Organized Sports Teaches Us Nothing?

Brian Knapp, brother of Alex, argues that “Organized Sports Teaches Us Nothing” and, in fact, may be dangerous to civilization. His argument is that sports teach violence and the emphasis on winning encourages cheating.  Further, the good things sports teach us can be learned elsewhere.

On the last point, at least, we agree.  Nonetheless, I disagree that organized athletics under adult supervision is worthless.

There are, of course, bad coaches and, goodness knows, bad parents.  They can ruin the experience for everyone.  Then again, there’s tremendous value in learning to deal with jerks at an early age.  Certainly, youth sports won’t be the last exposure to that phenomenon.

Learning to get hit in the mouth and continue moving forward is useful.   Ditto losing and dealing with massive disappointment.   Sure, there are other ways to learn those things.  But a structured environment with a trained coach makes it more likely that they become teachable moments.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    The linked article certainly qualifies as one of the most ridiculous things I’ve read this year. It’s hard to know where to even start picking it apart.

    It sounds more like the author was the kid the coach had to put in during the last inning just to make sure everyone played. But, by all means, let’s shield our children from any sort of competition, pain or the possibility of disappointment. God knows most of them would rather throw on some tights and a codpiece for a neighborhood pickup performance of Hamlet.

  2. odograph says:

    Sports are a natural human activity. Humans will do sports. Of course part of the history of sport, and organized pseudo violence (Buzkashi), is that they did reduce the actual kind. What would he rather have, tribal raids on neighboring sub-divisions?

    IMO the worst part of the piece is the rather fanciful invention that “Organized sports, especially for children, is a rather recent phenomenon. Not until the latter half of the twentieth century did organizations and independent ruling bodies emerge …” blah blah

    Get over your culture, dude, and the rather arbitrary distinctions you make to set your organized sports apart.

  3. Brian says:

    It sounds more like the author was the kid the coach had to put in during the last inning just to make sure everyone played.

    Matt, the contempt in your tone only helps prove my point. My question is: Why would you have such contempt when speaking of a KID, as you say above?

    God knows most of them would rather throw on some tights and a codpiece for a neighborhood pickup performance of Hamlet.

    Seriously, are you TRYING to set me up? I don’t believe it. Such a formulaic response doesn’t exist in real life. Is this a John Hughes movie? Are you a member of the Alpha Betas?

    Yes, kids only do theater or debate or any of the LAME things because they are FORCED to. I mean, who in their RIGHT mind who do those things willingly? What possible use is Model U.N., Student Congress, or Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking? What could you possibly do with your life if you did those things, be a Poli-Sci Professor? How absolutely LAME!

    And for your information, I wasn’t THAT kid. But I liked THAT kid and made sure he wasn’t picked on by the Ogres of the world.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    James,

    Learning to get hit in the mouth and continue moving forward is useful.

    I think the fact that we encourage kids to play while they’re injured is pretty damned horrible, actually. It affects them for their whole lives and for what? So their 7th grade batting average is a point higher?

    Matt,

    It sounds more like the author was the kid the coach had to put in during the last inning just to make sure everyone played.

    Ha! No, my brother played in pretty much every sport there was when he was a kid and started in all of them. Worked that way through high school.

    But, by all means, let’s shield our children from any sort of competition, pain or the possibility of disappointment.

    You completely missed the point of the article, which is that organized sports engenders violence and anger, not that competition is bad. Now, it so happens that I disagree with the extremes my brother took in the article, but there’s definitely something painfully wrong with kid’s sports in this country. Games are supposed to be FUN, not the pathetic means through which parents live vicariously through their children.

  5. Brian says:

    What would he rather have, tribal raids on neighboring sub-divisions?

    (see Jon Stonger’s article here to help prove your point)

    That organized sports are particularly USEFUL to society to keep us from tribal raids on neighboring sub-divisions, doesn’t mean they actually TEACH us anything that we can’t learn better from other endeavors.

    Maybe in a thousand years we will be civilized enough not to NEED organized sports in the way you admit.

  6. One of my concerns about the rise of organized sport is that it has more or less completely replaced unstructured play. Unstructured play teaches important things to: it teaches kids how to self-organize, how to resolve disputes themselves, how to provide for their own entertainment, etc.

    I worry that we are raising a generation of kids who, as adults, will be unable to function in any environment where there’s not some authority figure telling them what to do. I worry for our country when these kids start participating in the political process.

