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Sport as Liberal Art: Why Playing Well Matters

Lacrosse sticks, baseball mitts, and footballs are the first blossoms of spring at The Heights. They pop up long before the flowers, as the boys prepare for a season of activity. Each boy bears the tools of his art; some carry bags as big as themselves across the parking lot each morning. In the fall, classes stopped for a full day of flag football. On clan days, the boys engage in the School’s home-grown sports like thud and bull in-the-ring. All for sport.

It is appropriate that sport has such deep roots at The Heights. At a school that strives to live out the notion that “the glory of God is a man fully alive,” such competition complements the academic life of the School. It will not appear on the course list next fall. However, I want to consider it as something more than mere recreation—or rather as recreation more properly considered.

Sport has a kinship to the liberal arts. The liberal arts—grammar, logic, and rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—are distinguished from the useful arts by the fact that they do not need to serve an end beyond themselves. They are also the arts that mark the proper education of a human being. Sport is like that. Sport does not need to serve an end beyond itself—it’s played for its own sake. Furthermore, sport is proper to man because it can result in the maturation of the athlete through discipline in virtue-both “athletic virtue” and moral virtue.

How is Sport an Art?

An art is a branch of learning. Sport is an art in two senses: first, it requires skill acquired by experience, study, or observation; and second, it involves a faculty of executing well what one has devised. The first definition is the hope each coach has for his practices; he wants his players to acquire skill from experience, study, and observation of the game. The second is the hope of every team in competition; they want to play well, if they’re playing to win.

If sport is an art, how is it akin to the liberal arts? An art is “liberal” in two ways: it is practiced for its own sake, not for some other end (though it may serve another purpose); and it is an art suitable for a free person or its practice helps make a man free. St. John’s College in Annapolis, a bastion of the liberal arts, has adopted a motto that captures this second notion of “liberal”: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque, which the school translates: “I make free men out of children by means of books and a balance.” Sport can help to do the same.

First, we can play sports for their own sake and for the sake of playing them well. This is readily apparent in varsity sports, in which the boys practice and acquire skill by experience, study and observation. Coaches devise drills so that players get better at the game; they videotape and review games to discover errors to address and strategic advantages to exploit. Players listen, practice, and apply the coach’s knowledge. Their efforts are to execute well what he has devised. This is one of the great pleasures of sport, even for the fan—to see a well-executed play. To see limbs move in graceful coordination in the execution of some task that the mind has chosen as an objective. We watch to see the captain make the right decision in the moment of deliberation. We watch to see the winning jump shot and to see if the coach can draw the play that will free the right man to launch it. We watch and often overlook the gift that the world is; the world and man in it are made in such a wondrous way that sport is a natural product.

The world need not be the way it is but for the goodness of God, yet it is the way it is. As a result, the ball bounces. The corner kick bends around the upright. Grass is green. The pigskin arcs down the field in a spiral. We ought to wonder at creation as we play (or at least after we play) when we do partake in an action suitable to man: wonder. The world, like the beautiful play, is just right for the situation. At such moments, simple as they are, it is easy to see the Creator is executing well what He has devised.

Freely Choosing to Play

We may play sports for their own sake, but we can certainly take them up for other reasons, too. We can play for health or fitness, scholarship, pay or public accolades, but these are not the motives of interest to me. They involve the practice of sport as a useful art—as a means of making a living or gaining an opportunity for an education. They are legitimate reasons to play, but they are reasons less playful than to play for the sake of playing well. Sport draws near to the realm of the liberal arts when it is done for its own sake—when it is not necessary for some other purpose. The man I will call the free sportsman competes for the sake of playing and playing well. This sportsman is not one who plays for the sake of exercise; rather, he is the man who exercises so that he might play well. It is in the habits of discipline that such an athlete undergoes that we find the potential for growth in virtue—the potential for sport to help make men free.

Like literature, sport presents courage, temperance, justice, and prudence; but, in sport, the athlete is the protagonist.

John Paul II described this aspect of sport in his address to the Jubilee of Sports People on October 28, 2000: “The potential of sports makes it a significant vehicle for the overall development of the person and a very useful element in building a more human society …. [I]t can become a vehicle of civility and genuine recreation, encouraging people to put the best of themselves on the field and to avoid what might be dangerous or seriously harmful to themselves or to others …. Athletic activity, in fact, highlights not only man’s valuable physical abilities, but also his intellectual and spiritual capacities. It is not just physical strength and muscular efficiency, but it also has a soul and must show its complete face. This is why a true athlete must not let himself be carried away by an obsession with physical perfection, or be enslaved by the rigid laws of produc tion and consumption, or by purely utilitarian and hedonistic considerations.” A true athlete must cling to the liberal aspects of sport—free from utilitarianism and vanity; pointed toward growth in virtue.

If sport is worthy of the passion with which we play and watch it, it is fitting that it should serve some greater end than itself. It can and should better us. Like literature, sport presents courage, temperance, justice, and prudence; but, in sport, the athlete is the protagonist. Do I have the guts to take the game-winning shot? Can I win with character and lose with dignity? Do I render to the official the respect due his office, even when he errs? Will I make the right decision? In these moments, the game can be a place to learn virtue and to develop and measure one’s character.

Heights BaseballThe Pope’s words were not without warning and rightly so: “While it promotes physical fitness and strengthens character, sport must never distract those who practice and appreciate it from their spiritual duties. It would be as though one ran, as St. Paul writes, only ‘for a perishable wreath,’ forgetting that Christians must never lose sight of ‘the imperishable one’ (cf. 1 Cor 9:25). The spiritual dimension must be cultivated and harmonized with various recreational activities, which include sport.”

St. Paul urges us to run for the prize that does not fade and to run so as to win. How much more this means to us when we have done it—when we have literally run so as to win. When we have had to do without something that we would enjoy for the sake of victory, then we know a little more what it means to run the race for the lasting prize and to run so as to win. That is why we should play. That and because it is so much fun.

About the Author

Austin Hatch

Ninth Grade Core, History of Western Thought, Jackson Scholars Senior Thesis
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