The Philosophy of Hoops

Sunday, November 4, 2007
First Aired: 
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What Is It

Basketball, an American invention but a world-wide phenomenon, is sometimes characterized as the most athletic and aesthetic of sports. What makes a sport interesting? Valuable? Fun? Entertaining? What values does sport exemplify, and does basketball really measure up? Does commercialization undermine the values of sport? Ken and John discuss the philosophy of basketball with Frank Deford, one of America's premier sportswriters.

Listening Notes

What philosophical issues are there to talk about concerning basketball? John argues that basketball and sports in general can be considered art forms, and since philosophers have discussed art for centuries, why not sports? Ken seems skeptical at first, pointing out that art seems to have real moral consequences, whereas basketball is all about scoring points and winning games. However, pretense seems to be at the heart of many more traditional art forms, whereas basketball is real. John tries to show that in some ways both sports and art are combinations of pretense and reality. Ken admits that maybe there is something deep here after all!

Ken introduces Frank Deford, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, commentator for NPR's Morning Edition, and author of 14 books. John asks Frank whether there is anything unique to basketball's aesthetic, and whether it is in fact the prettiest game out there. Mr. Deford believes that although certain individual sports are more beautiful than basketball, and small parts of other team sports are especially elegant (like the double play in baseball), basketball is the most beautiful team sport out there.

Ken makes the observation that college ball seems more team-oriented than  professional basketball. Frank and John discuss the impact of this on the concept of team as well as the team vs. individual battles of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Frank returns to the question of winning ugly or losing beautifully by mentioning commercialism in all art forms, concluding that aesthetics often go out the window in favor of more practical monetary concerns.

After a short break, Ken starts talking about the possible positive influence of basketball as a tool for moral education.  Frank argues that basketball, and sports in general, teach people very important lessons about giving it up for the team and working together for common goals, concluding that sports are for the most part positive influences. Ken disagrees to a certain extent, while sports may be a moral theater for players to learn and practice important things like tenacity and teamwork, the NBA's huge salaries and selfish playing style make this theater deeply problematic. Frank tries to clarify the discussion by separating children's education and professional sports, also pointing out that high level actors, writers, and singers have huge financial incentives, and this does not necessarily undermine their behavior.

Ken integrates his experience as a little league baseball coach into the discussion by mentioning a certain San Francisco hero who many of his kids idolize and the impact of his steroid controversies on these young children's view of the world. Frank agrees that athletes are feeling increasingly entitled to break rules and the corruption of youth players, with scouters lying and cheating them through school. However, Frank thinks that Ken is underestimating the intelligence of children: most kids realize that any group of adults will have some bad apples or thugs, and these exceptions won't ruin their view of sports or the world.

Callers discuss issues ranging from the aesthetics of sports to the engagement that arises from awe or wonder. Frank believes that no matter what, people are more satisfied to win or have their favorite team win than they are to watch a really close and exciting game, and that all of us--even the most scrupulous referees--become attached to one side or the other by the end of the game. John retorts that sometimes when your favorite team has already been knocked out of the running, it isn't winning or losing that matters, but instead how close and exciting the game is: you tend to root for whoever is losing, and your loyalty switches back and forth. Frank agrees, but ultimately thinks that in order to write a good story, in order to be really engaged, you have to be pulling for one side to win.

Frank points out that in every art form there are competitions, the Academy Awards being one of the most prominent, and that many high-falutin activities ultimately get boiled down in the public eye to who is winning what award. Unfortunately, politics is included in this category, as often people care more about who is winning instead of what people stand for. Ken and John discuss how sports have infected all of our activities because they are just such good entertainment. Frank talks about some interesting historical sports and the ethical consequences of sports that are tied to religious or ritual meaning. Frank argues that competition is a natural part of life and responds to a caller's worries about competition and how it makes people feel. Finally, John and Ken discuss the difficult issues surrounding college athletic scholarships and the ethics of not paying college athletes as entertainers when they produce so much revenue for the schools they attend.

In the end, John thinks that you can have fun with philosophy and anything--even basketball! Ken and John end the show by comparing different sports and their rule systems, commenting on how hard it is to score in soccer compared with the ease of basketball, placing baseball in the middle as the perfect sport (according to Ken!), finally digressing into the infield fly rule and designated hitters.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:43): Polly Stryker speaks with John Wooden, coach emeritus at UCLA. He discusses the philosophy of winning which he inherited from his father--including his attempts to never use the word "win" when coaching his players, and instead focus on preparation and personal goals.