  7. sam says:

    Well, there’s team sports and individual sports, of course. Tennis and golf don’t seem to be violence-engendering (unless you’re a golf club in my hand after a crappy shot; then you’re likely to get jammed into the ground with extreme prejudice). And golf does teaches one to play by the rules–just check out how many pro golfers have called a penalty on themselves and lost a tournament thereby.

    Hmmm. I just thought of John McEnroe. But as far as I know, he never visited physical violence on an opponent or official.

    I do recall from years ago when I played on a junior football team, that our coach developed a strategy for us to take out the opposing team’s star runner. And I do mean take out as in injure so he has to leave the game. I was only 11 at the time. So I’m not going to say that Brian’s flatass wrong in his assertion about team sports.

  8. odograph says:

    Brian, you may feel like you have your back against the well … but your use of the word “admit” in response to me seems very odd.

  9. ggr says:

    Is there any statistical evidence that organized sports makes kids more violent and angry? Certainly if you look at countries that have very strong organized sports (most of Europe especially the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the US, Japan) you don’t see their level of violence being either consistent with respect to each other, or higher than in countries that don’t have high levels of organized sport (mainly 3rd world countries). Violence and anger are very tied in to many factors in a society, and I’d be willing to bet heavily that organized sports (or the lack of them) is a negligible factor either way.

    Most Canadian boys of the previous generation played hockey – one of the most violent sports – religiously. Does Canada strike you as a particularly violent country?

    Beyond that, kids (and many adults) will always want to do sport, because its fun.

  10. ggr says:

    One more point. Countries like Canada and Sweden, who have universal (mostly anyway) health care, are emphasizing that both children and adults join organized sport because physical activity keeps health care costs down, and both adults and children are much more likely to continue physical activity if its part of a social arrangement – sport team (even a running group), Y or community sport program, intramural sports.

    This isn’t an issue in the US of course because of private medicine, but its at least arguable that having healthy citizens pays off in the long term even without public medicine.

    And again, the measured rates of violence in say Sweden (which has a very heavily organized sports program for children, much more so than the US or Canada) is lower than in most countries with less organization or even almost no organization. Again, violence is tied to much more important issues than sport.

  11. Brian says:

    Brian, you may feel like you have your back against the well

    ?

    but your use of the word “admit” in response to me seems very odd.

    ?

    I use “admit” to mean that you “grant” that organized sports are useful to keep people from raiding each other. (Even though it often provides the perfect catalyst for exactly that. Especially if one’s team wins the most coveted prize. Like the title gives license to riot as a victorious army would pillage the loser.)

  12. Steve Plunk says:

    Having played organized sports in school, participated in some as an adult, and watched as a parent I would have to give a qualified endorsement of the hypothesis.

    The negatives seem to have reached a point where they outweigh the positives. I would encourage those who have not closely watched organized sports as a nonparticipant up close to try it. My son is a senior in high school so I just finished seeing what it is all about. Like someone said, individual sports can teach just as much without some of the downsides as team sports.

  13. Franklin says:

    odograph broached it, but I have to be more specific: For millions of years, our bodies and brains adapted to a fight for survival – killing animals to eat, defending ourselves from other tribes, etc. Sports are a relatively harmless outlet for our primal instincts. And yup, it’s exactly those primal instincts that flare up sometimes when things go wrong in sports.

    We don’t ban sex because bad things can happen; we just learn how to do it responsibly. The same thing should be done with sports.

    I wouldn’t disagree for a second with complaints about the actions of some individual parents and coaches, and perhaps a bad culture in general has developed. But that seems like a really shitty reason to just throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    And, of course, kids need some damn exercise these days. Just look at ’em.

  14. odograph says:

    Brian, if I was impolite in my first comment, it was because I see this as an ancient, and not at all a new, observation. When you said “admit” or even now “grant” you seem to be implying that I’ve come to realize something new.

    The Ancient Greeks instituted the sports competition (agôn) as a means of bringing physical violence, principally warmongering, under control. Like other kinds of contests (music, poetry, theatreand so on), it constituted one of the forms of transfer which led to the birth of democracy in the 6th century BC, when political emulation replaced physical violence (as practised by the tyrannies and oligarchies) with the discursive violence of the various debating chambers.

    (I did not actually read this pdf)

  15. Eneils Bailey says:

    “Organized Sports Teaches Us Nothing”

    I disagree.
    Organized sports teaches kids teamwork, discipline, and goal attainment.

    There are, of course, bad coaches and, goodness knows, bad parents. They can ruin the experience for everyone.

