The former Liverpool manager takes on the philosopher, linguist, political commentator, cultural critic, and former MIT professor on the question of the meaning of sport. Guess who comes out on top?

Actually,  (Graham Walton/Flickr)

Shankly immortalized in bronze at Anfield. Actually, he and Chomsky might have had a nice chat about socialism. (Graham Walton/Flickr)

 

The legendary Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly was once asked if he thought football was a matter of life or death. “No,” he replied, “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.”

It’s a good joke, not least because Shankly wasn’t trying to be funny. But it also highlights a real issue. Where does sport stand in the scheme of things?

You don’t have to be Shankly to believe that sport adds a positive element to many lives. Still, not everyone concedes even this much. Another important thinker, Noam Chomsky, thinks sport is nothing but a capitalist trick. He dismisses it as: “an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence.”

If you ask me, Chomsky is talking through his hat. He may know all about the foundations of linguistics – though I have my doubts about that, too – but when it comes to sport, I am with Shankly every time. Only someone who is a stranger to the joys of athletic achievement could dismiss sport as having “no meaning.”

Those few philosophers who have written about the value of sport tend to stand somewhere between Chomsky and Shankly. They don’t dismiss sport as meaningless, but at the same time they don’t count it as part of real life either. In their view, sport is worthwhile precisely because it gives us a break from more serious pursuits. I think that these philosophers have it wrong too. Sport doesn’t stand outside real life, but is part of it. Shankly may have been a tad overenthusiastic, but he had the right idea. Sport reaches deep into human nature, and can be as important as anything else.

Over the last couple of decades, The Grasshopper by the late Bernard Suits has acquired a cult status among philosophers who think about sport. It’s a quirky dialogue in which the eponymous grasshopper celebrates game-playing as the supreme virtue. Along the way, Suits offers a convincing definition of games (thereby refuting Wittgenstein’s silly insistence that the notion can’t be defined). In summary, Suits analyses games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” His idea is that all games specify some target state – like reaching the final square in snakes and ladders, or getting your golf ball in the hole – and then place arbitrary restrictions on the means allowed – you must go down the snakes but not up, you must propel the ball with your clubs and not carry it down the fairway.

So far, so good. But Suits goes wrong when he suggests that sports are a subspecies of games. In truth, while some sports are games – tennis, cricket, soccer – many others are not—running, rowing, skiing. And in assimilating sports to games, Suits misunderstands what makes them worthwhile. In Suits’ view, the value of games, and therefore of sports, lies in meeting the challenge of the arbitrary obstacles they impose. This seems to me to trivialize things. If something isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing even when it’s made difficult. If that was all there was to it, we may as well stick to snakes and ladders.

I suspect that The Grasshopper appeals mostly to the kind of reader who has never known the joy of hitting a six back over the bowler’s head, or of body-surfing a wave 100 yards up onto the beach, or of hitting a backhand top-spin crosscourt winner. The value of these things is nothing to do with overcoming arbitrary obstacles. Rather, their worth lies in the pure virtue of physical prowess. (All right, I confess. While I have hit sixes, and am proud of my body-surfing, I don’t have a top-spin backhand. I don’t care. Ivan Lendl won eight grand slams without one.)

Pride in physical performance is a deep-seated feature of human nature. Humans hone their physical abilities and take delight in exercising them. Perhaps this originally had its roots in the practical needs of hunting, fishing and fighting, but we have come to value physical performance as an end in itself. We devote long hours to improving our skills, and seek out opportunities to test them.

If you want a definition of sport, I would say that it is any activity whose primary purpose is the exercise of physical skills. This definition explains why plenty of sports are not games. While some sporting skills only exist within a game – top-spin backhands, for example – many others involve actions that are already found in ordinary life – running, rowing, shooting, lifting, throwing. These ordinary activities turn into sports whenever people start performing them for their own sake and strive for excellence in their exercise.

Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the oldest rowing race in the world, dating back to 1715, when the apprentice watermen on the Thames first tried their skills over a course from London Bridge to Chelsea. What could be more natural than for these young men to test themselves against each other? In fact, there seems no limit to the range of everyday activities that can be turned into sports in this way. Bronco riding, sheep dog trials, medieval jousting, catfish noodling, trailer truck reversing, competitive barbecuing, speed eating . . . (I admit that these last two cases only marginally involve physical skills). My favourite example is competitive casting. When I was a youngster in Natal, the local surf fisherman vied to see who could cast out furthest beyond the Indian Ocean breakers. Soon some of them decided to skip the fishing and concentrate on the casting – and so ended up holding casting competitions on sports fields with special equipment.

