Philosophy of sport
Some time during the 5th Century BCE, just outside of the Corinth on Greece’s Peloponnese, a budding young philosopher named Plato competed in wrestling at the Isthmian Games. Ancient Greece is recognized in the West as the birthplace of both philosophy and Olympic-style sport, and Plato may have been the first philosophical athlete. In the East, philosophy and martial arts have an equally ancient—though less-explored—connection. As a discrete academic field, however, Philosophy of Sport didn’t really take hold until 1969 when Paul Weiss of Yale University published Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Weiss was neither an expert nor a practitioner of sport, but his prominence as a philosopher caused the philosophical world at last to take a serious look at sport. Soon afterward, Warren P. Fraleigh and others formed the Philosophical Society for the Study of Sport, now known as IAPS, the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport was launched in 1974, and a variety of books and anthologies on the subject were published in its wake. Growth in the field has accelerated in recent years with increasing interest and contributions from scholars beyond North America and Europe.
Socrates liked to begin his philosophical investigations with a “what is” question. To explore the question “What is sport?” however, many philosophers looked back to Johan Huizinga’s 1950 Homo Ludens, an analysis of the nature of play. Huizinga claimed that play is not just prior to sport, but also to culture and civilization. He further characterized play as not serious, not necessary (i.e. for survival), and separate from ordinary life. In 1978, Amherst historian Allen Guttmann tried to define modern sport as an intersection between Huizinga’s non-serious play and the very serious contests found among ancient Greeks. He described sports as “non-utilitarian contests which include an important measure of physical as well as intellectual skill” (From Ritual to Record, 7). Guttmann also identified several distinctive qualities of modern sport such as secularism, equality of opportunity, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, the quest for records. It was Bernard Suits’ playful dialogue The Grasshopper, however, that laid a serious foundation for sport metaphysics. Suits defined a game as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” and noted as its necessary components (1) a “prelusory goal” also known as the “object of the game”; (2) constitutive rules which forbid the most efficient means toward the goal; and (3) a “lusory attitude,” that is the players’ conscious acceptance of rules which makes the game possible. In the game of basketball, then, the prelusory goal is to score points by putting the ball into the basket, the constitutive rules prohibit such useful means as ladders and running without bouncing the ball, and the lusory attitude is what makes the players see this activity as a game. Over the years, Suits’ definitions have been explored, refined, and applied directly to sport. In 2005 The Grasshopper was reissued as a sport philosophy classic.
Of course, sport is more than the games themselves, it also involves athletes, and traditional philosophical arguments about mind and body have been deftly applied to sport. In his 1990 book Philosophy of Sport, Drew Hyland considered the three positions of dualism, physicalism, and phenomenology. Although dualism has been the dominant view in Western philosophy, sports enthusiasts resisted its tendency to privilege mind over body and thereby to denigrate sport. Physicalism had more surface appeal, but tended to view the human being as a machine. Phenomenology, which focuses on the experience of the lived body, was Hyland’s preferred approach to the question for athletes. Now the view of a person as both mind and body, dubbed “holism” is the most popular metaphysical theory in the philosophy of sport.
Not surprisingly, ethical issues have drawn the most scholarly debate within the field. Aside from the general debate about the role of movement, sport, and play in “the good life,” the field provides a variety of issues that can be examined in a variety of ways. For example, the morality of doping may be approached from the perspective of traditional virtue ethics by developing a conception of a good person within sport (sometimes called sportsmanship or sportspersonship), then asking whether this person would use dope. From the perspective of Kantian-style duty ethics, one may point out that doping violates a promise made to a competitor. And from a consequentialist utilitarian perspective, one may argue that doping has negative health consequences. In recent years, Alisdair MacIntyre’s social practice theory (After Virtue, 1981) has been applied frequently to sport. On this view, sports are seen as group activities in which practitioners seek certain internal goods and uphold particular standards of virtue. From this perspective the question about doping is whether it interferes with the pursuit of those internal goods or group-defined virtues. Moreover, do group-defined virtues need to match larger group-defined virtues? In other words, if a sub-group of athletes deem it appropriate to use performance-enhancing substances to maximize athletic prowess, does that supersede a larger community's repugnance of drug use?
