Category Archives: Books

Brief Review: From Ritual to Record

Guttmann’s classic From Ritual to Record is, in many ways, two books. The first “book” fits the title: it explains modern sport as something that comes out of but differs in essential ways from pre-modern sports. He provides a context and theory that attempts to account for the change. This first part of the book is (has been) the more important one for scholars of sport.

The second “book” is an attempt to try to account for the (somewhat) unique popularity of baseball and (American) football in America. Although this discussion is personally interesting, both because I’m a fan of both sports and because Guttmann makes extensive use of literature and film to provide illustrations and support of his ideas, it ultimately is too out of date to be all that relevant. Writing in the late 70s and appealing to data and sources from even earlier decades, Guttmann identifies some of the origins of some of the trends we see today (e.g. the slower growth of baseball relative to the growing popularity of football). But to be useful in a contemporary discussion of how American sports differ from the sports of other nations (and what that might tell us), we’d have to update most of that data.

Guttmann starts the “main” book with an attempt at a definition of sport. Working through the ideas of various thinkers, including Suits, Huizinga, Callois, Sutton-Smith, and others, Guttmann draws distinctions between play, games, and sport; and defines sport as a playful physical contest. I have several quibbles with his topology of play, games, and sport, in particular in the manner in which he treats play. He follows the line of thought (which I think is mistaken) that treats play as purely autotelic, with no room for the instrumental or the purposive. This leads, I think, to several errors in how Guttmann conceptualizes sport and its role in our lives. That aside, the general thrust of his description of sport are sufficient to make sense of his argument about the shift from pre-modern to modern sport. His discussion examines how sports modernized in terms of seven main characteristics:

  • Secularism
  • Equality of opportunity to compete and conditions of competition
  • Specialization of roles
  • Rationalization
  • Bureaucratic organization
  • Quantification
  • Quest for records

While discussing all of these, secularism and quantification seem to be the essential characteristics. These are the ones he focuses on the most, and in many ways they undergird and explain the other characteristics. For example, the quest for records seems to me to be a function of quantification – since the statistics and measures used for the records are things quantified.

Guttmann explains secularism as the long term shift from the origins of many sports and games in terms of the sacred towards sports as secular. In most cultures, athletic contests were, like most things, bound up with religion, the sacred. The games honored the gods or the contests were themselves sacred rituals (not recreation). Most know that the ancient Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games were (at least in part) sacred religious events.

As he argues, part of the development of the modern world is a process of secularization. By this Guttmann doesn’t mean an outright rejection or eschewing of religion. It is that things that were sacred move in to the mundane. Sport modernize by moving from the sacred realm into the ordinary, everyday world.

Guttmann does briefly touch on the idea that sports have become a kind of secular religion, that it involves many rituals and myths of its own (26). After all, what sports fan hasn’t prayed to the “sports gods” at some point! But Guttmann argues that the point and role of sport in our lives is secular: it’s not about the transcendent or the sacred. It’s about fun, play, and profit.

I think this might dismiss the idea of a sacred secular, if such a thing makes sense. It’s not a transcendence that is mystic or other-worldly; it’s of this world and time but still sacred insofar as it is acknowledged and seen as extraordinary and special. A sacred secular just might be an essential aspect of modern sport. We all, I think, have the need for the sacred and sport might be a secular, non-supernatural way to experience the sacred. Towards the end of chapter 2, Guttmann seems to suggest something like a sacred secular: “Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or to save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality” (55).

The other key element of modern sport is the quantification: the desire to measure and quantify each aspect of sports. Again this is a broad modern trend we see in most aspects of modern life. It deeply impacts sport because there is so much to measure! And these measures become a (or maybe even the) means of comparison and evaluation. How many yards? How many baskets? How many strikes? And this is before we even step in to the age of advance metrics!

Another element of the book is Guttmann’s critique of Marxist (and neo-Marxist) analyses of modern sport. Though he takes pains to point to some positive contributions, he rejects these approaches as the nonsense they are. (In the Afterword, added in 2004, he walks this critique back a little bit and is a bit more accommodating, while still nonetheless rejecting these approaches).

Guttmann’s conclusion about the development of modern sport is best summed up by his claim that: “The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung[a kind of world-view]” (85). The modernization process, in sport and elsewhere, is a function of this world-view: a view that looks to reason and evidence to understand, make sense of, and organize the world in which one lives. Modern sport is an outgrowth of this process. I’m inclined to think that capitalism (understood as the freedom of consenting adults to produce and freely trade goods and services) is equally a result of the same modernization process. But Guttmann’s point still holds that modern sport is not the result of market economies per se; it is rather a parallel, inherently modern development.

