Love and Sports
Cultivating the virtue of love on the field
Posted Nov 21, 2016
Many people today think of sport primarily in terms of combat. The opponent is the enemy. Sometimes, this mindset spills over into how teammates treat one another. When all that matters is winning, we can forget to respect each other and the game. It may seem idealistic, but the fact is that not only can we avoid this approach to sports, we can also create an environment in which love is present and active.
In its ideal form, love includes a desire for the good of the beloved and union with the beloved. This is not only the case in romantic love, but friendship, parental love, love of one’s neighbor, love of one’s teammates, and love of God. All of these forms of love include a close relationship of some sort.
But is it at all realistic that the virtue of love for God and others can be cultivated and exemplified in sport? It may be rare, but if it is intentionally cultivated, the virtue of love can flourish in athletic contexts.
Consider former professional American football player and high school football coach Joe Ehrmann’s approach to coaching. He and his fellow coaches work to build their players into men who are other-centered and have a transcendent cause to live for that is greater than themselves. His standard question and answer routine, prior to each game, is this:
“What is our job as coaches?” he asked.
“To love us!” the boys yelled back in unison.
“What is your job?”
“To love each other,” the boys responded.
This is countercultural, in many ways, but shows what is possible in the realm of sport, even with a team of 14-18 year old boys playing a violent game. The transcendent cause that Joe Ehrmann embraces and models for his players is love for God. It isn’t always clear sailing, but the virtue of love seems to flourish here.
Ehrmann and the rest of the coaches show love inasmuch as they put the interests of the boys ahead of victory and public accolades. When one of the other coaches was asked how successful the team would be this year, he replied that “I have no idea. Won’t really know for twenty years…Then I’ll be able to see what kind of husbands they are. I’ll be able to see what kind of fathers they are. I’ll see what they're doing in the community.”
The team was a perennial winner, even ranked as the top team in the state, but along with athletic success the coaches have something else in mind for the athletes they coach. They love their players, and they help them to love others.
Coaches, parents, athletes, and fans usually focus on winning and becoming better at their chosen sport. This is good. But they should also focus on cultivating character in sport, including the virtue of love, the most important virtue of all.
Jeffrey Marx, A Season of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), p. 3, 53.
Eric J. Silverman, The Prudence of Love (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), p. 59.