Of course the most basic ethical question in sport is cheating: is it ever morally permissible to intentionally break a rule? The most controversial example is fouling to stop the clock in basketball. A strict perspective on this practice is Warren Fraleigh’s “logical incompatibility thesis,” which says you can’t break a rule and play the game at the same time. Insofar as games just are sets of rules, violating rules amounts to not playing the game. A softer approach views breaking rules as unethical when it interferes with the game’s purpose of testing a prescribed set of skills. A third perspective views games as cultures rather than rule sets and defines sport ethics in terms of what’s accepted by the community of practitioners. The clock-stopping foul in basketball, on this view, is morally permissible because it’s accepted and even expected within the culture of the game. It’s not clear, however, that acceptance of a practice amounts to moral rectitude. Unwritten rules might also carry moral obligations—as with the soccer custom of kicking the ball out of play when a player is injured. If a player is somehow unaware of this custom, and therefore fails to do it, has she done something immoral?
Morality in sports competition involves more than rule-obedience. The interpersonal nature of competition itself implies certain moral obligations. In Fair Play: Sport, Values, and Society (1991) Robert Simon defines athletic competition as a “mutual quest for excellence” that is ultimately cooperative and therefore carries the obligation to provide a good test for one’s opponent. Violence, defined as the intent to harm or disable one’s opponent, is unethical on this model because it interferes with the cooperative quest for excellence. Aggressive but clean checking in hockey may be part of the game, but preventing a competitor from being able to test his skills is not acceptable. This is a problem for the sport of boxing insofar as its lusory goal—the knock out—just is the violent disabling of ones opponent, and points out one flaw in Simon's argument -- that it is not universalizable to all customarily recognized sports. This has led to assertions that Simon's definition is unsatisfactory. The notion of "mutual quest for excellence" is a misnomer since excellence is not the ultimate goal of an athlete, whereas victory is. It has been argued (Gorbski, 1999) that Simon uses the notion "mutual quest for excellence," which itself does not require sports for its fulfillment, as a way of introducing the morally benign notion of cooperation into the more questionable morality of competition, thus making sports morally acceptable.
Ethical issues in sport also examine actions in terms of what is good for the sport generally. The use of high-tech equipment, such as hydrodynamic swimsuits, is a good topic for debate. Robert Butcher and Angela Schneider define fair play as “respect for the game,” which they describe in terms of preserving what MacIntyre called the internal goods of a particular sport. Hi-tech equipment may interfere with these goods if, for example, it makes the sport too expensive for many to participate, or if it replaces one of the sport’s important skills with a mechanical advantage. On the other hand, high-tech equipment can be good for the game if it preserves or increases access to internal goods. Many would argue that the advent of the fiberglass vaulting pole made the sport safer and more accessible to athletes of all sizes and genders. Sports ethics does not always cohere with conventional athletic wisdom, but it does apply disciplined ethical thinking to practices which too often view themselves as “beyond” ethical scrutiny.
The Social and Political Functions of Sport
The third big area of philosophical speculation in sport has to do with sport’s social and political functions. Foremost among these is the use of sport in education. Many sport philosophers are also physical educators and the role and purpose of PE is a popular topic. R. Scott Kretchmar’s Practical Philosophy of Sport (1994) promotes a reflective approach to physical education that emphasizes finding meaning in movement. Sport is also discussed as a means of moral education, with special attention paid to its ability to reveal or perhaps cultivate “character.” Heather L. Reid’s The Philosophical Athlete (2002) focuses on what athletes can learn from participating in competitive sport. Finally, sport is discussed as a means of social education—a way of teaching the cooperation and teamwork necessary to succeed in modern society.
