The Supreme Court recently struck down a federal law regarding sports gambling, opening the door for states to legalize betting on competitive sports. This is, in policy terms, a good thing: states should have the right to regulate this without federal intervention, and it’s absurd that people aren’t allowed to bet on sports. Let people waste their money how they want to!
But if states begin legalizing sports betting, with legal bookies in stadiums, it will have another positive effect: it will reveal the longstanding moral depravity of American sports culture, and hasten the process of American families abandoning the decadence and shame of professional sports culture.
Gambling is not evil in itself. A game of chance can be good entertainment, and some real stakes make it fun. But alas, gambling is addictive, wasteful, and it often comes paired with many other “vice” industries (see “Las Vegas” for details).
Of course, that’s nothing new for Big Sport, since sporting events are already possibly drivers of human trafficking and prostitution, and sports-related binge drinking has been causally demonstrated and harms the drinkers. The wedded pair of sport and vice isn’t new, and adding addictive slot machines will clarify what has always been true: professional sports are decadent spectacles that embarrass the nation.
The Christian Fathers Agree With Me
I am aware how unpopular this take will be with sports-loving conservatives. But alas, we conservatives have imbibed a poisonous cultural norm in our worship of spectacle and games. The games are ultimately hostile to Christian culture, and to the civic virtue that makes republican governance possible.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the early church fathers! St. Chrysostom, one of the most widely revered and respected of the early Christian leaders, condemned the heinous evil of horse racing in terms that may shock modern American Christians, who are accustomed to a Sunday ritual of church and football. He says:
“You have not even shown respect for the very day on which the sacraments of the salvation of mankind were celebrated. … on that very day, when it was necessary to fast and give glory, and to raise prayers of thanksgiving for the good things in the world to the one who created them, instead you left the church and the spiritual eucharist, and the assembly of the brothers, and the solemnity of the fast, and as a prisoner of the devil were you dragged off to that spectacle? Can this be tolerated? Can this be accepted? I shall not stop saying these things constantly, and assuaging my pain that way, not by suppressing it with silence, but by bringing it out into public view and putting it in front of your eyes.”
Condemning men who drag their children along to the horrible depravities of horse-racing and theatrical productions, Chrysostom says: “You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil.”
I’m sure the old Romans had a good story to tell about how going to the theater was good father-son bonding time. Chrysostom wasn’t having it. Ultimately, Chrysostom decided to deny communion to people who attended the spectacles of Rome. To be clear, these weren’t the gladiatorial games! We’re talking about horse-racing and the theater!
Roman theaters had a reputation for lewdness, of course. Some could have been more akin to strip clubs. But many included “lewdness” that involved women more fully clothed and less explicitly displayed than the typical NFL cheerleader.
Rome’s Sports Spectacles Were Frequently Condemned
Chrysostom wasn’t alone. Indeed, early Christian leaders were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the spectacles of Rome. Theophilus of Antioch, the leader of Christians in Syria, which then meant a hefty share of all Christians, said, “We are forbidden even to witness shows of gladiators, so that we do not become partakers and abettors of murders. Nor may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances they sing there.”
Tatian, another Syrian Christian and theologian who worked on Bible translation, mourns the love of sport by saying, “I have seen men weighed down by bodily exercise, and carrying about the burden of their flesh. Rewards and wreath crowns are set before them, while those who judge them cheer them on—not to deeds of virtue, but to rivalry in violence and discord.”
Athenagorus, a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity, says “But we, because we believe that to watch a man be put to death is much the same as killing him, avoid such spectacles.” This hits harder at violent movies and video games than at sports, a point Dan Carlin recently made in his Hardcore History episode about violence as entertainment.
Irenaeus, a famous church father who catalogued and rebutted the various heresies of his day, says of fans of the Roman games, “They addict themselves without fear to all those forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure us that ‘they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’ … some of them do not even keep away from that bloody spectacle hateful both to God and men.” Tertullian adds, “We shall see how the Scriptures condemn the amphitheater. If we can maintain that it is right to indulge in the cruel, the impious, and the fierce, then let us go there.”
Tribal Sports Contests Destroy More than They Build
Some of these critiques apply to the inherently murderous nature of the Roman gladiatorial games. But early Christians condemned virtually all the entertainments of the Roman mob. They recognized these tribal contests basically served to sow discord, to abuse the human body, and to distract people, especially young men, from things of lasting value.
Indeed, American sports-obsession gives numerous young men an illusion that physical prowess will get them somewhere meaningful in life, when in all but a very few cases, it will get them nowhere. They would be better off in the long term devoting their time to almost any other activity in their school, church, or family than to sport.
Society would be better off, too. Roman political critics recognized that controlling the mob required two things: bread and circuses. Welfare and football. Sports are a drug politicians feed you to keep you placid and distracted. We throw millions of dollars at taxpayer-funded football stadiums and, conveniently, research shows that when the home team wins, so does the incumbent politician.
The mob mentality, the cheering and jeering crowds of professional sports, are utterly incompatible with civic virtue. When we teach our children that what is good, true, and praiseworthy is simulated violence, tribal competition, and making very large emotional investments in the TV screen, we teach them behaviors that endanger the republic. We teach them that what is valuable is bread and circuses.
It’s Not All Sports, It’s Big Sports
This is not to say that athleticism is bad, or even that sports are bad! The Apostle Paul says physical training is of some value, and Little League can indisputably be a school for many virtues in a child. It’s wonderful to enroll your children in a local sports league where they can socialize with different types of kids, practice effective teamwork, learn to lose with dignity, and push hard for a worthy victory. But adults should put away childish things, and, more importantly, childish things should not be made multi-billion-dollar focal points of national culture and attention.
As professional sporting events are increasingly inundated with claims about the physical risks for athletes, the overt sexualization of cheerleaders, excessive dependence on taxpayers, and excessive political content, more and more Americans are abandoning sports in general. That’s good. In an ideal world, every major franchise goes bankrupt and we spend our Sundays doing more productive things.
Hopefully, legalized gaming will create increasingly tawdry environment of casino gaming at sporting events, turning off many fans who see the decadence as ruining once-austere games. Finally, we may hope that the abysmal reality of professional sports will be plain for all to see.