Green Sport: A Game Everyone Wins


Environmental responsibility, increasingly recognized as a central aspect of corporate social responsibility, is important not only for recreational sport firms, but for all sport organizations. Three primary motivations for sport firms to embrace environmental responsibility as a management competency are advanced. First, sound environmental stewardship is necessary to halt environmental degradation, maintain livable environments, and ensure the long-term economic health of the sport industry as a whole. Second, due to their unique relationships to their customers, sport organizations are positioned to become leaders in creating environmental awareness. Third, taking informed steps toward environmental responsibility can result in substantial economic benefits to sport organizations through more efficient resource usage and an enhanced image.


In recent years, the view that corporate social responsibility is an appropriate competency for business organizations has strengthened (e.g., Hopkins, 2003; Maignan & Ralston, 2002; Medhurst & Richards, 2003; Whitehouse, 2006). Despite the increasing concern with corporate social responsibility among both businesses and academicians, relatively little literature has focused specifically on it within the area of sport management. Notable exceptions include Bradish (2006), Chernushenko (2001), and Hums, Barr, and Guillion (1999).

Certainly, business organizations in the sport industry cannot be excepted from conversation about corporate social responsibility. Like all types of enterprise, those with sport as a main focus are open systems. As such, they have relations with numerous stakeholder groups inside and outside the organization, operate within particular localities, and make use of a variety of resources. Hums et al. (1999) recognized this relevance by identifying issues related to social responsibility that confront managers in each of five major areas of the sport industry-professional sport, intercollegiate sport, health and fitness, recreational sport, and facility management.

One of the most important aspects of corporate social responsibility is the idea that business organizations have responsibilities to the natural environment (Werhane and Freeman, 1999; Wood, 1991). Such environmental responsibilities are often discussed under the heading of corporate sustainability. However, as evidenced by presentations at the 2002 Corporate Sustainability Conference in Rotterdam, corporate sustainability is evolving into a broader concept which, like corporate social responsibility, embraces social issues (van Marrewijk, 2003a). For the sake of clarity, in this paper the notion of environmental responsibility will be termed simply that.

The fact that environmental responsibility has become an important consideration for businesses is reflected in findings by Maignan and Ralston (2002), who examined the websites of large companies in four countries: the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The researchers found that 78.8% of the UK firms, 70.8% of the Dutch firms, 62.1% of the French firms, and 47.1% of the U.S. firms mentioned the environment as a concern of the firm. Though the researchers did not investigate how adequately the companies’ actions matched their communications, the findings showed that many large companies, especially in Europe, claim to take environmental responsibility seriously.

Like the broader notion of corporate social responsibility, environmental responsibility is an important issue for organizations in the sport industry. Hums et al. (1999) recognized this by pointing out that environmental issues are proper concerns for managers in the area of recreational sports management. This is especially obvious for organizations in which business revolves around one or another outdoor sport which makes use of the natural environment. Whether the recreational sport enterprise is relatively large, such as a ski resort or a golf course, or small, such as a scuba diving operation, it is in the organizations’ interest to be good stewards of that environment. Recognition of the importance of sound environmental stewardship in recreational sport is reflected in initiatives such as Course Management Best Practices Guidelines (R&A, 2006), the result of a collaboration between the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of the U.K. and the European Golf Association, and Sustainable Slopes (NSAA, 2006) produced by the National Ski Areas Association headquartered in the U.S.

But the importance of environmental issues for the sport industry goes beyond recreational sport. Every organization in every sector of the industry is necessarily embedded within a natural and a human-made environment from which the organization derives inputs and creates outputs. The nature and volume of these inputs, and perhaps especially the outputs, cannot help but have an effect on the natural environment. Moreover, if the organization does not embrace its environmental responsibilities, this effect may be unacceptably detrimental. Thus, environmental responsibility can be seen as a fundamental aspect of social responsibility, relevant not only in recreational sport organizations but throughout the sport industry.

This relevance raises a number of critical questions for owners and managers of sport industry firms. They are the same questions asked by countless other business organizations. ‘What exactly are our environmental responsibilities? Just what measures to lighten our environmental footprint should the organization take? Why? Why should our organization do more in the way of supporting environmental sustainability than is legally mandated? How is fulfilling our environmental responsibilities, whatever they may be, supposed to relate to our primary purpose of creating value for our owners?’

These are questions which can be fully answered only through the leadership of owners and managers who have intimate knowledge of their businesses and are informed by detailed knowledge of the environmental options available to them. However, several considerations can be offered to lay a partial groundwork for developing those answers. In particular, three fundamental replies to the question of why a sport industry firm should take significant measures toward environmental sustainability can be offered:

  • First, as is becoming increasingly evident, it is in everyone’s interest for all businesses, in every industry, to make environmental sustainability a management competency and an aspect of organizational excellence.
  • Second, by taking environmental responsibilities seriously, organizations in the sport industry are uniquely positioned to communicate the value of environmental sustainability to large numbers of people.
  • Third, fulfilling environmental responsibilities can help the firm gain a competitive edge and create greater value for its owners.

