The Joy of Sports, By Michael Novak Selected Quotes


novak aeiThe Joy of Sports; End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit, By Michael Novak, was published in 1976 by Basic Books, Inc..

Michael Novak

“A journalist snapped:…”How could an allegedly mature man squander time watching pros claw at each other for pay, or give a d@mn whether Notre Dame beats Alabama?” p. xii

“The basic reality of all human life is play, games, sport; these are the realities form which the basic metaphors for all that is important in the rest of life are drawn. Work, politics, and history are the illusory, misleading, false world.” p. xii

“Being, beauty, truth, excellence, transcendence–these words, grown in the soil of play, wither in the sand of work. Art, prayer, worship, love, civilization: these thrive in the field of play.” p. xii


Play belongs to the Kingdom of Ends,

work to the Kingdom of Means.

Barbarians play in order to work;

the civilized work in order to play. p. xii


“Not that football satisfies everything. It doesn’t offer much guidance in how to understand a woman.” p.xv

Novak quotes Vergil, “Of armaments and men I sing,”

“…If war is the teacher men have turned to in order to learn teamwork, discipline, coolness under fire, respect for contingency and fate, football is my moral equivalent of war.” p. xv

Novak quotes Herbert Hoover, “Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution.” p. 1.

Novak quotes Jacques Barzun, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” p.1.

Athletic achievement, like the achievements of the heroes and gods of Greece, is the momentary attainment of perfect form–as though there were, hidden away from mortal eyes, a perfect way to execute a play, and suddenly a player or a team has found it and sneaked a demonstration down to earth. A great play is a revelation. The curtains of ordinary life part, and perfection flashes for an instant before the eye. p.5.

Novak continues transcendent,

To keep cool, to handle hundreds of details and call exactly the plays that work, to fights one’s way through opposition to do what one wills to do, against odds, against probabilities–these are to practice a very high art, to achieve a few moments of beauty that will delight the memory of those who watched, or listened, or read, for all their lives. What we mean by “[sports] legend” is what we mean by “art”: the reaching of a form, a perfection, which ordinarily the flesh masks, a form eternal in its beauty. It is as though muscle and nerves and spirit and comrades were working together as flawlessly as God once imagined human beings might. p.16-17

“Sports are religious in the sense that they are organized institutions, disciplines, and liturgies; and also in the sense that they teach religious qualities of heart and soul…they recreate symbols of cosmic struggle, in which human survival and moral courage are not assured.” p. 21

The Alert Reader will recognize Novak’s metaphor,

Suppose you are an anthropologist from Mars. You come suddenly upon some wild, adolescent tribes living in territories called the “United States of America.” You try to understand their way of life, but their society does not make sense to you. Flying over the land in a rocket, you notice great ovals near every city. You descend and observe. You learn that an oval is called a “stadium.” it is used, roughly, once a week in certain seasons. Weekly, regularly, millions of citizens stream into these concrete doughnuts, pay handsomely, are alternately hushed and awed and outraged and screaming mad. (They demand from time to time that certain sacrificial personages be “killed.”) You see that the figures in the rituals have trained themselves superbly for their performances, The combatants are dedicated. So are the dancers and musicians in tribal dress who occupy the arena before, during, and after the combat. p. 29.

“Religions are built upon ascesis, a word that derives from the disciplines Greek athletes imposed upon themselves to give their wills an instincts command of their bodies; the word was borrowed by Christian monks and hermits.” p. 29 Hence “ascetic.”

“Sports are the high point of civilization–along with the arts, but more powerfully than the arts…” p. 42.

“The heart of human reality is courage, honesty, freedom, community, excellence: the heart is sports.” p. 42″

I have never met a person who disliked sports…who did not at the same time seem to me deficient in humanity. I don’t mean only that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or Jill a dull ms. I mean that a quality of sensitivity, an organ of perception, an access to certain significant truths appear to be missing. Such persons seem to me a danger to civilization. I do not, on the whole, like to work with them. In their presence, I find myself on guard, often unconsciously. I expect from them a certain softness of mind, from their not having known a sufficient number of defeats. Unless they have compensated for it elsewhere, I anticipate that they will underestimate the practice and discipline required for execution, or the role of chance and Fate in human outcomes. I expect them to have a view of the world far too rational and mechanical. p. 44.

