March Madness

March 16th, 2006

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According to business consultant Challenger, Gray and Christmas, Inc., beginning today – March 16th – lost productivity in the American workplace will increase by at least 3.8 billion dollars over the next three weeks.  The bleeding will only take place on ten of those days, during which keyboards stop clicking, voice mail goes unanswered (of course that’s not unusual), email traffic slows, and cautious colleagues crane their necks to catch scores – hoping the boss doesn’t notice.  The good news is – with a ten trillion dollar economy – the bleeding is not that significant and will be staunched on the morning of April 4th.

The culprit is sheer delight – the start of March Madness and the NCAA Division I basketball tournament.  Yes, yes, I know that the NCAA recently added a playoff game where the 64th and 65th seeded teams beat each others’ brains out in order for the winner to get his brains beat out two days later by the #1 seed.  But I don’t count that game.  The madness starts today… 12:20pm EST… Wichita State versus Seton Hall.

But the mania of March Madness might not be as intense were it not for an unusual and noteworthy man we celebrate… tomorrow.  No, I’m not talking about James Naismith.

Competitive team sports as we have them today are largely a legacy of the 19th century.  It was then that many rules became codified and games were incorporated into school curricula.  The game of basketball, for example, began in 1891.  It started with eighteen men in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Under orders from Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Physical Education at the School for Christian Workers, Dr. James Naismith was given fourteen days to create an indoor game that would provide an “athletic distraction” for a rowdy class through the brutal New England winter.  Two weeks and one peach basket later, basketball was born.

But the idea of competitive sports goes back even further to the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world, including the original Olympic movement; founded in 776B.C.  This places the birth of sports alongside Caesar (who wrote the Gallic Wars), Tacitus’ Annals (a history of Rome), Aristotle (who wisely opined that “generalities are the refuge of weak minds”), Socrates (who argued that we learn best through self-discovery), Augustine (who believed “the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly”), and Scripture (which often extols the virtue of sports).  The fact is, the world we enjoy today would never have come about without the contributions of these writings – and that includes competitive sports.

And just as importantly, we might not even have these culture-shaping texts were it not for the saint we commemorate Friday with green beer.  St. Patrick introduced the gospel and a written alphabet to the Irish in the 400s.  This was a time when “the intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers in the Dark Ages.”¹   In the sunset years of the Roman Empire, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, invading barbarians had destroyed Roman civilization including the great libraries containing ancient learning. 

Because of Patrick’s missionary work, the Irish embraced the gospel and a written alphabet with zeal, with Irish monks preserving Christian literature as well as all writing that came their way, including Augustine and Aristotle. They “took up the just labor of copying all of western literature – everything they could get their hands on.”  The Irish literally saved civilization.  When a new, illiterate Europe began to rise from Roman ruins, “Ireland, at peace and copying, stood in the position to become Europe’s publisher,” according to Thomas Cahill.  Irish missionaries – Western literature tucked in their boats and treasured in their hearts – reconnected Europe with its own past, including the virtue of competitive sports.

I suggest you hoist a green one to St. Patrick as you steal away from the office to catch a buzzer beater.  As Sir Isaac Newton noted: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Our world of sports, productive capitalism, and the modern workplace owes a great debt to the ancients who came before us.  And we have Patrick to thank for ensuring their legacy was preserved for our benefit… and enjoyment!

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¹ For more on Patrick’s remarkable legacy, read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.

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