The following three sections of the paper will elaborate on these basic answers to the question of why sport industry firms should embrace environmental responsibility as a management competency.

Reason 1: The Ethical Reason

The ethical argument for the claim that sport management firms should become environmental champions stands on two legs. The first leg is this: the mental model which views profit and growth as the only legitimate objectives of business has, as its logical conclusion, environmental disaster. If every business organization were to continue to act according to that model, the disturbingly rapid deterioration of the physical environment that has occurred over the past several decades would continue at a rapid rate. Forest degradation, the near elimination of a number of fisheries, air pollution, ocean and beach pollution, mercury poisoning, and global warming are only among the most well known of a long litany of environmental problems. The result of failing to become good stewards of the environment would be an increasingly polluted, unhealthy, dangerous, and unpredictable environment-for us, our neighbors, our children, and their children. And this, it is widely agreed, is unacceptable. Moreover, the mental model is self-contradictory. If profit and growth at all costs were truly the only legitimate objectives of business, then the mental model would eventually defeat itself. As a number of writers have pointed out recently (e.g., Adolphson, 2004; Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999; Odum, 1996; Prugh, 1999), to not take nature into account in our business plans and processes is economically disastrous. As these and other writers have clearly recognized, the natural world is the foundation of all economic wealth. Those who do not take care of that foundation will eventually find it unable to support them.

The second leg of the ethical argument is the following. Given that we know that if no business firm takes environmental responsibility seriously, then humankind-now and in the future-will pay a terrible price, for an individual firm not to do its part in the effort is unconscionable. A firm’s directors might surmise that by letting other businesses do all the work of maintaining proper environmental accounts, the firm would gain a competitive advantage. But even if this were true-and an argument will be given later in the paper that it is not-opting out of what other businesses embrace as their environmental responsibility is generally considered to be unjust. Fortunately, the majority of business owners and managers are able to reflect carefully on the manifold justifications for taking environmental responsibility seriously, and they have the foresight and imagination to see what must be done by all together. Not to do what needs to be done is not a failure of ethical reasoning or moral imagination according Al Gini (2006), co-founder of the Journal of Business Ethics, but a failure of will.

Reason 2: Sport Organizations Have a Unique Opportunity to Be Leaders in Environmental Responsibility

The argument just presented for taking environmental responsibility seriously was not formulated especially for organizations in the sport industry. The ethical reasons are sound for any business, large or small, in any industry. But the second reason why sport-centered organizations should embrace environmental responsibility is targeted specifically to them, and it rests on their unique nature.

That unique nature is a common thread that runs through the many varieties of business in the sport industry-the fact that sport firms are distinguished from other business entities by the kind of services they provide and their relationships to their customers. Many businesses, perhaps especially manufacturing firms, have a large customer base but little direct contact with customers. Other businesses may have direct contact, but their customer base is relatively small and unchanging. However, sport enterprises generally have both-direct contact with their customers, and a continuous, often sizeable inflow of customers that purchase the firm’s services. Whether the organization’s business consists of a professional sport team, a health and fitness club, a recreational sport business such as a skating rink or a mountain biking venue, or a large sports facility, in most cases the firm deals directly with a more or less steady stream-and often quite a large one-of customers.

This provides sport organizations with an opportunity that is unavailable to many other kinds of business. By making environmental responsibility a management competency and committing to environmental sustainability, the organization has the opportunity to multiply its environmental efforts by transmitting environmental responsibility as a value to its customers. The firm need not do this in a heavy-handed way. Simply by letting customers know that it is committed to the goal of environmental sustainability and that it is undertaking substantial efforts to attain that objective, the organization will tend to strengthen the ideal of caring for the environment in customers’ minds. This is important because environmental responsibility is not just an issue for organizations; it is also a job for individuals and families. Whatever makes it more likely for those fundamental social units to increase their environmentally responsible behavior is a valuable addition to the ideal of environmental sustainability. By modeling responsible environmental behavior, the organization helps to make that behavior more likely.

It is important to note that a sport organization’s modeling of sound environmental stewardship may not foster a significant difference in most of its customers’ environmental behavior. Indeed, the extent of its effect would be a useful project for future research. However, if even a few customers were impressed by the organization’s commitment to environmental sustainability and thus embraced the ideal more strongly than before, then the organization’s efforts would be multiplied by some factor. Most sport organizations are, by their nature, uniquely positioned to have such a positive effect.

