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The Rise of Philosopher-Athletes

by Jack Bowen


There’s a new cohort of philosophers appearing on the scene these days, though in disguise, or, more like hidden in plain sight.  They garner considerably more attention than the old guard of philosophers being taught in the tall towers of academia the past 2,000 years, having caught the eyes and minds of millions throughout the world.  All of this is being done through a medium many consider not just impervious to deep thought but, stereotypically, antithetical to it: sports.

Immediately following Naomi Osaka’s recent U.S. Open victory, she did what any philosopher worth their mettle would do.  In her on-court interview, when asked what message she hoped to send with her display of masks depicting police violence victims, she answered the question with a question, “What was the message that you got?”

Despite the common perception of philosophy, it isn’t just about incessant question asking, though that’s certainly a part of it.  Good thinking involves making ideas accessible and relevant: something academic philosophers just don’t do well.  Our philosopher-athletes are doing more than just questioning, and, more importantly, they’re doing so in a widely accessible manner.

What was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.

Naomi Osaka

The sports-and-philosophy connection isn’t totally new.  Well-known existentialist philosopher and author Albert Camus, also an avid soccer goalie, once wrote, “All that I know most surely about morality and the obligations of men I owe to football.”

As with any subject taught in school, real learning and reflection doesn’t occur without the student being emotionally engaged.  So, this new legion of philosophers has a real advantage over the rest of us: they’re interacting with fanatics—those who approach an endeavor emotionally engaged, with uncritical zeal.  And now, our new philosopher-athletes are inviting these zealots to be more critical about some profoundly important issues.

Yet, as I write, the top result of a Google search for “athletes should…” is, “…stick to sports;” also on the list of 10 auto-fills is, “…stay out of politics,” and later, “…shut up and play.”  With athletes speaking up now more than ever, writers and pundits are weighing in, along with the standard Twitter trolling, suggesting the primary thing athletes should do is to not talk.

Though, in looking closely at their use of the word “should,” the only claim athlete-silencers can be making is a moral one: athletes ought not engage publicly in any form of social-political discourse and for them to do so would be unethical, in the same way one ought to refrain from all other morally condemnable actions.

Once put this way, it seems a rather difficult position to maintain.

One could actually make a stronger argument for the antithesis of this one: those with a far reaching social platform, such as professional athletes, who perceive a deep-rooted unfairness or injustice, should speak up and do something in an attempt to bring awareness to or alleviate that injustice.

Some top athletes have decided to avoid engaging publicly regarding social justice issues and political discourse; they have followed the admonition of Fox News host Laura Ingraham who advised LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble,” during a 2018 broadcast.  (James later responded that he would not shut up and would, instead, “talk about what’s really important.”)

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Granted, part of this may be an aesthetic concern from fans.  As was voiced to me while watching the San Francisco 49er’s opening day game (socially distanced and outside): “Sometimes, people just want an escape from everything going on and don’t want politics mixed up with a sports contest.”  This I’m certainly amenable to—for three hours, I truly did forget about everything going on in the world.  But again, this is a matter of taste, not ethics.

I’ve found myself tuning in 10 minutes early just to see what the humans in this human endeavor will do.   I keenly watched the various reactions on display at the NFL’s Opening Day with players kneeling, putting hands on hearts, fists in air, entire teams retreating to the locker room, and then fans booing when the two teams linked arms.

So instead, we can see the positive side of this trend through the lens of non-athlete-philosopher John Stuart Mill, who laid much of the groundwork for free speech and democratic discourse.  Professional athletes talking and taking action will not only create increased dialogue and action on their part, but will clearly insight others to discuss and to act when they might otherwise have remained silent.

As Mill wrote in his seminal On Liberty, by silencing someone’s opinion, we miss out on one of two things.  Either their opinion was right and thus we would miss out on truth.  Or it’s wrong.  And in this case, lest we not forget, just because someone is a good athlete, their opinions may still be wrong and, if silenced, we would lose what, according to Mill, is nearly as good as being right: “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

More people talking and more people voting yields a greater chance for truth to win out and the fruits of democracy to flourish.  For many, sports can be the ideal catalyst for really connecting with otherwise unrelatable, abstract issues.  And if it engages more people in discourse about creating an increasingly just and fair world and casting our ballots, all the while having to hear a few athletes share their ideas in a post-game interview, all the better.  Athletes can dribble (and hit, pass, etc.) and not shut up and Mr. Mill would be proud.

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Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 21 years where they have won the league championships 18 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe and in 2020, at TEDxGunnHighSchool, "The Unexamined Sport Is Not Worth Playing".  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.