Sports and the myth of equality

Equality is essential to mathematics. To the rest of life, it’s both nonexistent and undesirable.

Recently, my family and I went to the Oregon high school track and field state championship meet. After watching numerous races, one of my kids asked an interesting question:

“What if every runner crossed the finish line at the same exact time?”

Not only is that almost impossible, but it’d be boring.

My youngest son is finally getting to the age where official scores are kept at his games. But that illusion of “we don’t keep game scores for younger athletes” has never really worked. The kids on the field and the parents on the sidelines have always kept score. There has never been a sport where “everyone is a winner.” That violates the basic competitive nature of all sports.

Not only do we all keep score, but we all measure athletic aptitude. This can be sad and belittling for those who lack speed and dexterity if kids act unkindly or shun them because of that. But that’s not necessarily so. For years, I was the last kid picked on the playground. While I didn’t like being picked last, I knew I shouldn’t be picked first. Because it wouldn’t have made sense, it didn’t bother me. In fact, I would have felt like I was being mocked if I had been picked first.

What was important wasn’t equality. What was important was a quality that went beyond equality — sportsmanship, which includes kindness and integrity.

This mirrors what Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his famous Dream speech, where he articulated his dream not for equality, but for brotherhood.

Sportsmanship and brotherhood both include and lift up those that the loveless and manipulating would push to the side in their single-minded focus on coming out on top.

Because of a lack of sportsmanship and brotherhood, we have to come up with extra rules to broaden the field of participation.

When we push people down because of ethnicity, gender, economics, religion, or other inappropriate factors, we are forced to come up with rules to to protect them and give them opportunities to participate. This is why voting rights and anti-segregation laws in the 1960s were so important in giving African Americans the same access to political, educational, economic, and other aspects of American life as the rest of the country. This is why Title IX was so important in opening up the doors for female athletes in ways that we hadn’t realized were shut to them beforehand.

These kinds of rule changes are essential in the face of intentionally and unintentionally keeping people from the table. But they don’t deal with the basic inequities of life.

Usain Bolt will always run faster than I will.

There will always be the wealthy and the poor.

There will always be the healthy and the infirm.

There will always be the strong and the weak.

There will always be the educated and the uneducated.

We’re not going to rid ourselves of these inequities. But here’s where the beautiful thing of kindness and integrity (sportsmanship) come in. When we live out our inequities well, this is what happens:

The wealthy learn generosity as they share with the poor. And the poor learn gratitude as they receive from the wealthy.

The healthy and the strong learn to lift up and care for the infirm and the weak. And the infirm and the weak learn humility as they are lifted up.

The educated gain patience as they teach the uneducated. And the uneducated gain wisdom as they are taught by the educated.

A holy economy emerges when we realize that when the scale tips our way, it does so in order for us to share with those it tips against. And when it tips against us, it does so in order for us to receive from those it tips toward. In this way, we learn both generosity and gratitude and become more human in the process.

These are things that only inequality can teach us.

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