Reason 3: Environmental Sense Makes Economic Sense

The third reason for sport management firms to embrace environmental responsibility as a management competency is that it can increase profitability. This claim is based on two main considerations. First, many of the actions which a firm can take to better fulfill its environmental responsibilities can make resource use more efficient, thereby reducing waste and leading to increased savings. Second, by strongly embracing the notion of environmental responsibility and clearly communicating its stance to actual and potential customers, the firm can increase the value of its image and its brand, while making its services more attractive. Together, the two considerations can provide a distinct competitive advantage for the sport management firm. These advantages will be discussed in order.

Environmental Initiatives Can Be Savings Opportunities

A growing literature promotes and elucidates the view that what makes sense environmentally for companies can also make good economic sense (e.g., Adolphson, 2004; Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999). A major way in which environmentally friendly measures can add to the company’s bottom line is through decreasing waste. Lovins, Lovins, & Hawken (1999) furnish a number of relevant examples. For instance, over a six-week period, Dow Chemical Europe reduced paper usage by 30% in its Swiss headquarters by discouraging the proliferation of unnecessary information. At the same time, labor productivity increased because employees were reading less unnecessary information. Other cost- and resource-saving examples reported by Lovins et al. include copying only on both sides of a paper, using wood fiber more efficiently, and recycling. Indeed, measures as simple as improving insulation and managing thermostat settings can save significant energy-and thus money.

In the short term, each specific measure may lead only to relatively small savings for the environment and the company; however, a comprehensive program that addresses a variety of environmental issues can, over time, result in substantial savings for the company while significantly lessening the cost to the environment of doing business. Lovins et al. (1999) reported that Johnson & Johnson Company saved $2.8 million during a 30-month campaign of reducing paper and packaging waste, while saving the equivalent of 330 annual acres of trees.

A first step a sport organization can take to determine where energy and other resources can be used more efficiently and waste reduced is to determine inputs and outputs of all business processes. Green & Gold (1999), in an environmental management and monitoring report for large sporting events and facilities which was prepared for Sport Canada, lists areas of environmental concern that are relevant to many kinds of sport organization. Questions that sport managers can ask about these areas include the following. ‘Are there improvements that can be made in the company’s practices insofar as they reduce any adverse effects on nearby air, water, and land? How can current energy and waste management strategies be improved? Are facilities and transportation being managed in the most environmentally responsible ways?’ Each of these areas can be evaluated with an eye toward environmental sustainability to more efficiently use resources and decrease waste.

Not every environmental initiative will lead to immediate savings. Furthermore, economic payoff should not be the sole factor in deciding whether to implement environmental initiatives. However, many environmentally friendly endeavors can also be justified on the basis of economic value to the business in the short or the long term. To determine such win-win initiatives, knowledge is needed. There is a growing wealth of information about the intersection of business and environmental sustainability in books, on the Internet, and in journals such as Organization and Environment, the Journal of Environment and Development, and the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. In light of this information, the traditional notion that it is always too costly to embrace environmental responsibility beyond government mandates is losing ground. In relation to major sport events, Green & Gold (1999) maintained that the managerial view that environmental initiatives for large sporting events are always expensive is false. “Scores of organizations are proving that good environmental management is either revenue neutral or ultimately a source of savings or new opportunities” (p. 15). Much the same can be said for the sport industry overall.

Practicing ER Can Enhance Reputation

A second economic benefit that can accrue to sport organizations by making environmental responsibility a management competency is an improved reputation in the eyes of customers. According to Maignan and Ralston (2002), recent research suggests that embracing corporate social responsibility may be an effective way for firms to enhance their image among stakeholders. Argenti, Druckenmiller, & Novelli (2003) agree, holding that corporate social responsibility can enhance corporate brand image. Since environmental responsibility is one main aspect of social responsibility, it follows that much the same can be said for firms that embrace environmental responsibility. By acting in an environmentally responsible way, the organization can be seen as being, in a sense, a sponsor of the natural environment. Given that practicing corporate social responsibility-and thus environmental responsibility-is a form of cause-related marketing (Irwin, Lachowetz, Cornwell, & Clark, 2003), making environmental responsibility an organizational cause can be a useful marketing tool for sport organizations.

In particular, several of the benefits cited by Brown (2000) as sought by Olympic sponsors can be seen as benefits that can accrue to firms that “sponsor” environmental sustainability. These include:

  • Image enhancement through association with an important cause
  • Enhanced awareness of the firm and its services
  • Differentiation from competitors
  • Connecting to a market niche (presumably quite large) concerned with environmental issues
  • Enhancement of the firm’s reputation for being socially responsible

A condition for this tool to be effective is for management to communicate its environmental efforts to customers. It is important that such promotion not be perceived as self-aggrandizing, because there is evidence that information communicated by organizations about their environmental performance and other corporate social responsibility initiatives is sometimes discounted by the public (Dando & Swift, 2002, as reported by van Marrewijk, 2003b). While noting the value of a media strategy for communicating environmental efforts, Green & Gold (1999) emphasized the importance of being open and honest about those efforts. Communicating to the media and customers the specific actions that an organization is taking to fulfill environmental responsibilities, without exaggerating, might be the most effective strategy.