    Yeah, I agree with that. I used to coach my son’s teams(soccer, t-ball) when he was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. It was tough just trying to teach the kids the basics while the coach on the other side envisioned himself of coaching a team of children that he tried to make them win it all, at all costs. These poor kids were closer in age to crapping in their diapers than a Norte Dame team at 10-0 and fighting for a National Championship.
    And I never understood why patents, who never enforced discipline at home could think they could put a six year old on a soccer or baseball field and expect them to participate to their expectations.
    Yeah, there’s too many bad players here; and they are not the kids on the field.

    Over the last four years, I have participated in the Youth Corps jobs program for my community during the summer. We have found that teenagers participating in High school sports and high school ROTC make the best participants. From these young kids; I have never never heard so many “Yes sir’s” since I left the military. I suspect that this behavior is more the rule than the exception for high school kids who had participated in team activities.

    All of this is strictly anecdotal; no scientific surveys were run here. But somehow, I will hold to my believe until I find I am wrong.

  16. Wow, with millions of people playing organized sports, Mr. Knapp managed to find a few terrible stories over a period of several years, some even with videos. Very impressive work. Truly anything that isn’t perfect must be eliminated.

  17. ggr says:

    Wow, with millions of people playing organized sports, Mr. Knapp managed to find a few terrible stories over a period of several years, some even with videos. Very impressive work. Truly anything that isn’t perfect must be eliminated.

    Its not very convincing as written, is it? It’d be surprising if there weren’t stats on this, and while there’s nothing wrong with taking a few cases for emphasis, it means almost nothing with some sort of wider analysis. Which he himself would probably say if someone countered his piece with an article picking out ten or so people who did organized sport and didn’t become violent or angry …

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    I think he may have conflated the problems inherent with organized sporting activities with those inherent in largscale professional sporting activities, which IMO corrupts amateur athletics.

  19. Steve Plunk says:

    A lot attacking the messenger. Perhaps more discussion of the actual topic would be nice. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? So far no convincing arguments.

    I don’t think we should do away with any sports but we also shouldn’t just assume all sports will build character and are necessary for later adult life. Sports should be fun and character is more likely built in classrooms, at home, and at work.

  20. Brian says:

    Brian, if I was impolite in my first comment, it was because I see this as an ancient, and not at all a new, observation. When you said “admit” or even now “grant” you seem to be implying that I’ve come to realize something new.

    I don’t at all think that you’ve stumbled on something new. See Jon Stonger’s article that I link to in my article. I concede that organized sports IS an outlet for violence in lieu of battle – but that only aids my point that MOST sports are inherently violent or have some violent elements. Not necessarily in their direct maneuvers (as in football), but for what they serve. This tribal purpose that others have mentioned as well.

    odograph broached it, but I have to be more specific: For millions of years, our bodies and brains adapted to a fight for survival – killing animals to eat, defending ourselves from other tribes, etc. Sports are a relatively harmless outlet for our primal instincts. And yup, it’s exactly those primal instincts that flare up sometimes when things go wrong in sports.

    But that has seemed to overshadow the larger point that organized sports teaches us nothing that un-organized or self-organized sports or other organized/un-organized activities can do just as well without being the cousin of tribal warfare.

    Wow, with millions of people playing organized sports, Mr. Knapp managed to find a few terrible stories over a period of several years, some even with videos. Very impressive work. Truly anything that isn’t perfect must be eliminated.

    And

    Its not very convincing as written, is it? It’d be surprising if there weren’t stats on this, and while there’s nothing wrong with taking a few cases for emphasis, it means almost nothing with some sort of wider analysis. Which he himself would probably say if someone countered his piece with an article picking out ten or so people who did organized sport and didn’t become violent or angry …

    And

    Is there any statistical evidence that organized sports makes kids more violent and angry?

    No, I use no statistical evidence or otherwise to show that sports makes people more violent or aggressive. I ask for none when you are submitting POINTS OF VIEWS. Keep them coming.

  21. just me says:

    I disagree.


    You completely missed the point of the article, which is that organized sports engenders violence and anger, not that competition is bad.

    I am really not convinced of this argument. Although I have girls involved in sports (my boys generally aren’t interested and have other pursuits) so perhaps it is different for girls.

    My girls have benefited quite a bit from playing organized sports. Oldest played youth league soccer, basketball, softball and track and field. She does all but softball in high school. She isn’t violent or angry-and her high school soccer team is a boys team.

    My younger daughter plays the above, although in middle school substituted volleyball for soccer. She too isn’t violent or angry.

