To sell a tired, mangy donkey, with its starved ribs poking out from under its thin skin like barrel staves, one need only hire Tom Brady or Colin Kaepernick to be its rider. As the sad beast is led through the highways and byways of town, the astonished onlookers, their mouths wide open, will surely cry out, “What a magnificent donkey!”

A sports hero can be used to tout any product, whether patriotism, social protest or religion, because in the endless babble of voices that rattles down every channel and conduit of the mass media, the voice of the sports hero echoes the loudest, and commands the largest sums.

When athletes stand alongside soldiers, or when they kneel during the national anthem, their voices become even more persuasive, because they are performing a ritual. And a ritual calls for more than agreement — a ritual calls for reverence and compliance.

But the viewer who watches this spectacle of patriotism or this moment of protest has purchased his emotions secondhand. He has opened his heart and mind to ideas invented by others; hence, the emotions the viewer experiences may be called “programmed emotions.” With the swift push of a button or the rapid spin of the dial, other programmed emotions are available, courtesy of the latest lurid crime drama, or a cheerful commercial for the newest wonder drug. Tugged here and there between fear and hope, love and hate, joy and despair, the heart of the viewer bounces up and down like a yo-yo on a string, rebounding endlessly until the string becomes frayed, and then finally breaks. Emotions are never strong and binding until they are tied to a real object, a human being with a beating heart. If tied to an imaginary object flashing momentarily on a computer or television screen, the emotions are lighter than a cobweb, and vanish quickly like dust scattered in the wind.

Thus the programmed, pre-packaged emotions offered by the mass media soon wear thin. The pretense of protest or patriotism disappears, and at long last the viewer sees only the tired, mangy donkey. And with this new understanding, the viewer finally realizes that the motivating force in professional sports today is greed, the sin of avarice. The opinion of the professional athlete regarding politics, religion or social protest no longer carries any weight, because the athlete can no longer give worth to his own sport.

All the appeals to patriotism or social protest are seen to be mere window-dressing, sugary icing on the cake, showy but worthless tinsel, and the viewer recognizes at long last that sports in America has lost its soul. If the viewer is wise, he will see that America has lost her soul as well.

Sport without a higher purpose is worse than empty and vain. If the viewer watches merely to excite the human passions, the spectacle itself — the contrived patriotism, the blaring music, the fervent pride in one’s own team, which soon boils over into anger, and the envy at the success of others, and joy in their injury or defeat – becomes contemptible.

How noble in comparison is the elderly gentleman who walks with a cane and a halting step to recover from illness! How special is the Special Olympics, when the disabled child overcomes new challenges! How worthy of admiration is the solitary mountain climber who throws out his thin but trusty rope toward a new, unconquered peak, or the young athlete who hurls a heavy javelin farther than ever before!

Weak limbs are made sturdy; a doubting mind learns the virtue of perseverance; and the faint heart is made courageous and strong. Such athletes go beyond themselves like an arrow shot into the sky, rising ever higher, just as those athletes who trade their honor for money sink ever downwards toward earth, ever more ignoble in their conduct, and lower in the estimation of their fellow man.

Fritz Spencer of Old Town is former editor of the Christian Civic League Record.

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