Trust is the key. Siltaoja (2006) found that the most significant factor affecting company reputation is trust. One aspect of this is goodwill trust, which occurs when the company does more than is formally required. By going beyond what is legally mandated, the sport organization can build significant goodwill by publicizing, in a clear and straightforward manner, its efforts and the reasons behind them.


In sum, environmental responsibility is as important for sport-industry enterprises as it is for all organizations. This paper has highlighted three reasons for sport firms to embrace environmental responsibility. First, and perhaps foremost, protecting a natural environment that faces severe human-caused problems is every individual’s and every organization’s job. In addition, sport firms are in a position to be leaders in promulgating environmental responsibility by modeling the ideal of environmental sustainability for their customers. Finally, by fulfilling their environmental responsibilities, sport organizations can, in many instances, create opportunities for savings while enhancing their image and their brand.


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“I Think It’s Going To Save Lives” Sport Administrator Perspectives on Youth Development Through Sport

Authors: Deb Agnew & Shane Pill

Corresponding Author:
Deb Agnew, PhD
GPO Box 2100
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 5001
+61 8 8201 3456

Deb Agnew is a lecturer in the School of Education at Flinders University in South Australia. Her research interests include Australian football, masculinity, sports retirement and men’s health. She is a member of the Flinders SHAPE (Sport, Health and Physical Education) Research Centre and teaches in the Bachelor of Sport, Health and Physical Activity.

Shane Pill lectures in curriculum studies, physical education and sport studies and he is a member of the Sport, Health and Physical Activity (SHAPE) research centre at Flinders University. His research interests include curriculum design and enactment, pedagogy and instructional strategies for games and sport teaching, sport coaching, leadership and management. Shane is the author of four books on game sense teaching and coaching, and he was a major contributing writer to the Cricket Australia S’Cool Cricket resource, the Tennis Australia Hot Shots Tennis resource and the revised AFL Sport Education program.

“I think it’s going to save lives” Sport administrator perspectives on youth development through sport

This was a qualitative evaluation of a youth development program that was piloted in four South Australian Southern Football League clubs. It aimed to understand how the youth development program was conducted; to investigate the effects of the program on the health behaviour choices of junior footballers in South Australia and; to provide recommendations on how to improve the delivery of the program. Interviews were conducted with the club administrators of three of the four clubs involved in the program and were analysed through an inductive thematic approach. This research found that there is value in implementing youth development programs. However, in order for youth development programs to be effective in changing club culture a driver for the program is needed. Given sports clubs are often under-staffed and under-resourced developing partnerships with community organisations who have the skills to deliver the appropriate sessions is also a crucial factor in the program’s success.

Keywords: sport development, young men, Australian football

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Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective


Responding to recent highly publicized sport scandals that so often tarnish the character of athletics, this writing defends the innate sanctity and redeems the potential of sport by exploring sport as a spiritual enterprise. Spirituality, generally conceptualized at three levels of connection (to self, others, and a higher being or purpose), is explored using 10 dominant themes of the world’s sacred scriptures. Examples of these 10 themes from the domain of sport and athletics are offered, as follows: supreme being and the mystery of sport; self and play in the zone; spiritual paths and practice; knowledge–wisdom and creativity–innovation in sport; the “good life” and the team; love and service as sportsmanship; devotion and worship through love of the game; fate and free will in “miracle and madness”; death and the “big picture”; and the spiritual sage and the sport hero.

Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective

My sport-and-spirituality venture began when I was a daring toddler chinning my way up the splendid chair-leg pedestals of my mother’s fine dining room furniture, eventually reaching the summit and setting up camp, temporarily, on the sacred heights of the table sanctuary. It was an enchanting escape, fashioning new and intriguing possibilities. Later such impulses would be disciplined by years of gymnastics training, following the singular path of a 4-in. balance beam or swinging unwittingly on two wooden spindle bars. Now, as a soccer mom, I watch as my children devoutly absorb themselves in the disciplined challenge and exhilarating excitement of sport and athletics. Life is good.

I never suspected inner rumblings among the community of believers until one night at dinner our family was discussing a recent barrage of player suspensions mounting on previous dismissals of athletes from a nearby university basketball program. My son drolly asked, “Who hasn’t assaulted someone?” His amused and also cynical rebuttal beckoned me to justify and defend the integrity of an activity to which I and many others have eagerly surrendered hours of dedicated practice; an activity leading to moments of unexpected and unrelenting joy, bewildering us with setbacks and conversion; an activity of obvious physical attributes but also imparting spiritual value to generations of players. I began to consider the message that was not being communicated from the sport pulpit to its eager and interested congregation. The spiritual essence of sport is rarely linked with the physical performance and competitive outcomes of sport in the context of popular sport promotion. Nevertheless, in its most fundamental and pure form, sport is spiritual. The spiritual is defined as that which raises the human condition to a higher level of personal awareness and interpersonal consciousness and heightened realization of a grand scheme of things.

