The Morality of Sport and Sports

Over at Leah Libresco’s blog, there’s been a good discussion of the morality of playing football given the risk of serious injury.  This spun into a discussion of the cultivation of courage, and then back into something about sports.  I’m going to post one of my comments here because I think this is probably a question we could all (including the new natural lawyers) profit from discussing, and I’d be interested in seeing the blog get lively again.

The great thing about virtue is that it’s flexible. Sport is good. Activity done for the sake of diversion falls under the virtue of eutrapelia (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae q.168), and is analogous to physical rest and relaxation. The mind (like the body) just can’t be working all the time, so there is an excellence in finding suitable modes of relaxation and doing well with them. These consist of play, humor, wittiness, games, etc. In the absence of these, we become like all those characters in The Scarlet Letter, and life takes a turn for the worse. Even the famously ascetical Desert Fathers of early Christianity recognized the importance of play. (If you bend the bow too far, it will break.) So I’m not saying, and I’m sure Leah’s not saying, that football is to be universally prohibited, or that any leisure activity involving any significant degree of physical risk is immoral.

You may have noticed that I’ve been saying “sport” , and not “sports”. There’s meaning behind this. Sport is activity done for the sake of diversion. Sports are specific games involving the competitive use of a physical skill, normally in a highly organized setting, often at high stakes. What I would like to suggest is that Sport, as I have described it here, has become mostly distinct from Sports as practiced in our culture. I suspect that this is what people are gesturing toward when they complain about the professionalization of child sports teams (the stock little league dad screaming at his son, the kids wearing their all-too-real uniforms and receiving all-too-earnest chiding and corrective advice from their coaches) or the absence of spontaneity in the typical middle-American boy’s experience of these games. I have already touched on the ways even things like this can be good for kids and help develop certain virtues. But what’s clear is that turning a frivolous game into a matter of significant import in your life (as a child or an adult) removes it to a very large extent (perhaps entirely) from the recreation that falls under eutrapelia. When a basketball game is the sort of thing you can cry about after losing, we can be sure that it wasn’t just a diversion. When playing (and thus the possibility of poor performance or loss) induces tension and worry in the player commensurate with a serious life-event, we’re not dealing with sport anymore.

So let me try to summarize. Activities done for the sake of diversion, to develop a skill that is wholly particular to the game in which it is used (chess, e.g.) are moderated by the virtue of eutrapelia: they are good for the recovery of the soul, for the kind of careless frivolity that enables one to more adequately turn toward serious things at other times. A casual game of football could easily fall under this category, and here we would want to regulate our way of playing and the extent to which we invest ourselves in playing in a way commensurate with the freedom and frivolity of play. On the other hand we have professional and quasi-professional way of doing sports, as practiced in schools and national leagues, in which games become a matter of serious serious consequence (moral or material) for players, and are no longer done merely for diversion, but as a kind of art. Here the virtues I have talked about in earlier comments come into play: virtues like fortitude and temperance, friendship and sacrifice, which aid in the cultivation of art, especially when others are involved. I remember attending hockey games when I was at Yale, and marveling at the excellence of the players’ coordination. There is a kind of glory in it, a luminosity or beauty similar to a dance, but perhaps improved by the fact that it is directed toward a definite end. But the question with the cultivation of any art, is what the value of one’s produce is, and to what extent the practice of that art is worthy of sacrifice and pain. This is a deep question which depends on a solid analysis of what is being done and what is produced. But now perhaps we can see why this question is comparable to questions about job-safety, and also why we ordinarily have so much trouble appreciating that. Sport is supposed to be something free from the ordinary interests and pursuits of everyday life. Any material or moral advantages gained from winning a football game are merely accidental and depend on the context. But once it has been professionalized, assuming it is not secretly part of a vestal cult or religious order, a game decisively enters the world of production and its value is open to question. In other words, since skill at football cannot sanely be pursued as a good in itself, the non-recreational player needs to determine its place within the broader hierarchy of ends, and determine whether the costs of playing (given the benefits of playing) are commensurate with the reasonable pursuit and acquisition of happiness. This is, in other words, the same question (almost exactly the same question) someone working in a cotton mill or a coal mine needs to ask, and something that those who have care of millers and miners need to ask to protect their well-being. I am personally not ready to answer it, but I think it’s worth sorting out all the issues so that we aren’t confused about the matter when we get down to it.

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11 Responses to The Morality of Sport and Sports

  1. Clare says:

    I think I agree with what you’re saying. Chess and casual football aren’t just fun activities completely unrelated to the rest of life, though–they’re recovery time, but they’re not just recovery time. Chess sharpens certain thinking skills, and little kids playing football are training their little legs and hearts in strength. Lots of play is also skill-practicing or training on some level.

