8th January 2007
As promised: a longer consideration of the nature of ‘Sport’. This is by my colleague, Dr Emily Ryall, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy over at the Faculty of Sport, Health and Social Care at Oxstalls Campus (University of Gloucestershire).
In the piece below she considers: what is a sport?
In philosophy we are encouraged to define our concepts with relation to necessary and sufficient conditions. In the case of sport, the Analytical approach has attempted to do this. A fairly accessible definition of sport is given by Coakley:
Sports are institutionalized competitive activities that involve rigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by participants motivated by personal enjoyment and external rewards. (Coakley, 2001; p.20)
However, a more thorough place to start is with Bernard Suits’ exploration of this issue. In particular, Suits considers, what seems to be, the significant relationship between games and sport. His seminal work, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, spends considerable time dissecting what it is for something to be a game. He concludes that the four essential elements are the goal, rules, means and lusory attitude.
The (Pre-lusory) Goal
Suits dismisses the goals of participating and winning to maintain that the goal of a game is “a specific achievable state of affairs… that can be described before, or independently of, any game of which it may be or become a part.” (1978; p36-37) Examples of this are, gaining three noughts or crosses in a row in the case of noughts and crosses, scoring more goals than your opponent in the case of football or hockey, or completing an approved set of actions to a particular standard in the case of high board diving.
The (Lusory) Means
Game playing is the selection of inefficient means. That is, to make a particular goal harder to achieve than is necessary. It would be easy to win at Monopoly if one had unlimited money and could continue to roll the dice until one achieved the number desired. Likewise, one could achieve the specific state of affairs in golf by walking to the hole and placing the ball in the cup. This aspect of selecting inefficient means is what distinguishes games from work.
(Arbitrary) rules (that are the selection of inefficient means) are accepted for the sake of the activity. In this sense then, the rules and ends are inseparable in games as the achievement of the goal is limited by the rules prescribing the means of achieving it. If a player were to have limitless money and roll the dice until they rolled the number they wished they would not be playing the game of Monopoly at all. Conversely, the player that places by hand her ball in the cup is not playing the game of golf.
The Lusory Attitude
This is the attitude held by players that they knowingly accept the rules to allow the game to be played. As Suits says, “in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do, whereas in games it appears to be an absolutely essential thing to do.” (1995; p.10)
So what does Suits say about sport? On this he changes position. He first said that sports are a special class of games but with added elements, namely: they must be games of skill, the skill must be physical, they must have a wide following, and achieve a certain level of stability. This would rule out games of chance, such as roulette, and games of mental skill such as poker. However, Suits later changes his claim that all sports are games as it doesn’t account for performance sports, such as gymnastics, which would not be classified as games.
As to whether darts is a sport, to a certain degree it fulfils both Suits’ and Coakley’s criteria. It is a game of skill to throw a dart at a target; it undoubtedly has a large following and has achieved a level of stability. The most problematic criteria seems to be the one requiring the skill to be physical. One could argue that it is physically demanding to be standing for long periods of time throwing darts at a board but this is not the same kind of physical skill that is involved in playing rugby or even in archery. Even if we focus upon Coakley’s requirement that it is necessary to be at least a relatively complex physical skill, though perhaps not rigorous, we might be able to argue that there are other activities that fulfil this criteria but that which we would not want to call a sport. The games of ‘snap’ or ‘scissors, paper, stone’ for instance, are probably more physically demanding than darts and fulfil the other criteria, yet we would probably not want to label these as sports. For this reason, it seems that the analytical approach is useful but inadequate as there may be some instances which fulfil the necessary and sufficient conditions but which we would not want to label as sport, and others that don’t fulfil these conditions that we do want to call sport.
The other approach that is taken towards a definition of sport is one that specifies that sport can only be defined in context. Any definition is grounded in society, culture and history and is dependent on who is being asked and to what instance is being referred. One might argue that an unequivocal example of sport is football and point to an officiated match played according to FIFA rules. However, would a five-a-side friendly in a local sports hall still be the same sport, or even an impromptu kick around in the park that consisted of three players using their jumpers as goal posts? If the rules of this kick around were changed to such an extent that players could only score if they volleyed the ball in, or headed the ball in, or had made six consecutive passes would it be football at all? In such an instance, we might argue that they are not playing the sport of football at all nor even the game of football but simply another game that resembles the sport of football. It is perhaps here that we can turn to Wittgenstein. First, his notion of family resemblance acknowledges the fact that we are able to trace common links between various instances of things we would call sport though there may not be any resemblance between one particular instance and another. Second and ultimately, that which we call sport and that which we dismiss as a game or other activity, is dependent on agreement in language. This, in itself, he calls a ‘language-game’ (…or is it a sport?!).
Coakley, J. (2001). Sport in Society: issues and controversies. New York: McGraw Hill.
Suits, B. (1978). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. London: University of Toronto Press.
Suits, B. (1995). ‘The elements of sport’ in Morgan, W. P. & Meier, K. V. (eds.) Philosophic Inquiry in Sport, Leeds: Human Kinetics, pp.8-15.
Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical Investigations. (Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe) Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Faculty of Sport, Health & Social Care
University of Gloucestershire, UK