To see the soul of sport, we must look beyond both the superficial, if spectacular, physical feats and the much-publicized aggression, anger, and greed in sport. Because sport is spiritual as well as physical, it can lead an athlete to personal transfiguration, revival of communal understanding, and redemption of life’s purpose and possibilities. The precisely executed tennis topspin, the gutsy 50-ft platform dive, the harmoniously choreographed triangle offense, the undeniable magic of the miracle game or perfect golf round can offer the deepest kind of meaning. Sport’s contribution to spiritual advancement cannot be underestimated. Just imagine where we would be had Adam and Eve tossed or teed off that shiny red orb from the Garden of Eden.

Each person’s spiritual venture involves three levels of connection: to the self (inner strength), to relationships (our undeniable union with others), and to a higher being or purpose. It is important to preserve the distinction between spiritual venture and organized religion; nevertheless, the quest for spiritual relevance is often grounded in the practices, teachings, and rituals of the world’s many religions. Religious scripture renders verbal descriptions and explanations to clarify complex spiritual themes. While the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions read differently, their messages and themes are often similar. They have been said to share 10 common themes: the idea of a supreme being, of the self, of the spiritual path, of knowledge and wisdom, of the “good life,” of love and service, of devotion and worship, of fate and free will, of death, and of the spiritual sage (Freke, 1998). This paper draws analogies between these themes and sport not to make sport a religion, but to present sport as an intriguing, insight-generating, exhilarating, and joyful means of awakening a lethargic soul, grasping an unresponsive heart, and enlightening feeble and fragile imagination to robust possibilities and convincing realities.

Supreme Being and the Mystery of Sport

Some would accuse popular culture of proclaiming sport as God. Spiritual text, however, tells us that God is one, yet God is all—a profound but confusing mystery. In depicting the supreme being with a human face, theologians of many faiths have tried to draw that being nearer to us and make it easier for us to conceptualize God (Freke, 1998). Capturing this powerful image in our hearts can be profound when we recognize and appreciate the wonder of God in our everyday lives. Recognition may come in something as simple and subtle as a rainbow’s faint appearance, or in something as intense and marvelous as a friend’s first struggling words after brain surgery. Recognition of God in our everyday lives may also arise at the unexplainable synchrony of a heavyweight boxer’s feather-light, floating grace and stinging punch; or at the gritty determination of the Korean breaststroker in the 2001 Paralympic Games sleekly slithering through the water like a squid, powerfully thrusting himself through each armless stroke with the force of his legs, bracing for each poolside head-butt turn of the race. Inexplicable skills and exquisite performances in sport expose the wonder of a higher power. As the Christian Bible’s book of Matthew offers, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26, New International Version).

The Self and Play in the Zone

One demanding scriptural theme that challenges our essential nature is the perplexing premise that God is within us. As expressed in the Christian Bible, “He is not far from each one of us,” for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 27– 28). In the realm of sport, God-within-us is perhaps epitomized in the experience of flow. Also experienced by accomplished artists and musicians, flow is described by many athletes as being “in the zone”: a state of harmonious union of body and mind wherein the two work together effortlessly, leaving the individual with an undeniable feeling that something special has occurred (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan was in the zone, for example, in Game 1 of the 1992 National Basketball Association Finals against Portland, when in the first half he sank six 3-point shots. At the time, reportedly, a broadcast crew member gestured at Jordan to as if to ask, “How did you do that?” In reply, Jordan shrugged the famous shrug acknowledging the wonder and mystery of his “out-of-body” experience, the only part of which he understood was that he couldn’t miss! In flow, there is the uncanny realization that what has been experienced is an undeniable sense of peace (“Classic NBA Quotes,” 2008).

The Spiritual Path and Practice

The spiritual path is humankind’s virtuous attempt to navigate toward a life of personal fulfillment and ultimate discovery, embodied in human compassion. Scriptural texts prescribe various codes, practices, and rituals as learning guides on the sacred journey represented by the spiritual path. Within Buddhism, “the Middle Way” is the prescription for enlightenment (Freke, 1998), as follows:

There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which he who has given up the world, ought to avoid. . . . By avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge . . . to Nirvana (Mahavagga, I, 6, 17–18). (p. 48)

Sport, in its fashion, captures the essence of the Middle Way. An athlete’s success is marked by steady, relevant progress on sturdy grounding—neither surrender to the marshy swampland of lethargy nor a dash to the insecure precipice of training obsession. On one hand, those who study flow report that the seemingly effortless performances of accomplished athletes are anchored in hours of practice, careful attention, and critique. On the other hand, those who study the body’s adaptation to sport training warn of a subtle tipping point at which both strength and spirit are diminished: overtraining.

