In Praise of Professional Sports

Clearly, we suffer as a society from the debilitating infirmity of cognitive dissonance. We are immune to what Leon Festinger in a classic analysis of the subject, When Prophecy Fails, calls “disconfirmation,” which would introduce a “painful dissonance” into our belief systems. Thus we serenely accept in one domain what we would adamantly reject in another. We want our sports to be cutting-edge and the teams we cheer for to excel on the playing surface. We want to win. But in business, science, academia, the military, the trades, and professions, we are willing to lose.

In the province of sport, we are, it seems, churlishly reluctant to root for the opponent. When it comes to the composition of the home team, we want the “brain trust” to sign the best players at every position, regardless of race, creed, or political affiliation. Should management falter in its duty to draft well and hire intelligently, performance is demonstrably weakened, gate receipts tend in many cases to fall off, and ridicule and dissatisfaction are the rewards of evident unfitness. But in the social and cultural realms, a very different attitude prevails. We are content to tolerate mediocrity and inefficiency so long as our cherished and often flawed assumptions regarding the origin and nature of social disparities are kept intact — even if, in the sequel, social functioning is impaired and everybody suffers the consequences.

The plain fact is that what we thoughtlessly conceive as “social justice” leads inevitably to communal decay and a species of undeniable injustice. The social desideratum with respect to the political, economic, and professional sectors should be, not to stack the deck or lavish handicap adjustments on the disadvantaged, but to provide a level playing field for all contenders, applicants, and potential candidates in any designated vocation. Justice for the aggregate must begin with justice for the individual, whether considered as a member of the group or as a citizen of the larger community. There is no other way to secure justice for the collective. You don’t want a host of banausics who enter the work force and professional classes owing not to natal aptitudes and felicitous work habits but to the patronage of misguided idealists. On the contrary, you want people who can do the job and actually live up to their credentials.

Professional sport is a working model for a successful society. It is a rule-dominated affair enacted in a stipulated area with visible boundaries that cannot be transgressed. Society, too, properly understood, is rule-oriented, its transactions governed by laws, statutes, codes of behavior, and a clearly marked legal space in which the “game” can unfold without descending into anarchy. And, no less crucially, as in professional sport, society requires the appropriate personnel at all the sensitive nodes, people who know what they are doing and are able to do it well, ultimately for the benefit of others.

To privilege those who may be inadequate to the task at hand or to the demands of a given discipline, office, or occupation is to guarantee failure for all. The cost may sometimes be high but refusing to accept it is frankly unaffordable. You play to win and you pay to win.