Athletics and the Philosophical Life

24 August 2018
The idea that athletics and philosophy are connected may sound strange at first, but is that just because we’re too attached to modern ideas about both?
Think back, first, to a time before commercialism took over sports in a big way, and amateurism was more the norm. (That’s not to say, of course, that there was ever a golden age: the very first piece of literature in the “West,” Homer’s Iliad, already talks about a guy cheating in a chariot race! And doing so for—what else?—fame and fortune.)
Think back, second, to a time when philosophy was seen by many as a way of life, rather than just a set of beliefs. Once we see philosophy in this way, then it’s not a stretch to imagine—as many ancient writers did—that athletic training can cultivate skills we need for the whole of our lives, both on and off the playing field.
On this view, sports don’t just contribute to our physical health; they also make us better people. We become more disciplined and better equipped to deal with failure; we gain habits of focus, determination, and co-operation; and we learn to value fairness. (Where I come from, the phrase “that’s not cricket” means “that’s not fair”: at least one sport is officially all about even-handedness.)
What’s more, athletic training is a school for self-knowledge. Every time we train, and every time we step onto the field, we learn something about our limits and our potentials. Athletics give us vital information about who are; they are nothing short of a confrontation with the self.
Maybe that’s why professional sports produces great individuals like Serena Williams and Lebron James, people whose sporting prowess is coupled with a clear and powerful determination to make the world a better place. We might also think of those who have the courage to speak up for justice, even at the cost of their own careers. Excellent role models like these should really make us take very seriously, once again, the ancient idea that athletics are good for the soul.
Still, not everything in the (Madison Square) garden is rosy. When taken too far—as it often is these days, unfortunately—athletic training can lead to serious injuries. Incredibly, schoolkids are now getting Tommy John surgeries, formerly reserved for major-league pitchers. And those who play, or even just practice, American football are exposing themselves to lifelong brain damage, even if they do not sustain a concussion.  
And it might perhaps be argued that every spiritual benefit of sports has a negative counterpart. The sense of honor can easily flip over into narcissism; a focus on sports can mean a loss of focus on other things, such as studies; for every positive role model, like Lebron and Serena, there is a John Rocker, a Michael Vick, or a Tonya Harding; and that healthy team spirit can be accompanied by a disdain—at best—for the opposing team and its fans. (One NFL team was even caught offering bonuses for players who injured the opposing quarterback.) Plus, needless to say, fairness is hardly ubiquitous in sport. Think of all those steroid-taking baseball players, diving soccer players, and ball-deflating quarterbacks…
I don’t know how to settle such difficult questions, but I like to think that all is not lost: I still think we can gain a lot from athletics, as long as we keep our heads about us. I for one am going to keep kicking a ball around with my friends once a week, and watching my beloved Liverpool on the telly. And in the process, hopefully I’ll continue to learn some things about myself, and to reinforce my love of fairness, without becoming a diving, single-minded, disdainful narcissist—or blowing out my knees.

Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 27, 2018 -- 10:52 AM

The answer to your first

The answer to your first question is: yes. All the way back to early Greece and Rome, the mind-body connection was recognized as an inseparable part of lives well lived. Another example of this follows the martial arts regimen of Kung-Fu masters and others seemingly capable of almost super-human feats. All of this was geared towards integration of mind and body (the cheesy martial arts movies we may have grown up with were entertaining, but mostly mindlessly so).
To me, calling the antics of modern, highly paid, 'athletes' philosophical is, at best, misplaced. Conscientious refusal (see Rawls) might be better, but this goes more to political dissent than philosophical expression. If this does not clear things up a bit, my regrets. That will mean either readers ARE too attached to modern ideas; too influenced by mass/popular culture; or have no firm notions of where politics and philosophy part company.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, September 4, 2018 -- 12:07 PM

Well. I stand corrected: 166

Well. I stand corrected: 166.7% IS possible. Colin Kapernick (sp?) is working for Nike and has received support from the likes of Serena Williams. All of that after losing his football job and becoming a free agent. Conservatives are livid. And, I imagine our presidente is losing some sleep over the whole matter, while others are gleefully cracking new jokes and Colin is laughing, all the way to the bank. On page 568 of John Rawls' book, A Theory of Justice, he assesses the mutually exclusive nature of the egoist vs, the 'just man'. It is poignant rebuke---one supporters of egoists generally might profit from. Is Trump the egoist, while Colin is the 'just man'? Decide for yourselves. Deliberative rationality is not yet dead.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 -- 3:25 PM

Tried to say something more

Tried to say something more about Laura's 2015 (?) post on perception, etc. Seems my comments were not registered. Perhaps no one's will be. Here it is then, succinctly and applicable to many aspects of our amazingly modern world. You may quote me, if you wish. (I've got a million of em'): WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE TAUGHT; WE ARE WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED. Pretty simple. 2015 was a long time ago. Just saying ... (emphasis could be added on 'know', 'taught', 'are', and 'learned'.---I don't know how to do that.)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, September 13, 2018 -- 7:36 AM

The comments section was

The comments section was closed on that blog for some reason, but they have been opened again, so you can add your comment there if you like. Thanks for letting us know of the problem!