    I do agree that we don’t let kids have the freedom to just free play like they did when we were kids-and kids getting a game of neighborhood kickball or baseball is important, but I don’t think organized sports teaches nothing and I have a hard time being convinced that it promotes violence and anger-although I will caveat that gender and type of sport may influence this argument.

  22. ap says:

    No, I use no statistical evidence or otherwise to show that sports makes people more violent or aggressive. I ask for none when you are submitting POINTS OF VIEWS. Keep them coming

    Seriously, are you TRYING to set me up? I don’t believe it. Such a formulaic response doesn’t exist in real life. Is this a John Hughes movie? Are you a member of the Alpha Betas?

    Yes, kids only do theater or debate or any of the LAME things because they are FORCED to. I mean, who in their RIGHT mind who do those things willingly? What possible use is Model U.N., Student Congress, or Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking? What could you possibly do with your life if you did those things, be a Poli-Sci Professor? How absolutely LAME!

    And for your information, I wasn’t THAT kid. But I liked THAT kid and made sure he wasn’t picked on by the Ogres of the world.

    i am not sure the tone and message conveyed in your two posts juxtaposed here match. you have quite a jon stewart routine going.

    you seem to be intent on pointless rabble-rousing. that, and porn, seem to be what the internets are good for.

  23. DL says:

    Well it does teach us that should you be good enought to win 100 to 0 you’re going to get fired!

  24. Drew says:

    To be blunt, your analysis is awful, Brian.
    You are confusing sport with poor human behavior. Poor human behavior is not a byproduct of sports, organized or not. It is a product of individual personalities and the general culture from which they arise.

    You tell us sport encourages breaking the rules. In golf – a sport (and my sport) – players routinely call infractions on themselves. It is a sport that encourages this behavior. The fact that another sport does not encourage this behavior is not an indictment of sport in general, but the culture of people involved in other sports. Can you say NBA or NFL – fed largely by ghetto rats? Can you say A-Rod?? It is tolerated because of fandom, but that is not new.

    You spoke of violence. Yes, aggressive physical behavior in properly executing certain sports is an advantage: wrestling, football, hockey. Its those sports nature. But just because you don’t like its inherent nature, don’t damn the concept of sports in general. Further, now be shocked: it also is so in golf, just not directed at the opponent. Stand next to a fine golfer sometime as his driver hits the ball. A correct golf swing is the single most most violent action in all of sport. But you are confusing aggressive physical activity in pursuit of winning the game with out and out hooliganism, and an intent to harm. That is not an indictment of sport, but of the prevailing culture.

    You seem to rest a significant portion of your argument on the fact that the benefits of participation in (those bad) sports can be gotten elsewhere. Fine. My daughter tried soccer (bad), volleyball (bad) and now basketball (worse). Frankly, she stinks at sports. She is all about the arts: dance, acting, singing, modeling etc. There, she’s first rate. To be sure, I’ve seen first hand how her school’s over-emphasis on sports doesn’t fit her personality. And yes, she is learning many of life’s lessons in these other pursuits. But that is not a proof of sport being “bad,” or not being a conduit for learning useful behavior. It just means there are different ways.

    Look, I share with you the sense of outrage and disappointment at the miserable parents screaming and yelling at the coaches and the refs…………..because his gd 10 year old son doesn’t get enough touches of the ball. Its just awful.

    But that isn’t because sports is bad. Its because parents are behaving badly. And why?

    We’ve just come off a giant credit bubble that is a direct byproduct of a self important, self indulgent, instant gratification society.

    I’d go inspect that societal (and quintessential 60’s – 70’s) malformation for awhile rather than blame organized sports.

  25. Really though, when you start with an absolute like “Organized Sports Teaches (sic) Us Nothing” the burden is entirely upon you to justify such a statement. Nothing? Really? Nothing at all? Not even as a bad examplar?

  26. Brian says:

    Really though, when you start with an absolute like “Organized Sports Teaches (sic) Us Nothing” the burden is entirely upon you to justify such a statement. Nothing? Really? Nothing at all? Not even as a bad examplar?

    Charles, you are exactly right. That statement (Organized Sports Teaches Us Nothing) is flat wrong. And it does become incumbent on me to prove such a statement correct. The truth is, I can’t do it, because it’s incorrect. Like you said, it can teach something even if though it doesn’t necessarily teach what it purports.

