By Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS
A professional basketball player hurtles into the crowded stands and punches an astonished fan during a regular season game. A brawl develops between startled spectators and angry players. Most TV talking heads speculate that this has been brewing for quite some time.
All sports have notions of boundaries built into the games themselves. The boundaries often relate not only to the dimensions of the playing area but also to the types of behavior that are appropriate during the competition. Players are not permitted to play the game "outside" the boundaries. There are individuals in funny suits who blow whistles to stop the play if the boundaries are violated. When an individual consistently fails to observe the appropriate boundaries, that person is removed from the game.
Since boundaries are such an important aspect of any game, how could a professional basketball player make such an obvious mistake! What created the illusion that the player is above the rules! This matter is important because boundaries are not only significant in sports, they are also essential for human communities.
The entire adventure of sports in America is going through very difficult times. Sports want to remain a game; but there are powerful forces enticing them to become businesses. The game part of sports understands the need for boundaries. Games are won by team play. Each player has a role within the team. The team works well only when each player respects these roles and contributes to the common good. The business part, however, is ambivalent about any such notion of boundary. While some businesses enthusiastically endorse the long-term value of the common good, many sports enterprises seem to be stuck in the robber baron past of American history.
Many professional sports teams and players are there to make money. The amount of money seems unlimited. For their stadiums, they sometimes extort money from states and cities in ways that would embarrass even John D. Rockefeller. There are no boundaries. Players are paid salaries that are beyond any reasonable limit. Their life styles are outside any appropriate assessment of the contribution they make to the well-being of society as a whole. They are second only to rock stars and entertainment icons in their illusion of omnipotence.
As a clever way of developing talent at little or no expense, professional sports teams have seduced some of the finest colleges and universities in the land. The athletic programs at these schools are little more than a "farm system" for professional athletes. The revenues that flow into the coffers of the universities are powerful drugs indeed! The business model becomes irresistible. Many Division I athletes are removed from the boundaries that define a university. They receive "special" treatment from the beginning - recruitment, enrollment, housing, support staff, food, etc. The normal limits that reinforce a notion of "playing by the rules" are blurred in their experience. Someone is there to take care of every problem for them. They begin to seem omnipotent. This is a heady experience for a young person. As the notion of omnipotence - a lack of effective limits - seeps into the psyche, trouble is only a few steps away. We all have powerful emotions. They are one of the things that define us as human beings. Hopefully, we also have reason which provides an internal boundary system. Over the years, we learn to channel our powerful emotions into reasonably effective modes of behavior. The recent American election is a perfect example of the complementary role that emotion and reason play in the functioning of a person and of a society. Surely, there were very strongly held convictions on the part of most of the electorate. Reason, however, directed us to stand in line and vote. Reason provided an appropriate limiting function for the emotion. This is a civilized way to act. Human emotions, strong and vibrant, are coupled with boundaries in every aspect of this great civic event.
The same must be true for sports. Powerful emotions are essential for athletic competition. Teams and players must be psychic for the game. The complementarity of this passion and reason is relatively easy to accomplish when sport is seen as a game. When it moves into the arena of business, however, the natural dependency of emotion and reason is greatly tested. In today's environment, the young person is continually presented with the notion that limits do not apply to such a gifted individual. Special circumstances, favored treatment, and adulation from adoring fans, combine to drug the person into an imaginary sense of omnipotence. Emotion is given free - unlimited - reign. This is the end of civilized behavior.
Many people love sports and greatly enjoy professional sports. We do a great disservice to the athletes and to the profession as a whole if we do not insist upon appropriate limits. Coaches, colleges, magistrates, politicians, television networks, and citizens must protect this cherished part of our national pastime by insisting upon boundaries. If we fail, the game will return to the jungle. A wonderful accomplishment of human culture will self-destruct before our very eyes. And many young people will suffer devastating consequences in their personal lives. Let's blow the whistle! We must insist that people play by the rules.
Rev. Bernard F. O'Connor, OSFS, is the third President of DeSales University and has served since July 1999. He joined the faculty of DeSales University, then known as Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, in 1974.
Press Release: Boundaries by Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS | Posted on: 12/2/2004
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