What is Fan-Based Sport About, Anyway? The Popovich-Stern Issue and Normative Implications for Professional Sports
Many sport philosophers have commented on the basis for sport. Kretchmar has argued that it is simultaneously a test of one’s skills in a particular physical activity and whether or not one can outperform one’s competitor(s). Torres has argued, similarly, that sports are games that provide rules to ensure that certain skills remain at the forefront of the activity. Simon has argued that competitive sport is a mutual quest by competitors to provide an adequate challenge that will encourage the display of excellence. Holowchak and Reid have argued, similarly, that sport is about the display of physical and moral excellence in the form of the ancient Greek ideal of arête. Dixon has argued that sport competitions have as their goal to determine the relative abilities of the vying participants.
While each of these theories focuses on sport participants, they also help explain the allure for fans – we love to watch excellence, tests of physical skills, and determinations of relative abilities. But events at our highest levels of sport often call these theories into question and remind us that the question, “What is sport about?” is not always easy to answer.
One such instance occurred early in the ongoing National Basketball Association (NBA) season. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to sit four of his top players on one particular evening early in the season. Because it was the team’s fourth road game in five nights helped make Popovich’s case. But because the game was against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, Popovich’s decision created a major public debate. Was the coach justified in doing this?
One major sector in the anti-Popovich side of this debate was the fans who bought tickets to this highly anticipated early season matchup. They argued that when they buy a ticket to see the Heat featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh play against the Spurs featuring Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, they expect to see these stars play barring any well-known and acceptable reason why they would not.
While there are many stakeholders in this particular example, the question, “What is sport about?” remains ambiguous in our fan-driven, elite-level, professional sports world. Is professional sport about testing skills, displaying excellence, or determining relative abilities as sport philosophers have argued? Or is entertainment a central characteristic, as many skeptics and cynics would have us believe?
This paper is an analysis of what spectator sport is about. I describe the most accepted existing theories of sport and then use the Spurs-Heat example as a case study to evaluate the theories. In this paper, I argue that acknowledgment of a variety of stakeholder viewpoints perpetuates elite-level spectator sport as we know it today. However, I also make normative claims that might help to disrupt some of the morally indefensible trends in elite-level spectator sport.
Nicholas Dixon, “On Sportsmanship and ‘Running Up the Score’,” in Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 19 (1992), pp. 1-13.
M. Andrew Holowchak and Heather L. Reid, Aretism: An Ancient Sports Philosophy for the Modern Sports
World (Lanhan, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).
R. Scott Kretchmar, “From Test to Contest: An Analysis of Two Kinds of Counterpoint in Sport,” in Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 2 (1975), pp. 23-30.
Robert L. Simon, Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2010).
Cesar R. Torres, “What Counts as Part of a Game? A Look at Skills,” in Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 27 (2000), pp. 81-92.