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Book Review: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games

What a book! There are 1006 notes and a bibliography of 21 pages. Yet, the text reads like a novel, an adventure story tracing the rise and travels of a behemoth called the “Protestant Ethic” from its origins in the Reformation and invasion of America to especially its influence upon American sport. The most appropriate word for the style here is one central to religion and sports and that is “grace.” Further, humorous wisdom in the form of brief epigraphs before each section or chapter lightens an inevitable seriousness in discussions of money and religion. For instance, we see the following heading of a discussion about work and labor associated with the Protestant ethic:

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport by Steven J. Overman

Now I wake me up to work. I pray the lord I may not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my works’ all right. Amen. Jack London

The author is more like a companion than that in the metaphor used by Joyce, one who has finished a work and sits behind it paring his nails. Wisely, Overman makes sure the reader is involved in preparation of the journey. He does this by the use of “we,” not a royal “we” but a “we” of fellow seekers.

We can distill this comprehensive and occasionally redundant collection into a concise set of constructs that reflect the essence of the Protestant ethic. The following list compiled by the author is labeled the “Seven Protestant Virtues” (With Apologies to Thomas Aquinas) : (I) worldly asceticism (II) rationalization (III)  goal-directed behavior, (IV) achieved status, (V) Individualism (VI) work ethic, and (VII) time ethic.(57)

Overman points to the similarities between these “Seven Protestant Virtues” and “the seven characteristics of modern sport” identified by Allen Guttmann: “secularism, equality, rationalization, specialization, bureaucracy, quantified achievement, and record keeping–all indicative of its break from the sacred and festive . . . .Consistent with the secularization thesis, the focus of this book is not on sport as a form of religion but the ways in which modern sport reaffirms, reinforces, and disseminates values that have their origins in religion” (11-12).

All claims by Overman are supported by an abundance of research including elements of Calvinism as reflected in the title. The figure, though, who tied the reformation to capitalism was Max Weber (1864-1920) in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Overman,

Weber’s thesis about the relationship between the Protestant ethic and capitalism was born in his observations of differences in certain types of  social behavior among Protestants and Catholics in post-reformation Germany. He inquired as to what kind of historical processes would account for the fact that the Protestants sections of Germany were more industrialized, that they constituted a disproportionate number of the industrial affluent and that they were more likely to attend the types of schools that would equip them for business enterprises. These developments encompassed essential patterns for success under capitalism. . . .

Weber recognized the pivotal nature of Martin Luther’s idea of the calling, ultimately refined by the Calvinists. Weber focused. . . upon a code of ethics for the conduct of everyday life and a sanction that would compel the faithful to adhere to a set of ethical maxims.  This focus brought Weber to the central point of his thesis that the reformed Protestant belief in predestination manifesting itself in the performance of good works as the driving force behind the spirit of capitalism. Consistent with this notion, the individual Protestant expected to practice a type of inner-worldly rational asceticism in which meticulous attention must be paid to the affairs of everyday life as proof of election (i. e. personal salvation). (43) (Italics added)

A recurring formula throughout the Overman’s discussion of the Protestant ethic is that “success” opens the gate for salvation but included a fidelity to ethical maxims. Success, thus, entails not just money-making and recognition but service to others. It does not surprise that for Weber representative figures were Ben Franklin and John Wesley.

In subsequent sections of Part 1, Overman examines, among other topics, Protestantism and the American Work ethic and ethos, and in Part 2, entitled “The Spirit of Sport,” he focuses on “The Protestant Ethic and the Institutionalization of American Sport,” “Moral Ascetism,” and “the Rationalization of Sport,” “Child Rearing and Youth Sport in Protestant Culture,” “the Coopting of Amateur Sport,” and “Professional Sport: The Progeny of Capitalism” and “Finish Line: Summing up the Ethos of Sport.”

