1. Happiness is definitely important for our spirituality, and there are different levels of happiness. You are correct in examining every aspect of life, checking and consciously deciding what’s beneficial, and what’s not. Here too, there are different levels of benefit, where short-term enjoyment (like eating pizza or watching professional sports) would be 3rd class pleasure; long-term enjoyment (like investing in a career, or limiting that pizza for health reasons, at the expense of short-term pleasure) would be 2nd class pleasure; yet eternal enjoyment, that of love and the eternal Godly ideals (like altruism, mercy, justice, love, connecting with Torah or Israel), would be 1st class pleasure.
2. For most teenagers (and for many adults who never grow up!), who are a little immature to dedicate most of their time to idealistic endeavors like learning, volunteering, etc., sports and even following pro sports, is one of the least harmless activities they can get into. Modern music, art, culture, tv, internet, drinking, pornography, clothing, motorcycles, talking about friends, running after money, etc. are a lot more problematic, so let’s keep that in proportion, as well. Rav Kook writes, “Never degrade a concept, unless you’re sure that its substitute won’t be more harmful”.
3. Rav Kook once said to the head of the Maccabi professional sports organization, that God is called in the siddur “the King who wants life” (Melech chafetz bacha’im) which includes the dynamics of sports, culture and entertainment. Our Father in heaven undoubtedly wants His children to be happy and lively. But again, we would be wise to invest most of our efforts into 1st class pleasure; and secondarily, 2nd class pleasure; before the “tertiarily” (thirdly), 3rd class pleasure. The fact that we don’t use the term “tertiarily” very often is because we should be focused most on the primary and even secondary!
4. Rav Kook explains that culture is the easiest way for the Jewish people to have a positive influence on the world, through having idealistic movies, music, fashions etc. The Jewish return to the land of Israel is meant to create that cultural power-house to be a “Light onto the Nations”, influencing towards justice, kindness, family, and Torah values. On both a national and individual level, pro athletes have the potential to influence the many who admire them, e.g. not to take drugs; that honesty is more important than winning, etc.
5. Physical health is very important and if competitive sports facilitates one to dedicate the necessary time to exercise, than it’s an important medium (though not an ideal!). Especially after a 2,000 year exile where Jews tended to neglect our bodies, Rav Kook explains that the national return to Israel, and the revival of Jewish farming, the Jewish army, etc. obligate us to remember our holy bodies, as well as our holy souls, and he gives the example of sports activity. See more at:
6. When Jews or Israel compete internationally, it’s an opportunity for us to feel national pride. Anything which instills and strengthens our connections with our Jewish nation or even fellow Jews is very positive. My children know to call me whenever the HaTikva (the Israeli national anthem) is played for an Israeli gold medalist. Especially our generation, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, when many were scared or embarrassed by their Jewishness, it is an exhilarating and emotional experience to be proud of being the Chosen People (although, here too, professional sports would score relatively lower than winning Nobel prizes!).
7. Competitive team sports often instill the ideals of team-work, co-operation, group unity, and simply giving (“passing the ball to others”), in addition to leadership and self-confidence. These are often sorely lacking in the computer -age and “me generation”.
8. The major halachic and spiritual problem involved is not to sit “b’moshav leitzim” (Shulchan Aruch, Or. Ch. 307, 16), that one’s major effort and certainly his spare time should be spent on Torah and idealistic endeavors, and not on shallow topics, people and events. On the other hand, when one needs time to “air out” and relax, then that time isn’t considered wasted but is davka positive (Rambam, Shmoneh Prakim, ch. 5). Similarly, there’s a difference between men (who are obligated to study Torah in their spare time) and women (whose important family responsibilities exempt them from that steady obligation). The halacha recognizes the more spiritual tendency of women, and their legitimate need to relax from the tensions of children and chores, etc. and accordingly, the rabbis trust them more and are relatively lenient and more flexible regarding how they spend their spare time.
In short, to the extent that one’s involvement in pro sports is connected to ideals (as mentioned above), than it’s positive, but to the extent that it’s distracting from more important issues, than it’s negative. There’s a time, place and benefit for everything, but let’s keep things in perspective and proportion.
Rav Ari Shvat (Chwat)