Sport is About Human Redemption, Kretchmar Tells Audience

Scott Kretchmar
Scott Kretchmar
“In what ways is sport valuable?” asked philosopher Scott Kretchmar (rhetorically, of course) to the audience in the Science Center Kennedy Auditorium on April 21. The son of a baseball coach at Oberlin, Kretchmar was introduced to sport culture rather early in life. He grew up to be a self-proclaimed jock and even went so far as to major in physical education as an undergraduate. Sport, he admitted, has always been something of great personal significance to him – and, predictably, he has always been irked by critics who assert that sports are “mere games.” Instead, Kretchmar has always been drawn to the virtues of sport: it is about “human redemption,” he said, “about engaging the best part of us.”

But the answer to his initial question is not so simple – quite the contrary. One cannot aim too high – too idealistically – in his answer and thus deify and decontextualize the athletes and the fans. Nor can one aim too low – too scientifically – and hence reduce sports to a form of primitiveness, to activities that merely stimulate our physicality and not our emotionality. “The answers about the significance of sport lie in the middle,” Kretchmar explained. And there are three possible “avenues” that travel this middle route that can explain the ways in which sport is valuable: the mosaic, the transformative, and the ambiguous.

The “mosaic” is a school of thought proposed by the idealists; it asserts that humans participate in sports so that they may strive for perfection. “The athletic goal is to approximate the ideal,” Kretchmar said. It is human nature to aim for excellence – and sport is a way to go about attaining such excellence. But the “mosaic” school of thought also takes into account that while human ambition may be limitless, the human body is an ultimately fragile and limited thing. Emotions and physical inadequacies are impediments – they “toss [athletes] about any road that might lead them to perfection.” Indeed, we can only achieve so much. “It is why we reach for the stars and why we always fall short,” Kretchmar explained.

In contrast, the “transformative” school of thought is more analytic. It asserts that sports move an athlete from one state of being to another: from a lesser state to a greater state. It proposes that sport is a concrete spectrum that ranges between exclusivity (after all, only one person or team can win…) and mutuality (…but both winners and losers can come away with some sense of contentment). It also ranges between opportunism and integrity, since the rules of the game offer a chance at cheating but offer a chance at being creative within artificial boundaries. Finally, sport skirts the line between significance and insignificance. Arguably, sport is a nonsensical pastime, since a great deal of energy is exerted that essentially produces nothing: “world hunger is an issue before the game and it is still an issue after the game.” But sport also provides the athlete with the significant opportunities for bodily knowledge (“it is far better to know than to be ignorant”), for drama (one may “relish the sweet tension of uncertainty”), and for excellence.

And last but not least, there is the “ambiguous” school of thought. It requires that we look at sport not as a phenomenon, as the mosaic avenue does, nor as a transition between two grounded states, as the transformative avenue does. “There are no clear-cut dichotomies,” Kretchmar said. Most people consider work and play to be polar opposites, but the “ambiguous” school of thought asserts that sport is a combination of these two elements: work and play are “an interpenetrating, complementary pair.” Sport takes the fundamental logic of work – to do or make something – but also takes the fundamental logic of play – to have fun – and seamlessly combines them. It is a combination of work and play, the natural and the artificial, the stimulating and the meaningful.

Concluding his heady lecture, Kretchmar finally asked, “But which middle account works best?” The mosaic account inspires and hopes; the transformative account directs and grounds; the ambiguous account mixes and explains. Each indeed has merit, but perhaps it is ultimately up to the athletes and the fans to decide for themselves. And though the answer to why sport is so valuable is certainly messy and complex, one thing is clear and absolute: sport is intrinsically meaningful. “Humans and games grew up together,” Kretchmar said. “We meaning-seeking creatures cannot help ourselves.”
Back to Top