  27. Bandit says:

    Not to pile on but like just about everything else there are pros and cons. I can say personally playing organized sports were some of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my youth and coaching my and other kids have been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my adult life. There’s an old saying that sports don’t build character but they reveal it. There’s a lot of truth in that. Sports aren’t really an end to themselves but they are a healthy outlet and activity for millions and millions of people worldwide.

  28. ggr says:

    No, I use no statistical evidence or otherwise to show that sports makes people more violent or aggressive. I ask for none when you are submitting POINTS OF VIEWS. Keep them coming.

    Don’t you think it weakens your argument considerably that your evidence is simply a list of a handful of cases? Most people can easily think of ten or so people who played sports as children who aren’t violent or angry – would you accept that as a counter point to your claim? In fact, most children play organized sport of one kind or another during school, and only a small percentage engage in violent activity. If we’re going to compare lists, I suspect the list of those who played sport and didn’t become violent is going to be by a very comfortable margin the longer one.

    And what about whole countries who either have very organized sports education for children (Sweden), or who worship a very violent sport (Canada with hockey) and yet remain quite peaceful. Shouldn’t the Swedes be in the middle of another epoch of coastal raiding? Shouldn’t Canadians be murdering each other on the streets (or at least pulling their jackets over each other’s heads?), and getting into wars whenever possible if your conjecture is correct?

    In fact, my experience is that playing hard contact sports reduces violent tendencies rather than encouraging them – the people I know who wrestle, do judo, BJJ, play hockey, or box are if anything the most relaxed, easy going people I’m acquainted with, possibly because they get it out of their system when playing, possibly because they feel secure enough physically that they don’t have to pretend to be tough. There’s a strong tradition in Canada of young offenders being pulled out of very destructive ways by sport. By your thesis, they should in fact become more violent and angry because of sport, which is contrary to what has been seen.

    I think your argument would be stronger if you made the more limited claim that professional sports leads to violence and anger, though I’d argue that even there the effect is much smaller than what is seen among those who go into politics.

  29. Brian says:

    Don’t you think it weakens your argument considerably that your evidence is simply a list of a handful of cases?

    Of course. But I’m not writing in a scientific journal. And even that’s not enough. It takes decades and hundreds, or even thousands of scientists to gather the necessary data to significantly prove a hypothesis and develop a theory. That or really good math. My arguments are weak because of scope alone

    Most people can easily think of ten or so people who played sports as children who aren’t violent or angry – would you accept that as a counter point to your claim? In fact, most children play organized sport of one kind or another during school, and only a small percentage engage in violent activity. If we’re going to compare lists, I suspect the list of those who played sport and didn’t become violent is going to be by a very comfortable margin the longer one.

    The problem with this logic is that you are right until the majority of people are unreasonably violent. The problem is, civilization will have collapsed well before the percentage approaches what’s needed to make a majority. It’s the wrong question. The right question is, what’s the victim count? Physically and emotionally, what’s the toll?

  30. tom p says:

    My arguments are weak…

    I’m sorry Brian, but maybe you should have just stopped there?

  31. ggr says:

    The problem with this logic is that you are right until the majority of people are unreasonably violent. The problem is, civilization will have collapsed well before the percentage approaches what’s needed to make a majority. It’s the wrong question. The right question is, what’s the victim count? Physically and emotionally, what’s the toll?

    You seem to be suggesting that we should be able to predict how violent a civilization is by the amount and type of organized sport it does. I suspect if you actually go through various countries you’re not going to find much of a correlation. For a start, look at the level of violence in the US compared to Canada, and then consider that for generations almost every single Canadian male grew up playing hockey – one of the most violent sports out there. Do you see the predicted higher rates of violence?

    In fact you can go through most European countries and do the same – the level of sports organization (starting with young children) in Europe is much higher than anywhere in the America’s, or Africa, or Asia … do you see a correspondingly higher level of violence?

    Its seems easier to draw the conclusion that organizes sports is a very minor element (if its an element at all) in how violent a society is.

  32. randall says:

    Sports kept me from becoming a couch-potato. My son would rather play on a sports team than sit in front of the television hour after hour. He is not the greatest athlete on the team, but he tries hard and has fun. I think the problem is the parents who think their own children are the only ones who have a right to be on the field of play. They disrupt the game with poor sportsmanship, while encouraging their kids to play violently in order to win. Some of the youth coaches are no better when they act like they are coaching the world-series or the super-bowl. In some states assaulting a sports official is now a felony in order deter some parents attacking the little-league umpire. Let the kids play and learn. Let the parents shut the hell up or go home.