In shaping their unique paths to success, some athletes have demonstrated one extreme or the other. For example, Allen Iverson, a guard with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, apparently disgruntled with the intense requirements of the training pilgrimage, persistently and nearly to the point of being comical denies the value of practice. In doing so, he discounts not just his own but his teammates’ sacrifices as they have invested themselves in the pilgrimage. Conversely, Olympic runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton chronicled her resurrection from the perils of an unrelenting training schedule (throughout high school and college she never took one day off from running) accompanied by unscrupulous dieting, noting how excess led to plummeting performance, devastating injuries, and psychological burnout.

Surely, the provisional aspect of the journey is the delicate maneuvering and incredible grounding necessary to balance between life’s extremes. Scripturally, the curious balance required constitutes the fascinating effort–grace paradox, whose analogue in athletics is the tension between the bulging muscle of our personal efforts and the supple support of God’s grace. The spiritual journey’s ultimate mystical destination is our realization and understanding that we are where we need to be, always part of the One, and always remembering the One. The scriptures of Islam are among those that address such truth, as in for instance the Hadith of Tirmidhi, which states, “For everything there is an appropriate way of polishing; the heart’s polishing is the remembrance of God” (Freke, 1998, p. 45). For the athlete, sincere preparation for competition marks the sign of the cross, so to speak, reminding us of this silent, polishing communion with God.

Knowledge and Wisdom as Creativity and Innovation in Sport

Where athletics and sport have the potential to score a spiritual “10” is in the leap from prescribed dictates of a spiritual code, to the realm of experiential knowledge and wisdom. When to the insights bestowed by observant teachers and ingenious coaches athletes add personal knowledge gained from playing, they are freed from limited perception. As the Hindu scripture known as the “Ashtavakra Gita” advises, “Give up conceptualizing altogether. Have no beliefs or concepts of any kind. You are the ever-free Consciousness. How can any thinking help you in any way?” (Freke, 1998). As such, the athlete is a rendering of God’s creation. The knowledgeable athlete redefines the boundaries of his or her game. Freed from defined constructs, the competitor is keenly aware of the self, with its strength and spirit, and in the innovative performances fostered by such freedom, sport’s reality is redefined.

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, the unassuming, average-sized man better known as Pelé, scored 1,280 goals in 1,360 games over a 20-year career (1956–1977) as he revolutionized the game of soccer. Of his incredible speed and balance, tremendous vision, excellent ball control, and powerful, accurate shooting with either foot and with his head, Pelé has said, “It seems that God brought me to Earth with a mission to play soccer” (Gonzalez, n.d.). Track and field star Dick Fosbury stunned spectators at the 1968 Summer Olympics as his unconventional jumping technique led him to a gold medal in the high jump. Fosbury’s “flop” quickly came to replace traditional dive-and-straddle high jump technique. At the 1972 Olympics, Olga Korbut reinvented gymnastics with feats of athleticism never before seen in the sport. Her back flip–catch off the top of the uneven parallel bars revolutionized gymnastics. Like Pelé and Fosbury, Korbut’s skill mastery fashioned new forms and meanings in the sport. This acknowledgement must be made, however, in the context of such scriptural reminders as Zen Buddhism’s cautionary note on recreated knowledge: It is only “a finger pointing at the moon but not the moon itself,” since human knowing can never match God’s greater wisdom (Freke, 1998).

The “Good Life” and the Team

Religions around the world expect a spiritual follower to live a “good life,” endorsing various codes of righteous behavior. Christians hold fast to the imperatives of the “Ten Commandments”; Buddhists adhere to the “Noble Eightfold Path.” Hindus strive to obey their “Laws of Life”; Taoists pursue the “Natural Way.” All of these faiths’ codes of behavior share in common a conviction that a good life is in the making when a person contributes to the perfection and harmony of a larger whole. But here our human vulnerabilities can be harshly exposed. Tolle (2005) translates and describes sin, the opposite of goodness, as “missing the mark, as an archer who misses the target. . . . [T]o sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly and thus to suffer and cause suffering” (p. 9). Tolle adds as well that being good requires a shift in consciousness. For the athlete, such a shift of consciousness comprises the humble displacement of self for the benefit of the team.

Athletes who pursue self-aggrandizement (like their counterparts in domains other than sport) will, the scriptures of various faiths agree, be humbled. In sport, the cost of vice is the destruction of the team and the burden of the whole, which is exponentially greater than the burden of each individual. Even as the National Football League legislated against impudence in the sport, the gods may have shown their take on unnecessary celebration, evening the score—no, raising the New York Giants’ score­—in Super Bowl 2008, after Randy Moss’s audacious appropriation of power over the universe, motioning for the seas to part after a late-game score.

Becoming a good sport suggests personal and interpersonal transformation and is necessary to be a true athlete. The concept of moving beyond the individual self to the collective team may be the most challenging aspect of spirituality in power cultures like professional sports. Tolle’s shift in consciousness is a marked change, and interestingly, the word sport can mean (in a definition employed within the biological sciences) “an organism that shows a marked change from the normal type or parent stock, typically as a result of mutation.”

