It is no coincidence that two current bad boys of sports agree on what constitutes the essence of sports. Unfortunately it is a philosophy that is getting them, and sports in general, into all sorts of trouble.

Terrell Owens is not a genuine article "bad boy," just a boy with bad manners, someone who represents the garish side of modern sports. He loves to delight the crowds with his antics, on and off the field. In his recent ego-biography, Catch This!, he recognizes that many people think he is "shameless, selfish, egotistical," but he justifies his outrageous behavior with this: "They forget that football is entertainment." Unfortunately, many say his idea of entertainment is like the junior-high kid who thinks burping at the dinner table is funny.

Jose Canseco, on the other hand, is a genuine article bad boy. He's not only self-centered, he's a cheat—something Owens is not. In his just-published best selling tell-all, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, he acknowledges that he took steroids all through his baseball career. And he did so primarily to give the fans a good show: "I always saw myself as more of an entertainer than a ballplayer," he writes.

On top of that, he argues, the more steroids the better. With a syllogism worthy of Aristotle, he writes, "People want to be entertained at the ballpark. They want baseball to be fun and exciting. Home runs are fun and exciting. … Steroid-enhanced athletes hit more home runs."

And like a logician, he takes his philosophy to its inevitable conclusion. Baseball is not a contest or competition between two teams—the traditional understanding. Instead, "[Baseball] needs to remember that this is a game about individual athletes … . It needs to encourage players to turn themselves into entertainers, and look for new players who are born that way. And the teams have to learn how to market their players that way—the same way pro wrestling does" [ital added].

I have to hand Canseco one thing: His idea is absurd, but his logic is flawless. When sport becomes primarily about entertainment, every sport becomes a version of pro wrestling.

It's also clear that owners collude in this whole business, by offering bonuses to players for individual achievements, thus encouraging them to think of their sport primarily in individualistic and entertainment terms. And Canseco and others are surely being a little disingenuous when they claim to be interested in nothing but the good of the game—in fact, steroids had no small impact on his annual salary.

Still, there is no question that sports are entertaining, and that lots of people buy tickets to see tape-measure homeruns or graceful touchdown catches or artistic slam-dunks. And many superstars have as many groupies as do rock stars. But at its core, are sports entertainment? The answer makes all the difference.

As Hall of Fame pitching ace Sandy Koufax put it: "I don't think ballplayers are really entertainers. An entertainer works directly with his audience, adjusting his performance to its reactions. The audience is the second party. We are in a contest—every one guaranteed to be a bit different—and we adjust ourselves not to the reactions of the spectators but to the actions and reactions of the opposing team."

And though spectators have a minimal impact on the game, as "fans" they have an irrational but powerful emotional bond with the athletes on the field. Their team's championship season can become a warm lifetime memory—I still recall the anxiety and thrill of watching Joe Montana march the 49ers 92 yards in an exquisite 11-play drive in the last three minutes of Super Bowl XXIII to beat the Cincinnati Bengals.

And a team's crucial loss became the occasion for sadness years later. The memory of the last out of the 1962 World Series still haunts me: Had Willie McCovey's line drive been two feet to the left or right of Bobby Richardson, the resulting single would have won the series for my San Francisco Giants.

In either case, the fan's joy or despair is about the athletic contest between two teams. It has little to do with the relationship between the game and the spectator.

And here's the point: When sports are viewed as mere entertainment, ethical and aesthetic boundaries collapse. As I noted in an earlier column, Catholic scholar Johan Huizinga's definition of play applies to sports: "a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being 'not serious,' but at the same time absorbing the play intensely and utterly. … It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner."

But for Canseco, the game becomes an arena for individual athletes to strut their excellence to entertain an audience. So players showboat after touchdowns and dunks to ensure fans get their money's worth. And they start taking steroids to jack the ball out of the park, because home runs excite the fans.

On the other hand, if we can remember that sports are primarily a contest played "according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner," it becomes pretty difficult to justify the clandestine use of drugs to enhance one's performance. And if the contest is in large part about testing yourself against other superior athletes in play that is absorbing, then dances and fingers in the sky and mooning to get a laugh or a cheer from spectators are just plain silly and out of place.

Ceasing to speak about sports as "entertainment" will not solve all the problems that plague modern sports. It will, however, help us to think more clearly. And clearheaded thinking—much in short supply these days in the sports world—would go a long way toward restoring some of the integrity and old-fashioned manners of the games that mean so much to us.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.


Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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