    Even lots of the imaginary play is a rehearsal of relationships–giver, receiver, host, guest, mother, child. Or not that the play is a rehearsal, but these relationships and actions are the central thing, and the dollhouses and real house interchangeable, growing as we grow.

    I’m trying to think of something that is only diversion. Maybe very simple games?

    • Tao Mason says:

      I don’t think Elliot is saying that activities done for the sake of diversion are *only* diversion (since there are accidental effects to all human activity), just that there is a difference between when they are done for diversion and when they are done for art.

      • Clare says:

        I’m skeptical, though, of a hard classification. It seems arbitrary and artificial to designate these activities as “for” diversion, with it’s connotations of a break or wandering away from the main of life.

      • Clare says:

        I’m not questioning the distinction between art and sport, I’m questioning the usefulness of how we usually talk about sport.

        In other news, I am often skeptical of all this “ordered to” and “accidental” talk about things humans do.

    • Elliot Milco says:

      So, Tao is right. And if you don’t like to call things “accidental”, then I’ll justify the language for you. Exercise might be accidental to playing a sport when the intended reason for playing is to get a trophy. But obviously there are usually multiple good reasons for doing anything, so what’s accidental from one standpoint might be essential from another. There are a lot of different narratives, priorities, desires, etc. running through our heads, popping up and then falling back, which collectively help determine what we do, and help us choose what seems best. The human person isn’t a machine for cranking out one achieved goal at a time, but lives in the midst of a diverse and complicated world full of possible gains and losses. It would be a mistake, however, to take this fact and conclude from it that an act cannot be characterized generally in one way or another, or that it’s useless to consider the morality of a given act informed by a given intention. So basically, you’re both right and I think we all agree, except maybe David.

      • Clare says:

        Ok, with your justification, I am more ok.

        I am still not completely sold that an act can be characterized generally in one way–or, not that it can’t, but that’s it’s useful or necessary, or possible to make a moral judgement based on this general classification one way or another. But I think getting into this here, in a way that satisfies me, would derail an interesting thread.

        So Elliot, find me up on gchat. I’ll be the one at the end of the station, wearing a rose pinned to my dress.

    • Elliot Milco says:

      So, only the first page is there for free and I don’t have access to this book. Is he going where I think he’s going? I.e., saying that leisure arises only given the category of labor and is thus the negative space brought into being to complement the commodification of life? Or something like that?

      • David P. says:

        Curious; most of the essay’s available to me on Google Books. No matter, however. I suppose that, generally, you think correctly: “free time” today is literally re-creation, a means for a worker to re-create himself in order to more efficiently work. (Of course, Aquinas cites mental rejuvenation as a reason for playing, but that’s a bit different than playing in order to become a better worker under capitalism.) Which means that one’s leisure activities have become exceedingly trivial––”hobbies,” mindless TV-watching, etc.––and undemanding, although “compulsory” in some sense. Adorno isn’t indicting the idea of leisure as such, of course, but only the way it’s understood today and the way in which leisure is cleanly split apart from work.

        “If we suppose with Marx that in bourgeois society labour power has become a commodity in which labour is consequently reified, then the expression ‘hobby’ amounts to a paradox: that human condition which sees itself as the opposite reification, the oasis of unmediated life within a completely mediated total system, has itself been reified just like the rigid distinction between labour and free time. The latter is a continuation of the forms of profit-oriented social life. Just as the term ‘show business’ is today taken utterly seriously, the irony in the expression ‘leisure industry’ has now been quite forgotten. It is widely known but no less true therefore that specific leisure activities like tourism and camping revolve around and are organised for the sake of profit. At the same time the difference between work and free time has been branded as a norm in the minds of people, at both the conscious and the unconscious level. Because, in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labour power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal. And here we come across a behavioural norm of the bourgeois character. On the one hand one should pay attention at work and not be distracted or lark about; wage labour is predicated on this assumption and its laws have been internalized. On the other hand free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectively afterwards. Hence the inanity of many leisure activities…[Yet the] rigorous bifurcation of life enjoins the same reification, which has now almost completely subjugated free time. / This subjugation can be clearly seen at work in the hobby ideology. The naturalness of the question of what hobby you have, harbours the assumption that you must have one, or better still, that you should have a range of different hobbies…Organized freedom is compulsory…”

        Hence Adorno declares in a delightfully outraged manner: “I am shocked by the question when I come up against it. I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is incapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognised profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies––preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time––had I not become hardened by experience to such examples of this now widespread, barbarous mentality.”

        • Elliot Milco says:

          After you pointed it out, I realized that only the second page was missing. But I’m glad I didn’t see that at first, since now you’ve provided me with some nice excerpts and a summary.

        • Elliot Milco says:

          Do you think I’ve overly-capitalized the matter in my treatment above? I worry sometimes that my way of talking about prudence sounds too utilitarian.

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