- 09.29.2020 The Rise of Philosopher-Athletes
In January, I was the guest on an NPR radio show in New York discussing the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal. Once the host opened the show to callers, we received the typical thoughtful NPR-listener questions, all tangentially regarding sports yet, covertly more about the bigger picture. It’s one of the reasons I love being on these shows. Near the end, someone called in and asked some version of this: “With everything going on in the world, should we really devote any time to discussing sports?”
And this was in January.
Now, people are wondering the same thing but to an even greater extent, given that today’s issues make January’s seem like child’s play. With the coronavirus still wreaking havoc on people’s health in serious ways, a significant portion of the population in dire straits economically, and social upheaval at an all-time high given the Black Lives Matter movement, one could understandably pose this caller’s question again, though with considerably greater emphasis.
And the answer today, as it was in January, is “Yes, we absolutely should.”
Here’s the thing. Sports often gets a bad rap as though a discussion of sports somehow commits one to a binary option, in which one is either a small-minded jock, or too erudite and high minded for something as banal as sports. But there’s no reason this should be the case. Just as someone committed to a daily knitting club can still be deeply concerned about social justice, a sports fan can commit time and energy to their passion, while upholding their moral duty as a citizen.
We are actually required to perform some sort of cognitive tight rope act on a daily basis. During the time one enjoys a movie with family and friends, if the person is even moderately educated, they know—at least, at a subconscious level—that real suffering occurred in the world during those two hours. And, yet, they sat, eating popcorn, and (spoiler alert) watching the Death Star explode for the fifth time.
As Aristotle opined long ago, life is about striking some mean: a life steeped not too much in one vice such as the constant pursuit of hedonistic pleasure, though also not too much on the other side of the spectrum, eschewing all pleasure and joy, committed solely to the wellbeing of others. Striking this mean, Aristotle wrote, allows one to live a good life, to truly flourish.
Sports does this for a large portion of the population. It provides the backdrop for parents and children to bond, friends to connect, and individual fans to lose themselves in the drama and storyline of the game and the athletes who play it. These days, this is missing from the lives of many: a void which, if filled, would only boost the collective consciousness and provide an antidote for the drop in morale and the deluge of mental health issues.
Secondly, though, sports often provide a catalyst and the inroads for getting at the real big picture stuff. Just look at all of the prominent sports figures and columnists going on record about social justice, civil rights, and other deeply abstract concepts typically reserved for the secluded confines of academia. Understandably, when an adolescent’s favorite athlete summons his or her inner-Aristotle in a tweet about justice, it’s much more accessible and impactful than Aristotle himself.
A few years ago in my Philosophy course, we read an article about the ethical nature of intentional fouls so common near the end of basketball games. After class, one of my students approached me and asked, thoughtfully, “Why would someone spend so much time writing about something like basketball fouls?” He was genuinely perplexed. “But,” I asked him, “What do you think he should have done with those hours instead?” This, interestingly, led to a days-long conversation about the value of time and what it means to live a good life, going back to our aforementioned Aristotle.
And here we can look at this author—Warren Fraleigh, who many consider the pioneer of Sport Philosophy—and his contributions. His article did address, on the one hand, the issue of fouling in the game of basketball. This is of interest because, at base, we want to play the games right and well and with a sense of fairness. But, on a grander scale, this conversation serves as a welcoming portal to deeper discussions of fairness, justice, the nature of rules, the role of culture and many other issues often difficult to grasp and discuss outside the foundation of sports.
Sports, in this way, allows those who care about such matters to meet modern day’s societal issues head on, and on their own turf, so to speak. This is a good thing.
As the coach of a youth sports team now back in action, albeit in a very limited manner, this is where I can meet my own athletes. For the first two weeks of summer training, we spent the first half hour of our sessions discussing racism and, more aptly, anti-racism. We were athletes, playing our sport, and all the while, looking deeply at ourselves as people, at others as equals, and discussing justice, fairness and everything in between. Sports provided the medium for us to do this and have a conversation that would otherwise have been nearly impossible to even get off the ground.
So, to the question, “Should we really be discussing sports these days?” the answer from Aristotle to today is a strong yes. More so, today, we need to.