Unfortunately, as is true of sin and disharmony, denying the collective is tremendously destructive to the individual, the community, and the promise of all that is good in sport. The shift from ego focus to collective consciousness in the world of sport relies on humility, repentance, forgiveness, compassion, and more (the spirit not the letter, perfect liberty). The marring and tarnishing of beauty, grace, and accomplishment is a failure of the whole. Marion Jones, in her public confession of her steroid use, asked forgiveness. She earnestly apologized for besmirching the sport that she had trained so hard for and dedicated her life to; in painfully exposing her failure, she paradoxically revealed her inner strength and goodness. Humans cannot know the individual predicaments that other humans face in their lives, and to reestablish harmony requires empathy and an unwillingness to stand in judgment. Public forgiveness was necessary to reunite Jones with the community. As Islamic scriptural text maintains, “The best deed of a great man is to forgive and forget”; or as Judaism’s Talmud phrases it, “When we know we are all one . . . forgiveness is natural” (Freke, 1998).

Love and Service Seen As Sportsmanship

The most seemingly absurd association between spirituality and sport is the notion that the spiritual undertaking of love and service coexists with athletic achievement and success—victory over others. But it is the connection between compassion and sport that can be most inspiring. Sport provides an alternative impression of the clash between collective egos, the us versus them. As Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote in his book Sacred Hoops, “There has to be another way, an approach that honors the humanity of both sides while recognizing that only one victor can emerge. . . . a wide-angle view of competition that encompasses both opponents as partners in the dance.” Ultimately, Jackson (1995) compares competition and sport to battle, stating that, “The challenge of warriorship is to step out of the cocoon, to step out into space, by being brave and at the same time gentle” (Jackson, 1995). This unconventional model of competition builds not on humiliation, power, and aggression but on honor, respect, and yielding. Such mutual respect and admiration is seen in the world of sport. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, for example, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks demonstrate fierce competitiveness while maintaining the integrity of a several-year friendship.

Devotion and Worship Seen As Love of the Game

While healthy competition and sportsmanship define the promise of the sport experience, when athletes play with special reverence for the tradition and legacy of “the game,” they achieve an even higher level of consciousness. Spiritual mystics have long affirmed and expressed the sacredness of life and celestial wonders through dedicated worship and praise. In a similar way, devoted athletes may demonstrate their respect and honor for the game through gestures observed as ritual. Ritual, according to Marty (1998), comprises conscious, voluntary, repetitious and stylized symbolic bodily actions, centered on cosmic structures and/or sacred presences; sport, Marty continues, thus embraces ritual, since “Sports involve sacrifice of energy and limb . . . [and] who sacrifices without ritual?”

In Sacred Hoops, Jackson describes how he adopted Vince Lombardi’s ritual of “crossing the line.” Lombardi, legendary football coach who led the Green Bay Packers to five league championships in his nine years of coaching, asked his players to walk over the line, symbolically confirming their consent and commitment to practice every day. By creating a sacred space with Lakota symbols of balance, harmony, power, prosperity, and good fortune, Jackson similarly established a holy sanctuary within which athletes mindfully attend to the task at hand. Such rituals and symbols establish an atmosphere of mindful attention to purpose. Freke (1998) notes that Judaism’s “Book of the Secrets of Enoch” states, “It is good to go morning, midday, and evening into the Lord’s dwelling, for the glory of your creator. Because every breathing thing glorifies him and every creature visible and invisible returns him praise” (p. 111).

Fate and Free Will and the “Miracle and Madness”

While rituals may help us organize and fashion that which is so vulnerable and unpredictable in our lives, ultimately the spiritual uncertainty of free will and fate emerge. The investment of whatever amount of energy, commitment, and rite does not guarantee success. As Freke (1998) noted, “Human life is the interaction of fate and freedom of choice” (p. 120). Spiritually, we are advised to make choices pursuant to the good life; we are reminded that we cannot control the world and that God is in the driver’s seat. We can only control our responses to what befalls us. Judaism acknowledges the spiritual paradox and mystical truth that fate and human will mysteriously coincide, that life leads us along the road that we have actually chosen. Jewish spiritual text, as cited in Freke, holds that “Everything is foreknown, but man is free” (p. 36). The doctrine of karma, too, explains fate as the outcome of our previous choices. But lightning strikes, and stunning rainbows emerge from dreary skies.

