This sporting life = This life

Posted on February 12, 2010


I hope this will be the last “programmatic” post for a while. And the last time I ever post the word “programmatic.” How is the sporting life like the life life? Here is a quick list of four themes I’m often drawn back to.

Punditry. We live in the world of the 24-hour news cycle. In most countries there is also a 24-hour sports cycle. Yet most of the airtime is not filled with news or sports, but rather chatter about news and sports. I’m interested in the way pundits try to predict political and sporting results, and the way they turn around and explain results after the fact. Both the predictive and the explanatory tasks are generally garbled in the public domain – and garbled in similar ways by both the “news” and sports pundits. And oddly, a pundit’s reputation or popularity seems to have relatively little to do with his or her success rate at prediction or objectivity as a “Monday-morning quarterback.”

Sportsmanship. I have a professional interest in “adversarial ethics.” In several important areas in life we (i.e. our societies) have constructed institutions that set up competitions between rival “players.” The most obvious and least metaphorical one is sports. We have fairly precise rules for a sport, referees to monitor the rules, and we ask the players to try to win the competition while abiding by the rules or accepting punishments for transgressions. The idea is that the players themselves (in various non-spectator sports) and the fans will benefit from the enhanced effort, training, athleticism, and spectacle of players or teams trying their best to win the competition. The athletes should not be aiming directly to entertain the fans; they are trying to win. But by trying to win against stiff competition, in a game with a carefully structured set of rules and vigilant referees, they produce “as if by an invisible hand” pleasure for fans.

So what does this have to do with sportsmanship? There will always be some ways of winning competitions that are not likely to lead to general fan enjoyment. Some ways of winning are unfair, maybe even cheating. And yet, with the best set of rules and the best referees, it will often be possible to win in these unfortunate ways. E.g., a team could decide in the first minute of the game to concede a penalty while illegally injuring a star player on the opposing team. It is impossible to draw up a set of rules that will outlaw all possible “unproductive” winning strategies. And it is impossible for a referee to catch all transgressions. Even if it is more possible with video replay to do so, it may be counter-productive to slow a game down enough to use video replay for every possible infraction.

This is where sportsmanship comes in. We expect players to obey not just the rules but the spirit of the rules. Sports would be impossible without sportsmanship.

But spectator sports are only one kind of institution where the benefits are produced by a competition in which, for the most part, players play to win and not directly to produce social benefits. Criminal and civil law in most countries involves adversarial contests between lawyers; electoral politics involves competition between political parties; and markets structure competitions between firms; to name just three rather important institutions. It is instructive to use sporting vocabulary and analogies in all of these areas. And I believe it makes sense to think of ethics in these “deliberately adversarial” institutions as analogous to sportsmanship. And to think of legal-but-unethical behavior as “gamesmanship.” (Shout out here to my pal Joe Heath, a philosopher and video-gamer at the University of Toronto.) Though we should never forget that in all these cases we think that the best way to avoid most unethical behavior is to have better rules and better referees.

Two other general themes in this blog, briefly.

Identity. How we identify with sports teams, and how we respond emotionally to their “thrill of victory” and their “agony of defeat,” bears similarities too striking to ignore with our cultural and political identities. (I have written quite a bit on non-sporting identities; e.g. here and here.) These identities literally distort what we see without own two eyes. For example, we tend to see many more penalties committed against our team than by our team; we more easily excuse or forget atrocities committed by our nation than we do those committed against it.

Aesthetics. Athletic accomplishments can be beautiful. But not exactly in the way that modern dance can be beautiful. The two most underappreciated topics in philosophical discussions of aesthetics are humor and sports. Beyond questions about perceptions of beauty per se, there are many qualitative issues about how we evaluate and rank, say, some styles of play and strategy over others; some sports over others; or even one team over another in the same league and season.

These are my big underlying themes, though I promise rarely to discuss them in the abstract — that is, outside of particular controversies that are interesting for sports fans in their own right. There are plenty of other issues like these: some might be sub-categories, some might be a big as these. Let’s see what comes up.