The intensity of these ethical conversations, particularly concerning doping, belies sports' status as a game. If our body is a temple, then our stadiums can be cathedrals, and defilement is a serious matter. "Fair play" dates from the era when sports were about unassisted gentlemen on an even playing field and when working at sports was disparaged. The modern Olympics, with its celebration of amateurism and false antiquity, were the invention of a French aristocrat. Meanwhile, professional athletes were drawn from the lower classes. Slowly, this vast social gulf diminished, and at the same time what Sepp Gumbrecht calls "health sports" began permeating our society.
Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature and a shameless devotee of the Cardinal, has written a book, In Praise of Athletic Beauty, which pays homage to his athletically and otherwise gifted students by exploring the aesthetic experience of watching them. To quote the Boston Globe, "To ground his argument, Gumbrecht turns to that staple of sports bar disputation, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment." He is interested in the spectator's transcendence from individual to collectivity, the athlete's transcendence into "the zone," and the fascination and admiration of beautiful bodies doing remarkable things, performing "epiphanies of form and of bodily grace."
Some sports require the athlete to be intentional about creating beauty, Gumbrecht noted in an interview. Ice skating, diving and gymnastics are examples. Others, like soccer, are beautiful to watch, but if the striker thinks about being beautiful as he or she kicks a goal, the goal surely won't get made. And there is beauty, too, in that unconsciousness.
Gumbrecht, along with Roger Noll, helps recruit Stanford football players. It's not easy to fill a full roster of academically eligible players. Noll appeals to them by telling them they won't have to spend all their time with other athletes, like at some big state schools; they'll actually be able to live in a dorm and go to normal classes. Gumbrecht tells them it's really hard here. Really, really hard. Not since ancient Athens, he says, have intellectual and physical pursuits shone together so gloriously in one place. But it's hard, he repeats. The recruits generally rise to the bait.