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Has Shooting for Gold Gone Too Far?: A critical reflection of the development of toxicity in sports culture.

I’ve never understood sports culture. In my family, sports have never been a big deal, perhaps because neither I nor my next oldest sister were much inclined towards them. I never had the aptitude for them; in elementary school, I was always picked last for kickball, in which I’d inevitably get rammed in the face with a hatch-marked red rubber ball. I always was one of the last kids to finish the mile, worrying more about my asthmatic friend wheezing in the dusty track than how many minutes I’d finished in. And even if I had been any good, I’m the oldest of eight. When I was younger, my parents didn’t have the time or energy to spend ferrying me to innumerable practices and games.

Looking from the outside in, I find sports culture puzzling. What’s it all for? I understand that colleges give scholarships for sports, and money is incredibly motivating. Pursuing scholarships makes sense to me. Additionally, sports can be a way out for people in poverty, as a way to afford education and get opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be an option. However, I’m a little concerned about a system that pushes people to trade their bodies for better opportunities. But it seems like, then, that college would be the end, with sports being the means to that end, and that’s not the culture I’ve witnessed. 

Once students get to college with their scholarship, I’ve seen many students value sports over academics: sleeping through class because they’re exhausted after early morning workouts, unable to complete work because of concussions, hobbling around on crutches because they’ve been injured. Don’t get me wrong—I’m certainly not saying that professors shouldn’t be understanding and accommodating with students, especially students who have encountered health concerns. But I am asking, why subject yourself to that in the first place? 

It seems that, as Christians, we ought to take good care of our bodies. That implies some level of reasonable exercise to keep ourselves fit, which does nice things like strengthen our hearts, improve our moods, and help us walk up stairs without feeling like we’re dying. But much of sports culture that I’ve witnessed seems to involve broken bodies, which seems like the other extreme. Concussions, broken bones and torn tendons appear to be an equal abuse of our bodies as foregoing exercise altogether. 

Beyond the body, it also seems like sports culture can be toxic for one’s mental health. While I’ve never been in a competitive sporting environment, I have been in an incredibly competitive academic environment—a grades-posted-on-the-wall, SAT-prep-in-middle-school, APs-in-eighth-grade, get-into-an-Ivy-or-jump-in-front-of-a-bus type of school. Is this comparable to the sports culture many people encounter? I’m not sure; I’d probably have to experience both to know, and I haven’t. 

But if it is comparable, then I’m concerned. Competition on that level can breed an arrogance rooted in fear, a knowledge that being on top is temporary and that there is no perfection that can’t be shattered in a moment. That kind of competition can lead to sacrifices of things that should never have been sacrificed, pushing people to make desperate trades and devil’s bargains.

And for what? Sports seem so temporary to me. Culturally, we lionize football players, people who wreck their bodies and brains for, what, ten years of success? And then what? We forget about the people who broke their bones for public consumption. It seems like there’s an enormous amount of pressure to just get a little further: to get on the A team, to make varsity, to get onto a good college team, to win an award or a championship or a place on a professional team. The goalposts keep shifting, and you’re always chasing the next dream.

In the end, the cost of sports culture seems to outweigh the rewards. While sports in themselves seem like they have the potential to be great sources of community and health, I think we’ve taken it too far.

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