The Bold and the Beautiful

Feb. 14, 2011

I stole the headline from the Wisconsin State Journal sports page the day after our Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl. Like all good Wisconsinites I was ecstatic.

Today is Valentine’s Day. The bold and the beautiful, football and love. Hard to beat.

In my youth I studied philosophy in college. William James was one of my favorite philosophers. It was James who claimed that sports were the “moral equivalent of war.” I think he was right.

One of my favorite novels is Lee Smith’s, Fair and Tender Ladies. In one chapter, after making love, the woman asks her lover whether anything else comes close, and he answers, “well, there’s always sports.” I think he is right. (So is she.)

As I pointed out in my News last week for many thousands of years humans have lived in agriculturally based societies. The only wealth they could manage was what they could coax from the land and the animals (including the human ones-that is, slaves, serfs or peasants). The rich were rich because they owned more land and had more animals, including human ones, to work for them.

In these agricultural societies the rich had a few sports like falconry, fox hunting, jousting and fencing. In ancient Greece of course they had wrestling, boxing and Olympic sports. And in Rome they had the famous Coliseum battles and circus extravaganzas. The peasants, serfs and slaves in all of these societies had some leisure time but not much, and for the most part they had few sports. Men sometimes had archery, horsemanship and other war and hunting related sports competitions. Among aristocrats, the warrior class-knights in shining armor-was the most prized, the most richly rewarded, and probably the most prolific. They were also the biggest risk-takers and the most likely to die in frequent wars with neighboring kingdoms or tribes.

Since all of us today are descended from these agricultural-age folks, we still have built into our genes and our memes a goodly mix of character traits that make for a lively sports scene-and also, unfortunately, a propensity to settle disputes by fighting. In particular most males have inherited a medley of traits that were valuable in disputes and in wars. Things like aggressiveness, speed, boldness, strength, quickness, decisiveness, endurance, and desire for adventure and risk-taking. These happen to be the same traits that the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers had in such surplus last week. They are also the same traits that lead to success today, not only in sports, but also in business and social situations.

Some intellectuals may not want to admit it, but attractive young women also prize these same traits. The old song from my day “you’ve got to be a football hero to get along with a beautiful girl” was only too true then, and I suspect is still true today. In my day sports were more limited in variety for both participants and fans. In my family we would listen on the radio to the football games of Notre Dame, the baseball games of the Cincinnati Reds and the boxing matches of Joe Louis.

Those three sports-football, baseball and boxing-were the big deal then, and almost the only big deals for players and for fans. Professional sports existed but fans were few and far between (except maybe for boxing, baseball and horse racing). The early Green Bay Packers of Curly Lambeau days got $200 a game. And they had to pay heir own expenses!

Our high schools did have football and basketball teams, but that was about it. Tennis, golf, bowling, swimming and ice hockey were important to some people. Mostly people who were well-to-do.

Today for “football hero” in addition to the sports already named you could substitute any of hundreds of others: like bike racing, NASCAR racing, skiing, rowing, bow hunting, horseracing, volleyball, rugby, curling, wrestling, gymnastics, soccer, cricket, marathon running, skateboarding, Ironman, Frisbee golf, Ping-Pong, snowboarding, extreme fighting, waterskiing, lacrosse, even poker, pool and chess. You name it, there is a following of participants and of fans. You name it, aggressiveness, risk-taking, endurance, speed and strength pay off. As Damon Runyon put it, “the race is not always to swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

Today it is true that intellectual skills like proficiency in science, mathematics and verbal jousting are also prized. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the founders of Google, Facebook and YouTube get monetary rewards far in excess of Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger. These intellectually favored people are also not deficient in aggressive talents, just as modern sports stars are not deficient in intellectual talents. For the most part the overwhelming majority of the general population prefers athletic achievement over intellectual achievement. No matter how sincerely leaders strive to promote the latter, the acclaim for a Nobel Prize winner, a 4.0 grade average or a local Science fair winner pales in comparison to the acclaim for a Super Bowl ring or the winning touchdown, basket or goal in a high school tournament.

Some decry the large amounts of money that reward men (and recently women too) who exhibit these aggressive traits, whether in sports or business. Such objections cut little ice with sports fans, with voters, with investors, or with attractive women. Sorry, but that is just the way it is. The challenge for peace-loving aggressive-averse people (including myself) is to hope we can channel aggressive traits into their moral equivalent, sports, rather than into fighting and war. In the inevitable case where war does becomes necessary, so long as we continue to nurture the aggressive traits with athletic competition we will still have the power to prevail.  In the inevitable case where economic competition is necessary (which is pretty much always) we will also have the power to compete and to win.

Of course there is a saving grace here-remember that in a free-market economy, unlike in sports events, the basic transaction is a win-win one! (The Pittsburgh Steelers may not find that a comforting thought I admit.)

Have a happy Valentine’s Day. And after cuddling with your sweetie, don’t forget, “there’s always sports.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I don’t really have any video programs glorifying sports or love. On the other hand all of my programs in their subtle way promote morally healthy competition, love of people and love of the earth and the amazing universe that has given us these incredible gifts. See or for a sampling of the range.

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