Sports and Human Dignity

Basketball hoop in front of grey sky

Introduction

For as long as I can remember my family has always been into sports. Destiny deemed it so. My mom was a high school cheerleader and my dad was a high school football player. They took me to college basketball games in an infant carrier. My dad coached little league football and dragged me to those football games. As my brother grew up, My parents would drag me to his baseball games. I never played organized sports due to my disability. My parents still instilled in me a deep appreciation for sports. Some of my favorite moments in college basketball involve a good Cinderella story. I remember my dad and I watching the George Mason versus UConn game on March 26, 2006. We ripped up our very wrong brackets and rooted for George Mason all the way until their loss to Florida. The most memorable moment has got to be the VCU final four run in 2011. My parents are VCU alumni. They attend all the home games and took my brother and me with them. Thus my parents had traveled to Texas to watch VCU play. I remember the Florida State game, which set VCU up to face Kansas. At the time of the game, I was in the hospital alone. I had been suffering from back pain and numbness in my hands. Nobody could find out what was wrong with me. As I watch VCU play Florida state, It reminded me of humanity’s capacity to fight. I believe the appeal of sports touches our innermost belief that we can conquer all obstacles. We are obsessed with a good underdog story. This shows that we desire to see the little guy take on Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot and three stones. Sports remind us of human dignity.

What is Dignity

I have argued that the concept of dignity is multifaceted. Humans have inherent dignity by virtue of being members of Homo sapiens. Yet they also have a fuller dignity. This dignity comes from not who we are, but what we do. People refer to this definition when they say, “The person is behaving in a dignified way.” The Catholic Church agrees with me. The Catechism of The Catholic Church states,

The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2).

Humanity has dignity because humanity has God-likeness in them. Humanity receives their being directly from God,

then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7 NABre).

God gave humanity his breath of Life. This means that we receive our being directly from God. Yet dignity is not inherently a religious concept, but a philosophical one.

A person can derive at the concept of dignity by asking what is the measure of a human being? At first, we refer to Aristotle and say that humanity is different due to our rational soul. However, we still consider vegetative persons human. Most people would concede that even babies born without rational capacity deserve respect. This respect forms the basis for our inherent dignity. Yet people also recognize that we lose something when we lose our ability to reason. What a person loses is the ability to fulfill their potential as human beings. This is what I mean by the term fuller dignity.

Is Autonomy enough

Steven Pinker in the article The Stupidity of Dignity wants to eliminate dignity all together in favor of autonomy. He says, “ because it [dignity] amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it’s just another application of the principle of autonomy.”[^1] Pinker sees no difference between autonomy and dignity. I purpose the following thought experiment.

Imagine a world where every athlete has the option to take a drug that will make them stronger and faster. There are no side effects. They get put in a special league for people on the drug. Thus the competition is fair. Would you watch these sporting events?

Most people would not watch the league of super people because when it comes to sports we want to see human achievement. We want to see raw talent unaided by chemical processes. We intuitively feel there is something wrong with the special league of super people. Yet autonomy is never violated in the above scenario. Thus we need something more than autonomy to protect against unnatural enhancements. The concept we need is dignity.

One potential objection is that the drug is no different then external equipment. Yet in certain sports like swimming, the equipment is already regulated. Elite swimmer, Michael Phelps has spoken against whole-body polyurethane swimsuits because these swimsuits are, “distorting the sport.”[^2] Sports become distorted when it becomes more about equipment and less about human achievement.

Conclusion

Sports teach important life lessons. It teaches teamwork, good sportsmanship, and how to face defeat. More importantly, it shows us what humans endowed by their creator can achieve. We watch sports to see the capacity of humans. Human capacity matters because there exists something special about human nature. Catholics know that this specialness comes directly from God. We look up to athletes. They remind us that humans are amazing creatures destined for something greater. They remind us that every so often David can defeat Goliath. The next time you watch sports, let it remind you of the capacity for greatness that we all share.

[^1]: Pinker, Steven, “The Stupidity of Dignity” The New Republic (May 28, 2008), https://newrepublic.com/article/64674/the-stupidity-dignity

[^2]: Barrow, John D, “Why Ban Full-Body Olympics Swimsuits? A Scientist Explains Polyurethane” Daily Beast (July 25th, 2012), https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-ban-full-body-olympics-swimsuits-a-scientist-explains-polyurethane?ref=scroll