In the “Progeny of Capitalism,” Ben Franklin and John Wesley, “successful” in their chosen endeavors, stand in stark contrast to those who have “succeeded” in a different way.
When William Wrigley III sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company in 1981, it was the beginning of a new era. The Griffith family, who had purchased the Washington Senators in 1912 and still owned the team when it moved to Minneapolis in 1961, sold the twins to a banker in 1985. Peter O’Malley then sold the Los Angeles Dodgers to media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch in 1997. . . .The traditional owners whose emotional investment in the team meant as much as their financial investment had become an anachronism. They were gradually being replaced by brewers, bankers, business tycoons, and media moguls. (303)

The Protestant ethic does not prohibit making money but does not see that as an end in itself. Instead, it is a means of doing good for the whole of society apparently as advised by John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

From the 1960s onward, according to Overman, “Franchise owners increasingly were inclined to define success less by what occurred on the playing field than by ‘black ink.’ Winning, losing and playing the game seemed less important than counting the money.” The Protestant ethic, at its best, it seems, might be defined as capitalism with a conscience.

What has happened to the Protestant ethic in American Sport, or at least the “moneyfied” branch of it, may well be an example of Enantiodromia, the tendency of one quality or virtue to turn into its opposite. Heraclitus, it is believed, was the first to identify it and to regard it as a “law,” a key component of Jungian analysis. There is ample evidence that in regard to wealth this could be happening in America on a broad scale, possibly, because few have even heard of the phenomenon. After all, the ancients, as Mark Twain said, “stole all our ideas.”

Of all the terms and ideas that define the Protestant ethic, the word “success,” may the most fragile. It is not a coincidence that, according to Websters, it came into use in 1519. It shares meanings and interpretations with the word “excellence” (arete), “the same but different” (eadem sed aliter), Schopenhauer’s motto for history. Success depends on display in sport, government, warfare, and religion, the four “occupations” according to Thorstein Veblen, “of predatory cultures.” Excellence, in contrast, is a composite ideal, like strength and wisdom, sapientia et fortitudo, and its purpose is seeking, which accounts no doubt for its abundant use in Greek philosophy and scripture where “success” is barely mentioned.

Emerson inveighed against “success,” but, according to Charles W. Eliot, he was also the “founder of the cult of athletics.” William James went so far as to call “success” the “Bitch Goddess,” and Lewis Mumford wrote an essay called “Sport and the Bitch Goddess.” It appears as an example of what Emerson had in mind when he said “Much will have more,” especially true of victories, and often applied to holders of great wealth. How stands today the Protestant ethic? Each can judge.

Overman is well aware of these ironies and dangers and illustrates them throughout this remarkable study. In fact, he has done more research on the major motto of “success” than anyone I know about. See, for example, on the Internet, his article on the following: “‘Winning Isn’t Everything. It’s the Only Thing’: The Origin, Attributions and Influence of a Famous Football Quote.” You will be surprised who said it first and where–at the same university where a Phi Beta Kappa first baseman came up with a famous quatrain about the “One Great Scorer.”

The Protestant ethic, fraught with many possibilities, is completely ecumenical, more of a way than a denomination, and may surface in unsuspecting places. Knute Rockne, for example, was a Norse Protestant in a Catholic stronghold, a long, long way from the wars of the Reformation. Is this in itself a sign of progress? When, in 1969, Bob Neyland of Tennessee was elected by fellow coaches as “The Coach of the Century,” he was asked about the greatest influences upon his career. “Rockne,” he said, “and Army.”

In addition to depth and grace of expression, this book has scope, as recommended by E.M. Forster in his website called “Only Connect,” also the advice of Goethe and Aristotle and in our time by Leslie Fiedler who spoke of the failure to do so as “the endemic disease” of our time. In the manner of Veblen’s classic, Theory of the Leisure Class, but with a different approach, Overman is completely free of this “disease” of failure to connect. Indeed he connects “occupations” brilliantly and suggests without even saying so, that we might do ourselves some “good” by taking a hard look at all our institutions and how they relate, or maybe ought to relate, to one another.

For all these reasons, I do not hesitate to recommend this book for any prizes for which it might be eligible.

— Reviewed for ARETE by Robert J. Higgs, author of An Unholy Alliance : The Sacred And Modern Sports.  ARETE is a moderated e-mail discussion list hosted by The Sport Literature Association.

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