When people think of athletics, they often think of overpaid professional athletes and all of the glamour that the mainstream athletics market has to offer. What is lost is where the true heart of athletics lies, in one’s hometown newspaper and on the local athletic fields. You see, professional sports is just one part of the athletic world – one role that athletics plays in society. The role of athletics in society is not so simple to define. Athletics represents many different things to many different people. The role of athletics in society is complex and has been since the days of the marathon run in Ancient Greece to the Gladiator games in Rome to the current American international professional leagues. Sports touch us all in one way or another, whether it be at a recreational level, a community level or a professional regional level. What is even greater is what sports provide to us as a whole. The true role of athletics is as a character builder/developer, an identity builder, an opportunity provider, a health and fitness tool along with being an economic factor.
Even back throughout the course of history, sports has taken on many roles. Athletics, in it’s competitiveness form, has likely been part of the human condition since our early ancestors. It evolved into a way to efficiently getting things done – ie. Running to get a message to someone – and as entertainment. This was popularized in Ancient Rome during the Gladiator games. These games, and chariot races, were the beginning of sports as we know it today and was used for entertainment purposes. However, it was at its most primitive form. These were not the days of light-hearted gatherings to watch a game. Gladiator games were fought to the death and many other “games” of the time were fought with the defeated being deceased. As time evolved, sports came to take on the characteristics that we are familiar with today and the role of athletics, as we have defined it, came to resemble itself as we know it today with blends of entertainment, recreation, character development/building, health builder, opportunity provider and economic factor.
The first role of sports that I will discuss is that of sports as a character developer/builder, identity builder and opportunity provider. Sports, at its core, is about competition. The goal is usually outperform your opponent either through intelligence, strategy or strength. Many times, it is a combination of all three of these factors. How does this play into providing opportunity and revealing character? Simply, the outcome is decided by how well you or your team performed. Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once said, “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better.” Some people, boy and girl, are able to do that through sports. However, they have to have the right make-up, the right values. An individual can have all of the talent in the world but if they can’t function as a member of a team or take care of themselves, the athletic world will not be there to provide for them in the long run. On the contrary, if one works hard and perseveres, they have fighting chance to gain something from the world of sports. While it is true that this is not always the case as nothing is handed to us and many people have had an unrequited love with sports, it gives you a chance – and a chance is all you need if you are willing to work hard to make it worth-while.
This is how and why sports is a character builder and developer. John Wooden once said that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. This is true in the sense that sports allows us to see what our values deep within are and what we believe in. These values define how we handle situations both in life and on the playing field alike. As I said in an earlier lesson on Athletic Development in Youth, “Our values define who we are and how we have been raised, taught or the situation that we were born into. Athletics provides a window to let the world know who you are and how that affects what happens on the playing field.” How we act and define ourselves in life and on the field of play, both as a collective team and as an individual, builds our identity. Our identity is something that we can either be proud of or something that we are not proud of and know that we need to improve. It can be as simple as reacting badly after a mistake during play and letting that impact the rest of your game negatively. This impacts your team in a negative manner. Likewise, the inverse is true during a positive sequence of events. As the game is about more than any one person, how the community views you and your team is defined by these moments as well. Ideally, you want everything to be positive, both your character and reputation. Hall of Fame Basketball Coach John Wooden would tell his players to “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Taking that a step further, allow your character to become your reputation. As having these both in the negative is a detrimental fact for all, strive to make it positive. That is putting yourself and those around you on the road to success as we have defined in earlier lessons of being the best that you know you are capable of becoming.
With hard work, talent/skill and perhaps a little luck mixed in, sports can provide you with a living. However, one does not need to make a professional living as an athlete for sports to provide opportunity to you. It can be as simple participating in sports and experiencing all of the positive benefits that sports can provide – such as recreation, good health and educational lessons – that let sports provide opportunity to you. Opportunity can also present itself in the manner of providing a living to you if you are able to stay in involved in athletics in a non-participant manner such as being a coach, a staffer, a broadcaster, writer, administrator, groundskeeper or any other vocation that is involved in athletics. So, in these manners, the role of athletics can be as an opportunity provider, identity builder and character builder/developer.
As sports usually require some sort of physical exertion, it can lead to a healthier lifestyle as well. When you are in shape, your body feels better and functions better. You may feel better mentally. Mentally, the work and strategy that goes into sports also is a positive impact. Therefore, athletics are a recreational and health tool – hence why health and physical education are requirements in many primary education systems. Sports can strengthen your body and your mind.
The last role that to be covered is that of economic factor. When many think of athletics and economics, they think of professional sports. While this is the most noticeable arena to those looking at athletics, it is far from being the only one. This is where coaches stress to their teams that their character is about more than how they play the game. It is about why they play the game. Hockey Coach Herb Brooks, who coached the Winter Olympics “Miracle On Ice” hockey team in 1980, once said, “You’re looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart and to represent their country.” You want players who play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back. What does this mean? It means that you play for something larger than yourself. While it is crucial to focus on yourself and be self-aware so that you make yourself the best that you can possibly be in order to help the team, your ultimate goal is to do good by what you represent. For some in solitary sports, that may be yourself. Usually, there are other motives and reasons but some sports are solitary by nature. However, in team sports, you represent your team. Your team represents somethings and it is more than the company that makes it possible. You represent the region, the city that is on the front of your jersey. This is where the solitary sports have a united bond as well. They may play for their family, their city, region and country. Why is this so important? You want players who play to make a living and play for the love of the game in order for them to help make the team the best that it can be so that the team can be successful and be a positive representation of where they are from and where the ownership is from. The Boston Red Sox do not just represent someone like John Henry; they represent Boston. This was shown strongly during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 when David Ortiz and the Red Sox became the face of perseverance in Boston. As sports teams and athletes are representations of their communities, it makes sense that in a capitalistic society as the United States is, that the business – which sports teams are professionally – are economic players.
When a team does well, positive press attracts people to that area and helps other businesses within that region. The same holds true for local sports, but without the team and athletes being a business. However, the thought remains the same that the image and identity of an area is connected to one of its most visible marketing arms – its athletic teams. In youth sports, the impact is slightly different as youth are more ingrained into the community – the shortstop might be your childhood best friend’s son, etc. – and there is a larger picture at play as sports is just one part of the youth’s life. Professionally, though, athletics is a large economic driver and, thus, plays an important role in society. This is how the role of athletics can be defined as an economic factor. These examples and reasons are why the statement about caring about the name on the front of the uniform more than the back is an important lesson for all, whether it be in life or on a playing field.
Athletics have been around for a long time. Just like many jobs, sports and recreation existed long before we were born and will still be here long after we are gone. Over course of history, the emphasis of sports has changed but the values of it have been consistent from the time of the Romans to the present day. The role that sports plays in our lives differs among each and every one of us. For some it is entertainment. For others, it is the road to making a living and making something of themselves. For others still, it is recreation, an educational tool or an economic tool. All of these perspectives show that the true role of athletics is as a character builder/developer, an identity builder, an opportunity provider, a health and fitness tool along with being an economic factor.