Novak provides a definition of unit cohesion in sports which is also critical to the armed service–and may explain why Congress routinely denies allowing homosexuals to serve in the military,

Millions of men look back nostalgically on their days in active athletics precisely because they experience there, as at few other points in their lives, a quality of tenderness, a stream of caring and concern from and toward others, suh as would make the most ardent imaginers of the androgynous ideal envious. Male bonding one of the most paradoxical forms of human tenderness: harsh, hazing, sweet, gentle, abrupt, soft. Blows are exchanged. Pretenses are painfully lanced. The form of compliment is, often as not, an insult. There is daily, hourly probing as to whether one can take it as well as dish it out. It is a sweet preparation for a world less rational, less liberal, than childhood dreams imagine. Among men, sports help to form a brotherhood for which, alas, sisterhood has no similar equivalent, and which is a highly human imperative to invent. p. 46.

Novak invokes a Biblical analogy, to take away the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh, “For gentleness of demeanor, I will take the athlete eight times out of ten. For hardness of heart, I have learned to fear the man who has always hated sports.” p. 46.

“There is no rage like that of the pacifist insisting on nonviolence…” p. 85

Novak quotes William Phillips, “Pro football is the opium of the intellectuals…” p. 88.

Novak cites Hegel where human life is a butcher’s bench. p. 89.

“In the United States…the essence of the symbolic form of football is liberation: breaking away, running for daylight, escaping containment.” p. 93.

Sports provide roots, “The human spirit needs roots, because the pretense of infinity…The human body cannot bear infinity.” p. 146.

“To win, one must defeat both the other team and Fate.” p. 149

“The most satisfying element in sports is spirit. Other elements being equal, the more spirited team will win.” p. 149.

“Half the pleasure of football is the contest between wit and brawn.” p. 149.

“The great [athletes] attempt what the good ones let go by.” p. 150.

“If I had to give one single reason for my love of sports it would be this: I love the test of the human spirit.” p. 150.

“Coaches and scouts seek out desire. Athletes with lesser talents but great desire are better fitted for actual contests than men [and women!] of vast ability but psychological reluctance.” p. 155.

“In sports, dynasties rise and fall. No one dares to be too arrogant too long. Hubris and nemesis…” p. 158.

We are equal in the eyes of the Creator. But not to each other,

Each athlete in every sport discovers very early that others, in this way or that, are his superior. Each finds what he can do best. Each picks his level. Each labors to learn all that he has talent, endurance, and will to learn. Each must, sooner or later, cease pretending to be what he is not, cannot be, and rejoice in playing up to the limit given him. Life is not equal. God is no egalitarian. Prowess varies with every individual. p. 159.

“Each sport is for most a teacher of humility and reconciliation.” p. 159

“None of us [kids on sandlot-neighborhood-sports] played in college. We had had our day, met our limits,”

Yet I would be astonished if [my childhood sports friends] and all the millions of others like us didn’t still watch…Namath, Unitas, and all the Sunday heroes with exquisite pleasure, admiration, and beauty-scorched memory. What we wished to do, strove for–what do I mean? still strive for, still emulate–they do as gracefully as gods. We were for a season gods, or at least boys with dreams; we still are. We went to our limits, as they go to theirs; and if theirs exceed ours, we regard them not with envy but in brotherly participation. p. 161

“I relate this memory [of succeeding in sports at some level] indulge these dreams, only to indicate the pleasure that recognition of limits brings.p. 162.”

“A great rival is a great gift. How can one extend oneself into fresh heights if there is no on to force higher? An artist of any sort who has no peers suffers from the lack. Great peers make one greater than on could become in solitude.” p. 162.

Novak quotes Albert Camus, “Sport was the main occupation of all of us, and continued to be mine for a long time. That is where I had my only lessons in ethics.” p. 172.

Novak quotes Billy Graham, “There are probably more really committed Christians in sports, both collegiate and professional, than in any other occupation in America.” p. 172.

Novak quotes Maurice B. Mitchell, in College & University Business (1973),

Not enough young men and women who come to a university have ever had a punch in the nose, not enough have ever had a black eye, not enough have ever been involved in contact sports or personal physical combat…I think it would be good for us if we had some of those participant activities where everybody gains a sense of his own physical feelings–what it feels like to hurt a little, what it feels like to get bumped, what it feels like to be able to run faster, or to get caught, or to lose. p. 174.

Novak quotes Red Smith,

I had a bartender friend in Philadelphia years ago, a devoted baseball fan, who told me, and he said this with tears in his eyes, that the most beautiful thing in the world, more beautiful than any blond, more beautiful than a mountain lake at sunset, was bases filled, two out, three and two on the hitter and everybody moving with the pitch.

Novak quotes Isaac D. Balbus, in The Nation (1973), “If the link between sports and “maleness” is as deep as I think it is, it is not surprising that homosexual or bi-sexual men are probably less caught up in sports than the average male heterosexual.” p. 180.

Novak quotes Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will (1975),

[There is] a new female recognition (something men have always known) that there are important lessons to be learned from sports competition, among them that winning is the result of hard, sustained, serious training, cool, clever strategy that includes the use of tricks and bluffs, and a positive mind-set that puts all reflex systems on “go.” This knowledge, and the chance to put it in practice, is precisely what women have been conditioned to abjure. p. 182.