What is the relation between sport and competition? As I see it, there is a natural connection, but it is by no means essential. To want to exercise a skill is to want to do something well, indeed as well as is feasible. And a natural way to test whether you are doing as well as you can is to measure yourself against other people. It is scarcely surprising that people who take pride in how far they can cast a fishing line will want to see if they can cast further than others.

Still, even if sport lends itself naturally to competition, it does not require it. A rock-climbing team that sets out to conquer some challenging ascent need not be competing with other teams. When I became keen on golf, I was desperate to break 100, and then 90, and then 80, and played many solitary rounds in pursuing these challenges. Recreational wind-surfers, skiers, and hang-gliders are not out to beat anybody, yet these activities are undoubtedly sports. Moreover, even in those sports that are competitive, it is normally the playing well that matters as much as the winning; after all, if people got nothing out of matches they lost, it is hard to see why most contests would take place.

Perhaps competition is crucial to spectator sports, and indeed a large part of the reason why people watch them. But that is a different issue. I am talking about the nature and value of playing sports, not watching them. There may well be a number of further features needed to make a sport worth watching, beyond those that make it worth playing. (Most obviously, it will need to be visually engaging. Many very popular participant sports fall at this first hurdle. Squash and field hockey spring to mind.)

Let’s go back to Suits’ definitions of games as “voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” As I said, while plenty of sports are not games in this sense, some certainly are, like tennis and cricket. But even then, their value is to do with the physical prowess they involve, and not the obstacles they set. Top-spin crosscourt backhands are good because they are admirably skilful, not because you have to overcomes tennis’s arbitrary rules in order to win a point.

Not all games are physical – think of bridge, chess, ludo, monopoly, baccarat, craps. Those games that aren’t physical don’t count as sports, for just that reason. But my last point about the value of game-playing applies across the board. If a game is worth playing, it is always for some other reason than the obstacles it presents. Thus some games are worthwhile because of the mental powers they demand – bridge and chess would be the paradigms. Other games engender excitement, perhaps because money rides on the outcome. And in general, contra Suits, any game worth playing offers some further value beyond its arbitrariness.

I say that sport is worthwhile because it facilitates the exercise of valuable physical skills. Some will object that this fails to explain the sense in which sport is essentially lusory, play, leisure, unserious, the opposite of work. Suits’ analysis of sports as games makes this feature basic to sports. But my account arguably casts no light on this essential difference between sport and real life.

My response is to deny the premise. I do not agree that sport has a different kind of value from other things. As far as ultimate value goes, I would place the performance of outstanding physical skills pretty high. But in any case, that is more than I need to argue. Maybe physical skills are less important than purity of character or artistic creativity. The more basic point is that they are valuable in just the same way as other things. Someone who devotes their life to high-jumping or baseball is no less serious a person than someone who devotes it to the ballet, say, or to making money. There is nothing intrinsically dilettante about sports compared with other walks of life.

I can’t help quoting from the scurrilous Sri Lankan cricket novel Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka:

I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports. I only agree with the first part. I may be drunk but I am not stupid. Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. THERE IS LITTLE POINT TO ANYTHING. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities.

Note that Karunatilaka does not agree with his family that there is no value in sports. What he is saying is that sports are no less important than anything else. Of course, if we set the bar of significance too high – surviving the passage of millennia – then sport will fall short. But so too will the other things that matter – family, friends, ambitions, prosperity.

If there is something peculiar about sport, perhaps it lies in the point that Karunatilaka’s narrator does concede to his family – that there is no use in sports. It is true that sport doesn’t connect up with other aspects of life. For most non-professional practitioners, sporting achievements are disconnected from financial welfare, social life or personal relationships. They are ephemeral and lead to no lasting products, not even a garden or a stamp collection. Sports aren’t normally designed to entertain an audience, still less to explore and transform our perceptions of the world.

Maybe sport is special in this sense. It forms a self-enclosed realm, isolated from the rest of life. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people find sport absorbing and relaxing.) But I see no reason to accord sport less importance on this account. The exercise of physical skills may not win you friends or influence the rest of the world. But that doesn’t mean it is not important and valuable in its own right.

 

David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This essay originally appeared on his blog about sport and philosophy, More Important Than That (title courtesy of Bill Shankly). David tweets from @davidpapineau.