Guys (and women)—we like sport, right? Playing, watching, talking, reading up on the game. Reading five different reports to see if any of the critics saw the same game as we did. Sport is a major global innovator, investor, inspiration. Even if we were no good as kids, we still found a group of friends who were just as bad, and played.
Sport can be a global force for good—it’s why we well up at the Olympics when the back–markers push on with their plucky efforts. They set an example for everyone who’s not an elite athlete that it doesn’t matter where you finish, as long as you finish. That’s also why it’s such a crime when those at the top of sport let corruption in—just look at Blatter at FIFA, Diack at the IAAF, and of course Lance Armstrong in cycling.
Lessons from sport spill over into other areas of life: work, sure, but also our relationships, and our parenting. The former 49ers coach Bill Walsh’s book The Score Takes Care of Itself is a classic of thought leadership you can use in any area of your life. It’s being backed up by all the research that says don’t focus on the goal, focus on the process.
But I’ve got a problem with sports—or more precisely, with the word itself—when it’s used to define not a force for good at all, nor an athletic competition between rivals, but the hunting and torture of animals. How can killing a fox or shooting a coyote fall in the same category as putting a birdie or returning that punt?
It’s a legacy we men don’t seem to be able to throw off. The problem is, ‘hunting for sport’ was around long before our modern-day ‘sports’ were. Back in 1831 England’s The New Sporting Magazine claimed that ‘to talk of the decline of the sport is to talk of the decline of the empire’. The editor wasn’t talking about football or soccer. He was talking about killing foxes, hunting deer, coursing hares, baiting bears, and shooting grouse.
Even the ancient Olympics connected sports and animal sacrifice—young lambs would be slaughtered on the opening days of the games in hour of Zeus, the original Olympics being part of a religious festival to honour the gods.
In the UK there’s always been the effort to pre-fix ‘sports’ with ‘blood’ when it comes to hunting. But groups of powerful people across Europe—such as those invested in Spanish bull-fighting—defend their right to torture and kill animals as ‘sport’ as part of their cultural traditions. They’re even subsidized by governments.
There have always been many opponents. Around the same time that The New Sporting Magazine was claiming hunting as part of a national culture, the editorial of one of Compassionate Man’s early ancestors, The Animal’s Friend magazine, was proclaiming: ‘No one in his sense can think that to hunt and tear a living being to pieces for sport is not wickedness in the extreme.’
But lots of men still do. Much of America’s gun ownership is for ‘sports’-based hunting. What would changing the perception of ‘sport’ in the minds of American men do for reducing the desire for owning a gun? The question is, then: what is sport?
For Cicero, writing in the Ars Poetica in 412 CE, sport was for “the man who wishes to achieve the longed-for victory in a race” and that he “must as a boy have trained long and hard, have sweated and groaned, and abstained from wine and women.” Sport is about discipline, choices, and determination.
The contemporary philosopher Bernard Gert has argued that sports is a set of public systems for showing us how to behave properly. It sets a reward structure for proper play—play according to the rules and play better than your opponent, and you win the game. So sports are naturally all about “the proper behavior of a person participating in the activities of an institution. This behavior can show respect for the other persons who are also participating in these activities by abiding by those rules that you expect them to follow. However, a person who cheats fails to show this respect.”
Just like the British empire came to an abrupt end, so we should end the connection in language of sport having anything to do with hunting and killing animals.
One answer is to replace the language of killing with the language of compassion. Professor Emeritus in animal behavior at Colorado State University, Marc Bekoff, argues that we need to rewild language and rewild the media, as well as our hearts, to bring our systems of communication back into connection with a love of nature. That would mean refusing to talk about the killing of animals as a sport, and constantly challenging the claims wherever they are made.
How do we rewild sports so that ‘cheating’ is no longer rewarded—either by money, fame, or the bloodlust of killing others. How do we change the language of sport so that those who hunt are no longer rewarded with respect, but seen as ‘cheating’ the life out of other beings who didn’t even choose to play? Anyone who follows bullfighting knows it’s not a ‘fair fight’ but that the bulls are weakened, blinded, drained before being sent into the ring. What kind of cheat does that make the toreador? And why do crowds keep paying him or her their respect?
Let’s make it so sports are for those who compete fairly, and with compassion. Let’s make men be ‘good sports’ again.