Last August, as the Olympics were concluding, I set out to answer several questions about sports in an essay for Public Discourse. By defining and defending sports as “scored games involving physically significant skillful performance,” I answered the question of whether just anything can be a sport. But I don’t think I adequately answered whether athletes can “justify dedicating their lives so single-mindedly” to athletic pursuits when doing so can seem selfish and indulgent. And I didn’t adequately consider what sorts of reasons might defeat the intrinsic reasons for playing sports. In this essay I attempt to answer these questions, in concert with recent popes who have done the same.

The Vocational Question

One friend has objected to me that he can’t see how a person who is conscientious about wanting to better the world could ever think it justifiable to be a professional athlete. He said that athletes are fundamentally selfish, since their careers consist simply in bettering their performance in a game: they don’t make the world a better place and are all about “improving number one.”

The objection misfires in ways that I discussed in my first essay. Many athletes engage their own bodies to produce works of art that are beautiful expressions of human creativity. They contribute to human culture by using realities including their embodied selves to express meaning and serve purpose. Athletic performances can be artifacts, just as a beautiful dance number or piano concert can.

Of course, someone (say, Meryl Streep) could readily grant the deep value of symphonies, paintings, song, dance, and the arts generally—performances to whose honing and improvement many practitioners dedicate their careers or at least the burden of their free time—and admit that the personal and cultural enrichment to be gained from witnessing or participating in such performances justifies the lifelong pursuit of their ever more perfect realization. This same person could argue that sports are simply not analogous.

Yet why not? Dance certainly can be an instance of a skillful performance that is highly physically significant (even if one can’t bring oneself to envisage dance as a game). As for playing an instrument—have you ever seen a great percussionist at work? The only case I can see for granting the value of devoting one’s life to dance and instrumental music while rejecting the same rationale for sports is a prejudice against any skillful performance that is also a game.

Although games can be autotelic or self-justifying, that does not mean that they are frivolous or pointless. Many undertakings are capable of being self-justifying whether or not one considers them games, such as painting or woodworking. Perhaps some see skillful performances in games as not “serious” enough to justify a life commitment since they often bring a kind of childlike joy. But many skillful performers of physically significant non-games take and obviously express great, even childlike joy in their craft.

I’m left to suspect that it is the present reality of the culture of organized major sports that turns my friend off to the idea of professional athleticism as a legitimate calling. Certainly the culture of a potential profession is worth considering, and a corrupt and corrupting culture is a strike against that profession. But the fact that some professional athletes are driven by immoral or narcissistic reasons—or that some are driven by the right reasons but characteristically neglect other moral duties—does not indefeasibly trump the reasons to make a vocational decision to pursue the profession for the right reasons.

Perhaps many aspiring actors or dancers pursue their goals simply out of a desire to ‘do what they love’ without considering the moral culture of the profession they are pursuing. Yet this should be considered along with factors such as one’s other duties, one’s gifts and prospects of meaningful accomplishment in the field, the good one could achieve through other vocational commitments, the possibility of “doing what one loves” as a hobby coordinate with and subordinate to other major vocational commitments, what one thinks God is asking one to do in the world, and so on. Nevertheless, I think a person can rightly judge that she should pursue professional athletics as a career, whether as an athlete or a facilitator of athletes (coach, administrator, etc.), and can even rightly feel called by God to do so (as did Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddel). And if this reasoning is sound, I think that a fortiori the same decision can be justifiable for many persons on many levels of athletic commitment and aspiration.

Why does any of this matter? Many Christians may know that recent popes have repeatedly encouraged them to suffuse the world of social media with the presence of the Gospel, to take advantage of this ubiquitous cultural institution by injecting the values of faith into a realm so susceptible to the dissemination of vice rather than edifying human communication. I think that fewer Christians realize how emphatically those same popes have preached a similar message about sports. Sports are among our most popular cultural institutions. Often a sporting or team experience is among the more formative experiences of a child’s existence. This is a fact that can be ‘for better or for worse.’ Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote and spoke prolifically about sports, exhorting Christians to champion their educative and communal potential. This and my previous essay are meant to contribute to that effort to think through the ethical and vocational questions that confront parents and their children in the world of the games we play.