The Philosopher and the Football

Fairness, ethics, morality—deep issues are equally at home on the sports field as in the pages of Plato, says Mike VanQuickenborne.

You probably watched the Super Bowl and saw a game. Mike VanQuickenborne watches football and sees life.

The Everett Community College philosophy instructor sees athletics, professional and otherwise, as a blooming field of inquiry for ethicists. Sports, he says, asks us to observe — or overlook — a host of questions about struggle, achievement, competition, and basic fairness. This is true both for the sport as we watch it, and for ourselves as observers.

“A lot of people aren’t necessarily playing sports, but they interact in the context of being a fan,” VanQuickenborne says, “and being a fan, I think, has ethical implications. Are there particular teams or players that it’s really not a good idea to support, because of their immoral behavior? Does being a fan bring people together, or does it end up sorting us into tribes, so we make more enemies than otherwise?”

VanQuickenborne’s Speakers Bureau discussion, “The Good Game: On the Moral Value of Sports,” delves into this question and more. Examining sports from an ethical perspective is a relatively recent practice, starting around the 1970s. VanQuickenborne’s talk continues the study with inquiries into bioengineering, fandom, and even the rise of computer sports games as its own competitive field.

“I also try to think about what might be termed the dark side of sports, in terms of its propensity to promote violence, and certainly there are ethical questions coming up right now, say around a sport like football, where there’s some very telling evidence that it can lead to significant injury down the road.”


Humanities Washington: What kinds of ethical questions do athletics pose?

Mike VanQuickenborne: It’s a whole host of things, starting with the question of whether or not sports is a good way to inculcate or expose people to virtuous behavior. I make a point to note that for many children, a sporting context is the first in which they might encounter more challenging ethical dilemmas. Should you cheat? If you break a rule, should you admit as much, or keep it to yourself? Should you assist an injured opponent? So there’s that kind of training area, but today, more and more, sports is engaging this question of what does it mean to be a human being in the area around performance-enhancing drugs. Some philosophers are already beginning to speculate — because it’s becoming reality — about the impact of genetic engineering on human beings. Ought we to pursue such things, especially when you’re doing so for what might seem a fairly trivial thing: To become a better athlete?

As we gather less frequently in religious groups or in other civic gatherings, sports is a way to get together with other people and fill that need we have to commune with other human beings.

If sports is a celebration of human physical achievement, what are we doing to our baselines when performance enhancement enters the picture?

A philosopher who’s thought about this is Michael Sandel. He’s written a book called The Case Against Perfection, where he argues that while genetic engineering and chemical enhancement could be safe, there would be a price to using those engineering techniques to achieve some sort of enhancement. We would be too in control of our own destinies, and that would rob us of humility — and then of course given that these kind of engineering techniques would only be available to the most fortunate people in the world, who could afford these things, it would really start to tear apart humanity in terms of our relationships to each other. Some people have suggested, well, let’s just have an enhanced Olympics, and not worry about drug testing. Sandel suggests those kind of athletes would be basically pseudo-robots. Initially there might be a lot of interest in what these people could do, but that would quickly fade, because it would become so routine. We wouldn’t be marveling at the effort of the individual. We might marvel at the method of their engineering, but it wouldn’t be the person themselves that we admire.

Let’s talk about video games as sports. When I play a PC game at home, I’m not doing much physically except screwing up my back. Am I an athlete?

It depends on your definition of sports, and the one that I prefer actually would suggest that e-sports are sports. As to whether the people who participate in e-sports are athletes, I think it’s pretty clear they’re not. But I don’t think you have to be an athlete to participate in sports. Certainly in some cases, it’s a stretch to say a golfer is an athlete, but golf is a sport. What I do encourage people to think about is whether or not some sports might be more holistic than others — even to say that one sport is in some sense more engaging than another, and in some sense better than another. But I want to qualify that by saying it’s dependent on your circumstances. I would say e-sports are sports, but I know that I wouldn’t encourage my children to go into it.

Fantasy leagues seems like a way for non-athletes to participate in sports, but what does it say when people aren’t pretending to be players, but owners?

I definitely think it’s a bit problematic. It turns the athletes into objects, into little pawns you put together to try and succeed in this game you’re playing. From the stories I’ve heard, sometimes if a player gets injured, they’ll get nasty tweets saying, “You’ve just blown my fantasy league.” Anytime someone sees a person as an object and not the person they are is problematic. Of course, fantasy leagues are also illegal in the state of Washington.

The human embrace of sports seems outsized to its actual consequence. If the Seahawks win a Super Bowl, it doesn’t fix my streets or cure cancer. So why so much emphasis?

There could be a lot of explanations for that. I think there is too much emphasis on being a fan, and the whole goal of my presentation is that we ought to put more emphasis on participating in sports. I like to remind people that sumo wrestling is a sport, and gymnastics is a sport — you’ve got two diametrically opposed body types, and in between there is a whole spectrum of sports that appeal to people from all walks of life. One of the quotes I relate is that 50 years ago, just three in 10 Americans considered themselves sports fans, but by 2012, it was six in 10. One article suggests that to some extent, sports may be taking the place of religion in American society, and to me, that does have some plausibility. As we gather less frequently in religious groups or in other civic gatherings, sports is a way to get together with other people and fill that need we have to commune with other human beings.

Mike VanQuickenborne is presenting his free Humanities Washington talk “The Good Game: On the Moral Value of Sports” around the state. Find out where he’s appearing next.

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