The attractions of Knowing the Score,  David Papineau’s  collection of essays about sports and philosophy, are foreshadowed by the witty cover of its U.S. edition, which reproduces, and riffs on, a detail from Raphael’s School of Athens. It shows Plato and Aristotle, the fresco’s two central figures. Aristotle extends a hand toward the viewer; Plato points an index finger gracefully to the heavens, and on its tip is balanced a spinning basketball.

Papineau is a well-known academic philosopher and an enthusiastic amateur athlete with an ecumenical interest in sports. After agreeing to speak in a run-up conference to the 2012 London Olympics, he became unsatisfied with his attempts at writing a “typical” philosophy of sports lecture, one that might analyze drug use or some other current controversy from various philosophical perspectives. He decided instead to take something interesting and, so to speak, run with it—choosing the fast-reaction skills needed to hit a pitched baseball or return a serve in tennis. These are puzzling both physiologically (how can there be sufficient time to observe, decide, and react?) and philosophically (how can a conscious intention direct the lightning-fast, automatic actions necessary to carry it out?). He was pleased with the outcome, which seemed to shed light on both sports and philosophy. He began posting essays about sports on his blog, and the results, revised, make up this book.

Sport is a universal human activity, a source of joy.

Witty and jargon-free, it can engage readers who are neither philosophers nor sports nuts. Sport, Papineau says, is a universal human activity, a source of joy that cannot be dismissed as (to quote the clueless killjoy Noam Chomsky) something that “probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence.”

He draws from a fund of entertaining anecdotes. About the mental side of sports he can cite Mike Tyson’s update of Field Marshal von Moltke: “Everybody has a plan, till they get punched in the mouth.” The difference between the rules of a sport and its ethical code is illustrated by a bizarre soccer game from the 1994 Caribbean Cup. The complex rules governing how teams advanced from the qualifying round to the finals made it advantageous, late in a qualifying match, for Barbados to force a sudden-death overtime by scoring an own-goal, a point for team Grenada. At which point Grenada would advance if a score then occurred in either goal. So Grenada began attacking, and Barbados defending, at both ends of the field. All of this was legal, but was it ethical? (Papineau’s view: “I would have loved to be there. I’m always interested when athletes find new ways of winning without actually cheating.” His glee can perhaps be squared with his other views on ethics by noting that the success of these maneuvers ultimately required the full panoply of soccer skills.)

Some of the essays use sports simply as a hook. For example, the casual acceptance, until quite recent times, of racial and ethnic segregation in sports becomes an occasion for general (and unremarkable) ruminations about race and ethnicity. Some associate a question about sports with a classical philosophical puzzle, such as the problem of identity: why do I identify my self with, and take responsibility for, that being with my name and dna who graduated from Cambridge forty-plus years ago? We can similarly ask why it’s meaningful to root for a team as though it’s an organism that persists through time, identifying this year’s lineup with great teams of the past.

Papineau is especially interested in subjects that might allow him to say something about both philosophy and sports. Consider the distinction between the rules of a game and its ethical code. Certain kinds of rulebreaking may be ethically acceptable—even obligatory. In the final minutes of a basketball game the team that’s behind will foul, accepting a penalty, to prevent their opponents from running out the clock. Rules, codes, and referees can be analogized to laws, morality, and the authority of the state; and the situation in sports, he says, provides insight into how we should think about legal obligation. It suggests that there is no moral obligation to obey the law as such: theft is immoral because it’s wrong, not because it’s illegal. To avoid anarchy, it suffices that all accept the authority of the state to impose penalties for law-breaking on whoever gets caught.

That’s hard to swallow. Sports may provide a model of an internally consistent theory according to which law as such would impose no moral obligation, but that doesn’t make it a model of the world we live in. Although some laws formulate mere conventions (“Drive on the right”), law as an institution expresses moral principles that help to constitute our communal life. The legal system of the United States is rooted in the principle that a thief commits wrongs against both his victim and the body politic. If Smith is prosecuted for stealing my car, the case is not Guaspari v. Smith but The People v. Smith. That recognizes both a moral/theoretical commitment of membership in our community and a fact of human nature: the authority of the state to enforce its laws erodes if people don’t believe it’s wrong to break them (even if they accept that law-breaking may, at times, be a lesser of two evils).

The final essay asks questions we might have expected a philosopher to begin with: how to define sport; what its value or meaning might be. Applying Bernard Suits’s elegant definition of game-playing as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” Papineau notes that sports are not the same as games. The value of sport, lying deep in human nature, is the “enjoyment of sheer physical skill.” But games needn’t be physical, and sports needn’t impose unnecessary obstacles—i.e., arbitrary rules. A foot race needs rules but running (or skiing or windsurfing) is something one simply does. Acknowledging that no definition can hope to avoid troublesome marginal cases, Papineau proposes that an activity is a sport if its “primary purpose is the exercise of physical skills.”

This definition rules out dance, which deploys physical skills for an aesthetic purpose, not primarily for their own sake; it lets in speed-eating and video games. It doesn’t insist that competition is essential. Still, someone isn’t really playing a competitive sport unless he’s trying to win. That’s clear to anyone who speaks sports as a native language, who would dive for a grounder in a pickup softball game not out of some pathological need for a triumph but from his recognition that the game is best, and most enjoyable, when everyone is doing his best.

A short review can’t do justice to the reach and variety of questions Papineau considers, which can be suggested by a partial list of chapter headings: “The Logic of Fandom”; “Choking and the Yips”; “Nature, Nurture, and Sporting Families”; “Mutualism and the Art of Road Cycle Racing”; “The Coase Theorem and Sporting Capitalism.” It would be absurd to complain about omissions from a book that is avowedly about whatever caught the author’s fancy, but I’ll note two significant aspects of sport that might be worth addressing in a sequel.

Sports are beautiful. The beauty may be an idiosyncratic. It may require a kind of connoisseurship.

To the man in the street, anyone calling Grand Theft Auto his “sport” would sound ridiculous. GTA enthusiasts call themselves not athletes but gamers. We can accept Papineau’s definition and still recognize a significant category of sports that require martial virtues (power, speed, endurance, courage . . . ) and confront existential trials such as suffering and danger, which can’t ordinarily be done with a beer in one hand. They most fully celebrate our embodiment—and therefore, though we may prefer to keep this in the background, acknowledge our mortality.

Sports are beautiful. The beauty may be an idiosyncratic, acquired taste—which is not the same thing as a manufactured need. It may require a kind of connoisseurship. We must also recognize that there are impressively athletic sports, such as synchronized swimming, that explicitly aim at a kind of beauty but produce (let’s face it) a kind of kitsch.

Throughout these essays Papineau emphasizes the importance of our particularity, of things that have value precisely because we value them, and can’t simply be dismissed for being parochial. “The games we play,” he says, “aren’t arbitrary creations designed to amuse us. They carry with them histories that help define our lives.” I confess with some, but not too much, embarrassment that I first recognized a history I felt a part of at age twelve, in the purple prose of Howard Cosell’s Great Moments in Sports. These were stories about a closed world, insulated from the rest of life. But, says Papineau, “[e]xercising physical skills to the best of your ability is valuable in itself, whether or not it brings any further advantages. Along with happiness, friendship, and other basic goods, it is one of the things that make life worth living.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 74
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