding of the virtues fits within the category of sanctification. For Christians, the potential of employing sports as exercises in spiritual formation should be explored more deeply and practiced more broadly. With this purpose in mind, I will offer a few examples as starting points for this sort of thing.
First, participation in sports can provide a context in which we are able to practice some of the classical spiritual disciplines. Praying or meditating on scripture or the character of God on a long-distance run, or in a lull during a game of baseball or softball, can help an athlete grow in their faith, and help them to integrate their sporting life with their spiritual life. Like both of these examples each sport allows for context-specific ways to practice the spiritual disciplines while balancing the other demands for excellence unique to each sport.
Second, sport itself can function as a spiritual discipline that helps us grow in our knowledge of and likeness to Christ. Consider the virtue of perseverance. James 1:2-4 instructs us as follows: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (NIV).” 2 Peter 1 also reveals the relationship of perseverance to other virtues, including godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. Sports provide an excellent context for developing perseverance. For athletes at the elite level, success in part depends on years of dedicated training and sacrifice. Non-elite athletes can develop perseverance as they work towards more modest goals, such as acquiring sport-specific skills or training for a local run or bicycle race. By setting a realistic goal and doing what is necessary over time to achieve that goal, an individual can grow in perseverance. If we cultivate this and other virtues in union with Christ, dependence upon Christ, and for the sake of Christ, then as we play we can not only grow to be more like Christ, we can grow in our love of Christ. But to do so, we must intentionally invite God to be a part of the process on the road, track, field, or court.
One consequence of including moral excellence with athletic excellence means that sports for Christians are not merely zero-sum games, though it is not less than winning and losing. Fundamental to this pursuit of excellence are intellectual and moral virtues so the process and outcomes of sports includes other (moral) goods as contestants test their skills with and against others.
Character matters. A lot. But for Christians, character growth doesn’t happen in isolation. It is embedded within something larger, namely, a transformative relationship with God through Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3-11). If we approach sports as serious play,4 as a place to experience joy, cultivate Christian virtue, and deepen our relationship with Christ, we can have truly transformative experiences in the context of sports. I suspect as well that as we do this, they will also provide us a small foretaste of our life in the new heavens and the new earth, where I plan to spend time playing a variety of sports and experience the joy of God, and of being fully human, as I do.
- For those wishing to pursue these issues in more depth, see my work, as well as the works cited, in the following: “Sport as a Moral Practice: An Aristotelian Approach,” Philosophy, Philosophy and Sport, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 73 (2013): 29-43; “Is Humility a Virtue in the Context of Sport?” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31 (2014): 203-214; and “Sport for the Sake of the Soul,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 12 (2018): 20-29.
- The following draws upon Michael W. Austin, “Sports as Exercises in Spiritual Formation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3 (2010): 66-78.
- I borrow this phrase from and use it in a different way than Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell, Sport and Character: Reclaiming the Principles of Sportsmanship (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2009).