When is a Sport not a Sport?

Posted on July 28, 2010


Do we need to answer the question “What is a sport?” in order to address questions about which sports are better than others, or how to improve any given sport or spectator’s experience?

I suspect not. But reflecting for a moment on the different fundamental features of various sports does help us to explain why some of them seem so much more compelling for spectators; and also how they could become even more compelling. (For example, this kind of reflection helps us think about how certain sports could be broadcast better, which I have discussed here for soccer, here for hockey, and here for curling.)

The question “what is a sport?” is not particularly interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with the difference between sports and other human activities. It is because, for philosophical reasons, with all due respect to Plato and Socrates, it is rarely interesting to ask questions of the form “What is x?” or “When is an x an F?” (e.g. “when is [a human activity] a [sport]?”).

Imagine you and I have different definitions of what a sport is. How do we test or prove which one is best? If we have different theories about whether it is raining or not, we can just look out the window to see who’s right. But if we have different definitions we usually end up having to hold these up against the way ordinary people speak. And it turns out that for lots of everyday words or concepts like “sports,” people speak in pretty loose ways. We can talk about two dudes trying to pick up chicks in a bar as if it were a sport. (That’s why we call them “players” or “playas.”) Some loner standing knee-deep in a swamp shooting at ducks might be called a sport hunter. Some of the nerdiest kids in high school are mathletes: competitive puzzle solvers.

Of course, one brash alternative is to say “ordinary language be damned: here is my definition of sport, and according to this definition lots of things people think are sports — like golf, and bowling, and luge, and the 100m dash — are not real sports!” The problem is, what argument can you give for your unique new definition if somebody doesn’t buy it?

As I have hinted and argued throughout this blog, hidden in that attempt to define not-so-great sports out of existence (as sports, at any rate) are important intuitions about what makes some sports great. But these intuitions are best articulated and explained not by arguing about definitions, but by making a normative case for why the quality of that sporting or spectator experience is better or richer. Again, we don’t have a good name for this kind of normative argument. When we’re arguing in other realms of our lives for why some action or rule is better, we call this ethics. When arguing about why some work of art is better, we call it aesthetics. But we don’t have a respectable term for many of normative topics in this blog, though they bear resemblance to questions of both ethics and aesthetics. “Sportsthetics” sounds too much like protective equipment.

But I digress. In fact, I’m about to back track. We usually can’t settle deep disputes about definitions, but we can eliminate some bad definitions, especially if these are being employed tactically for other purposes. (E.g.: if someone’s definition of “sport” is used to show why competitive cheerleading isn’t a sport, and when this is done in order to deny school resources to this activity.)

Consider how our concept of sport is related to, and distinguished from, other concepts like game, competition, or physical skill and ability.

We notice that the “classic sports,” from fencing and tennis to curling and all varieties of football, contain all of these elements. But we can also easily identify activities involving just one or two of these that are clearly not sports. Chess and charades are competitive games but we would never call them sports. Piano playing and ballet require advanced physical skills and abilities, but we never think of describing them as sports either — not even in the context of competitions to see who is the best pianist or ballerina.

Now I would contend that many of the least interesting sports — as sports, that is; they might be interesting in other ways — are those that involve a particular physical skill that preceded its being considered a sport. We start thinking of it as a sport merely because we have staged a competition between different people practicing this activity. Many of the classic racing/ throwing/ shooting sports have this form. Indeed, most Olympic sports are like that. We ran, swam, threw projectiles, lifted heavy stuff, rode horses, skied, shot arrows and fired weapons, rowed boats, and so on, long before we decided it would be cool to see who could do these things the best.

As sports, most of these things are no more or less compelling than competitions between pianists, ballroom dancers, amateur singers, child spellers, or people with heads full of trivial knowledge. Which is not to say these kinds of contests aren’t compelling. They can all provide tremendous drama and test the limits of the human spirit in its quest to achieve difficult goals and to conquer the human frailty that keeps many of us from ever achieving as much as we want. We can identify with participants of contests and be inspired by them. And some of what they do, whether it is sprinting gracefully or singing like angels, can be beautiful to behold.

But it’s not really sport, is it? For one thing, most of those simple racing, throwing, lifting, etc, competitions don’t even involve anything that we could rightly call a game. My favorite (sadly former, though still very much alive) sports columnist, Salon’s King Kaufman, called these kinds of sports “indirect competitions.”

“It’s athlete vs. clock or athlete vs. competitor’s score. The competitors take their turns, sequentially. They never face each other — I mean literally, face each other, the way a hockey forward and defenseman do, or the way two boxers or wrestlers or even tennis players do. That facing each other, that me trying to stop you and you trying to stop me, is what makes the great sports great.”

When each athlete is simply trying to perform the demanding skill as best he or she can, blocking out, if at all possible, how the competitors are performing, there is a lot less to engage with or to admire, apart from their courage and determination. E.g., as Kaufman put it in that column from the 2002 Winter Olympics, “The Winter Olympics are filled with sports like that. All of the racing sports, the skiing and bobsled and speed skating and luge, are exercises in déjà vu. One guy flying down a mountain on skis looks pretty much like another guy flying down a mountain on skis, and doing it in one minute, 39.13 seconds looks a heck of a lot like doing it in one minute, 41.25 seconds, which is a range that on Monday encompassed 20 skiers.”

I might add that there is a further category of “indirect competitions” that are especially dubious as a full-blown sports. Namely, those in which we can’t even objectively measure the winner by time, distance, height, or weight, but instead need a panel of judges to evaluate more subjectively the form. Feel free to call these sports, but if we do, we really have almost no compelling argument against thinking that any physically demanding activity — from yoga, to dozens of forms of dance and acrobatics to, yes, competitive cheerleading — can be considered a sport worthy of the Olympics if enough people start doing it and a governing body can invent some criteria for good form. And how often, really, do most people want to watch these competitions. In most cases, no more than an hour or two every four years.

Does this seem right? Great sports are the ones that involve games, not just contests. Games where defense matters as much as offense. And, as I tried to argue in a series of posts on soccer beginning here, defense that involves tactics, along with physical and mental play, that are as admirable as those on offense.

But what, exactly, is a “game”? (To be continued….)