Philosophers of sport also debate issues of sport and social access. Sport, like society, has a history of exclusion by class, race, and gender. A hot topic in recent years has been the relationship of women with sport. In the USA a law called Title IX guarantees equal access for males and females to all educational programs—including sport. Educators note that sport helps females to compensate for social discrimination, and there are quantifiable data showing that athletic teenagers are less likely to become pregnant or use drugs. Nevertheless, Title IX preserves sex segregation in sport, which begs the question of whether separate can really be equal (and whether equal is really appropriate) for males and females in sport.
Sport is often discussed in terms of political concepts such as the social contract. Is accepting the rules of a game akin to entering a social contract? The political ideal of justice can be compared to the sport-specific concept of fair play. Principles such as equal opportunity seem to be reflected in sports by common starting lines and level playing fields, but they are also challenged by inequities of natural ability, coaching resources, equipment, and poverty. Sports sometimes compensate for competitive advantages by providing various “handicaps,” but are these always just? Issues of liberty and authority are frequently discussed in issues revolving around personal risk and safety, as well as social control issues, such as the excessive celebration rule in American Football.
Broader cultural issues are also examined in their relationship to sport. Prominent among these are questions about commercialization and commodification. Big-time college sport in the USA seems driven by business interests even while it applies the strictest amateur regulations to its athletes. Does professionalization make sport more work than play? Has sport lost the qualities of autotelicity (i.e. being an end in itself) and gratuitousness (i.e. being unnecessary for survival) that set it off from ordinary life and—at least to the ancient Hellenes—made it noble? William J. Morgan believes that the relationship between sport and culture teaches us as much about society as it does about athletes. In Why Sports Morally Matter (2006) he recounts the damage done to sport by so-called free-market values, illuminating at the same time sport’s potential to cultivate constructive social skills and values that challenge the dominant ideology. On an international level as well, sport has demonstrated its ability to encourage peaceful dialogue among diverse cultures—indeed this is a philosophical foundation of the Olympic Games.
Questions for the Future
By any standard, philosophy of sport must be regarded as a nascent academic field with a vast unexplored frontier. Important texts and ideas from the history of philosophy have been profitably applied to sport and there is still much ground to cover. Non-western philosophy offers many opportunities in this area; Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, is the only major work to date. The analysis of additional ethical and political issues is also ripe for development, particularly as sport plays a larger role in commercial society and international politics. Philosophy, ultimately, is about the desire to know—there is much to know about sport and our journey has just begun.
- Fraleigh, W. Right Actions in Sports: Ethics for Contestants. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1984.
- Gorbski, J. Why Compete? Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 1999.
- Guttmann, A. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1978.
- Herrigel, E. Zen in the Art of Archery. New York: Vintage, 1989.
- Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1950.
- Hyland, D. Philosophy of Sport. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
- Kretchmar, R. Practical Philosophy of Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1994.
- MacIntyre, Adasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
- Morgan, W. Why Sports Morally Matter. New York: Routledge, 2006.
- Reid, H. The Philosophical Athlete. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.
- Simon, R. Fair Play: Sports, Values, and Society. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1991.
- Suits, B. The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1978. Reprinted by Broadview Encore Editions, 2006.
- Weiss, P. Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
- Journal of the Philosophy of Sport http://www.humankinetics.com/JPS/journalAbout.cfm
- Sports, Ethics and Philosophy http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/17511321.asp
- International Association for the Philosophy of Sport: http://www.iaps.net
- British Philosophy of Sport Association: http://www.philosophyofsport.org.uk
- Ethics & Sport Book Series: http://www.routledgesport.com/books/series/Ethics+and+Sport
- AAFLA Sports Library http://www.aafla.org/5va/over_frmst.htm
- IOA (searchable archive of sessions and reports) http://www.ioa.org.gr/special_sessions.htm