“In her work …at Arizona State University, Doloris K. Suddarth discovered striking differences in personality traits between male and female athletes…The male[s]…were high in ego strength, somewhat reserved, dominant, adventurous, tough minded, likinig group action, self-sufficient, relaxed, and unfrustrated…The female[s] …were lower in ego tender-minded, zestful, liking group action, group dependent, tense, and frustrated.” p. 192

Novak quotes Doloris K. Suddarth, “Many traits expected of the successful athlete by coaches and sports psychologists are in direct conflict with traits associated with females by parents, teachers, and peers.” She reportedly contends that a woman athlete has, in effect, a split personality. “On the field she needs an athletic personality; in the social situation, she cannot be successful without a complete reversal of traits.” p. 192.

If we were to design a new game there should be , “A certain degree of “violence”–of hard physical challenge, of being hurt and taking pain…” p. 198.

“The spirit of play is the invention of rules. At the heart of play is love for the finite, the limited, the bounded. “Out-of-bounds” is the primal cry of play. The description of a fixed universe is the first and indispensable step of every free act. For human beings are embodied spirits.” p. 224.

“Perhaps what one learns best in sports are habits of discipline and poise under fire. Having faced often the prospect of the death that comes comes through defeat, one tends not to panic when things go badly.” p. 227.

Novak reminds us that athletes are different from non-athletes,

Those who have not known the rigors of competitive team athletics do not easily find other social and institutional frameworks in which such skills in self-knowledge may be experienced and perfected. That is why there is a special comradeship among former athletes, a bond of thrust within which athletes understand one another swiftly and with few words. And why there is a silent tension between athletes, who have known these fires, and nonathletes, or anti-athletes, who have not. The latter seem not to live as gracefully with defeat, humiliation, or self-betrayal, they seem less conscious of their own complicity in weakness–in other words, with their own sense of being sinners. They pretend more. They have been defeated less. p. 228

Is it better to listen or to watch? Novak explains,

The ear, not the eye is the organ of human fact. And also of thought. The ear is personal (it carries tone and “voice”), holistic, stimulative. The eye distances, makes flat, kills, tames. To hear a great mind lecture is to have access to his though–and to his heart and seat of judgment–that reading his books does not supply. The liturgy of the churches, is, wisely, centered on the spoken Word. So ought the liturgies of sport to be…The eye is the most superficial sense. Television, the medium of the eye, cheapens us. p. 251.

“The politicization of almost everything is a form of totalitarianism. The preservation of parts of life not drawn up into politics and work is essential for the human spirit.” p. 278.

“There are not many activities that can unite janitors, cafeteria workers, sophomores, and Nobel Prizes winners in common pleasure.” p.292.

“Like the other fruits of civilizations, sports are not productive; they are expressions of liberty.” p. 299.

Novak quotes Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1: “If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.”

Novak predicts the challenges basketball standout LeBron James faced as he left Cleveland,

We are expected to sympathize with Larry Csonka when he abandons the Miami Dolphins for the World Football League and $3 million. “I have to think of my family,” hes says. His family was not starving. If ballplayers cannot say no to money, if they will take the highest offer they can get and move away accordingly, they invite contempt. What they do is understandable enough, but wrong. It flies in the face of the rootedness and the fan’s identification with them which gives their professional inner power. If they think so little of their profession, why shouldn’t fans? p. 306

“The British are an older, wiser culture, given to a certain matter-of-fact toughness and pragmatic amorality.” p. 310.

“Baseball without cunning, trickery, and pressing for advantage would scarcely be a contest. Our sports are lively with the sense of evil. The evil in them is to be certain, ritualized, controlled, and channeled.” p. 312.

‘How many men can a girl have before she becomes “that kind of girl”? Lou Grant of the Mary Tyler Moore show has an answer: “Six.” p. 318 Novak was doing numbers on the correct number of professional sports teams. The analogy works in the original.

“Sports for women should be more realistically encouraged, and new sports invented.” p. 334. Women did not crew competitively at the time Novak was researching a literature review. Rowing and collegiate crew are popular competitions for women today.”

“Sports are not merely entertainment, but are rooted in the necessities and the aspirations of the human spirit…Sports do provide entertainment, but of a special and profound sort.” p. 338.

“Aristotle once said that young men cannot understand ethics or metaphysics until they reach the age of fifty.”


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Jack and Charmaine also blog at Reasoned Audacity and at Management Training of DC, LLC.

Thank you (foot)notes,

Hannah Ruth Yoest, Student Athlete, Curriculum Vita


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