There is no better illustration of this paradox than the miracles and madness of sport—unexplained victories and devastating, unpredictable losses. The United States ice hockey team’s 4–3 victory over the Soviet Union during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics has been called the “miracle on ice.” The Russian team was in peak form and comprised both mature veterans and ambitious young talent; it had just annihilated the National Hockey League all-star team 6–0 in the deciding game of a challenge series. It was unfathomable that a team of U.S. college players had a chance against such fierce competition. Certainly U.S. players’ strenuous conditioning and meticulous strategic and tactical preparation had an impact, but it has struck many experts that nothing short of a miracle allowed them to emerge victorious (Fitzpatrick, 2008). Observing such turns of event in sport, we realize we are not necessarily in control—an understanding that returns us to the sheer joy of child’s play and surrender to the moment.

Death and the Big Picture (Field of Dreams)

Sacred scripture intimates that by examining our beliefs about and attitudes toward death, we become truly free to live our authentic lives. Similarly for the athlete, the desperation of a defeat, devastation of injury, or struggle of a losing season can bring perspective, making the opportunity to play more pleasurable. Mortality certainly helps define humankind’s place in the big picture; acknowledging it as our own, we become enraptured of the pleasures of participating in life. The Shinto religion offers a scripture (Tenrikyo Ofudesaki 3.41) that says, “All human bodies are things lent by god. With what thought are you using yours?” (Freke, 1998, p. 142). Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at 38 playing a sport that most athletes survive in for only a handful of years, has achieved many football mileposts, for example most wins by a starting quarterback, most consecutive games played by a quarterback, and most touchdown passes thrown. But his physical achievements pale next to his fervor to stay in the game despite numerous setbacks. He nearly died in a car accident; was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition; lost his father and also his brother-in-law in accidents; watched his wife battle breast cancer; and saw his hometown ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Favre admits to behaving recklessly on field and off at points in his past, but we have seen him mature without losing any of his youthful love for of football. Shipnuck (2007) explains that Favre’s favorite career memories are not what might be expected:

‘The funny thing is, it’s not only about the touchdowns and the big victories. If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I’ve been down, when I’ve been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I’ve ever had, because that’s when I’ve found out who I am. And what I want to be.’

In confronting our own challenging moments, athletes and the rest of us realize a personal potential that surpasses human understanding and the typical experiences of life. We discover our innate potential and embody the full measure of life’s opportunities.

The Spiritual Sage and the Sport Hero

Occasionally there emerge from among us mortals who, like the society of saints, challenge and inspire us with their lives of transcendence. We are awakened by their selfless compassion and stand in awe of the harmony they create with all others as they accept life on its terms. They are spiritual sages or spiritual heroes, projecting what a human was truly created to be. The dutiful sport hero models the same wholeness in living. According to Buddhist scripture, enlightenment is gained when we see that suffering in life is diminished by moving from the ignorance of separation to the knowledge of wholeness, which is our true enlightened nature. As Freke (1998), explains, the enlightened have “traveled from the ignorance of separation to the further shore of enlightenment . . . concerned with relieving the suffering of others” (p. 166).

Sacred scripture variously affirms that the spiritual sage is characterized by humility and compassion (Jewish, Christian); by detached selflessness (Hindu); and/or by integrity, respectfulness, and unwillingness to stand in judgment of another (East Asian thought generally). The ethical sport hero exemplifies the same qualities. Baseball hall of fall honoree Roberto Clemente came to the Pittsburgh Pirates from humble beginnings as the youngest of seven in a family in Puerto Rico. When he died in the 1972 crash of a plane enroute to deliver relief supplies to survivors of the great earthquake in Nicaragua, his remarkable accomplishments in his sport (lifetime batting average of .371 with 240 homeruns and 1,305 RBI) were preempted by his dedication to others. According to Price (2001), Peter Williams describes Clemente’s martyr-like status as resulting from two characteristics, (a) that Clemente died without warning and (b) his ethical heroism was primarily active:

In other words he died, as he had lived, doing charitable work for the disadvantaged. In this, he was very much a hero in tune with the social activism of his time; and the response to his death, showing an awareness of this, ended by strengthening a heroic image that was already established.” (p. 102)

In offering a perspective on such a state of self-actualization, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra explains that enlightened beings cannot even think of themselves as enlightened, for this would involve the idea of a self, whereas “enlightenment is an impersonal happening, not a personal achievement” (Freke, 1989, p. 170).

As we head into the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, this discussion reminds us of the fundamental nature of sport: its surge of innocent vitality, its ingenuous dance with others, its trusting application of ourselves to the challenge. Among others, Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic speed skating medalist and three-time world record holder, has argued there is a basic human need for play, sport, athletics. Witnessing children confined to an Ethiopian refugee camp playing soccer in the dirt with a rolled-up shirt as ball, he resolved to work on such children’s behalf “until everyone believes in Olympic Aid’s motto: ‘Every child has the right to play’” (Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, 2008). The Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner (cited in Lawrence, 2005) in his writings emphasizes the spiritual force of play and sport. “To play,” he explains, “is to yield oneself to a kind of magic . . . to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine.” In tossing the apple, we play, create, cooperate, challenge, dream, and grow.

Reference List

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