Guttmann’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sport and how modern sport is different from early forms of sport. Though I am less convinced that modern sport is different in kind from earlier forms (though that may not be Guttmann’s point), I think Guttmann is right about the slow development of the world view that ultimate brings about what we recognize as modern sport.

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Review: Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America’s Pastime

This is a great course. Wonderfully delivered by Bruce Markuson of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the course covers the early years of baseball. From the early beginnings to 1920, the course looks at rules changes, equipment changes, field changes, as well as many of the social and culture changes that impacted baseball. As an overview course, it doesn’t go into as great detail as one might want for some topics, for example, the history of the Negro Leagues. While this is discussed, the history of these leagues is much richer (as admitted by Markuson) than could be covered here.

Markuson examines the different theories of where baseball comes from: the different pre-baseball ball games that were played widely in America and England in the 18th century and how they may have influenced the development of what become known as baseball. He covers how the professional leagues developed in the second half of the 19th century. He discusses how the baseball itself changed the game as the baseball changed. It even goes into how baseball fields themselves changed and developed as baseball evolved (and the changing fields drove some of the changes in the game as well).

If there is one thing you can take away from this course is that Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams was wrong. I love the movie and the speech Mann makes, but he was wrong. He says: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.” Sorry, but the history of baseball shows that it has changed again and again just like America. As America rebuilt and reinvented itself through the decades, baseball has changed right along with it, reflecting America’s greatness and her worst faults.

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Surfing and the Philosophy of Sport

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of the newest book in the Studies in Philosophy of Sport Book Series.

Surfing and the Philosophy of Sport uses the insights gained through an analysis of the sport of surfing to explore key questions and discourses within the philosophy of sport. As surfing has been practiced dynamically, since its beginnings as a traditional Polynesian pursuit to its current status as a counter-culture lifestyle and also a highly professionalized and commercialized sport that will be included in the Olympic Games, it presents a unique phenomenon from which to reconsider questions about the nature of sport and its role in a flourishing life and society. Daniel Brennan examines foundational issues about defining sport, sport’s role in conceptualizing the good life, the aesthetic nature of sport, the place of technology in sport, the principles of Olympism and surfing’s embodiment of them, and issues of institutionalized sexism in sport and the effect that might have on athletic performance.

Table of Contents:

  • Chapter 1: Surfing and Sport
  • Chapter 2: Waves and Wipeouts in Utopia
  • Chapter 3: Drawing Lines on Waves; surfing and the aesthetics of sport
  • Chapter 4: Making Waves: Surfing and Technology
  • Chapter 5: Surfing’s Olympian Moment
  • Chapter 6: Surfing like a Girl: Sexism in Surf Culture and Feminine Motility

Available now at AmazonLexington, and other book sellers.

Studies in Philosophy of Sport Book Series

Series Editor: Shawn E. Klein, Ph.D. (sklein@asu.edu // sportsethicist@gmail.com )

The Studies in Philosophy of Sport series from Lexington Books encourages scholars from all disciplines to inquire into the nature, importance, and qualities of sport and related activities. The series aims to encourage new voices and methods for the philosophic study of sport while also inspiring established scholars to consider new questions and approaches in this field.

More on the series.

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Book Review: Sport and Moral Conflict

My review of William Morgan’s newest book, Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory, was posted on the Nordic Sport Science Forum.

William Morgan is one of the leading thinkers in philosophy of sport. He is the author of several books, including widely-used textbooks, and many seminal journal articles. The publication of a new book by Morgan is thus significant. And his newest book, Sport and Moral Conflict, is a significant book: it is a must for any philosopher of sport to have on his or her shelf.

While it can be dense and turgid at times, overall it is intellectually engrossing. It is a book I know I will return again and again for its trenchant analysis and thoughtful insight. Indeed, though I disagree with important aspects of Morgan’s argument, I am already making use of it to supplement my current teaching and writing.

Read the rest: https://idrottsforum.org/klesha_morgan201217/

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Review: Sporting Gender

One of the most contentious issues in sport is that of transgender and intersex athletes. It is an extraordinarily complex and fraught mix that often seems like it pits two important values against each other: opportunity and fairness. Sport should be open to all those who wish to complete and to compete at the highest levels they can. Sport, at its best, also seeks to create fair and meaningful competitions. So, on one hand, sport should be open to all athletes able to complete: it would be wrong to limit the opportunities of transgender and intersex athletes. But, on the other hand, there is a concern that if those opportunities aren’t limited in some way, specifically that if trans and intersex women compete without limitations against cisgender women, it could undermine the fairness of such competitions.

I don’t think there is a straightforward or obvious answer on these issues: and there are good, reasonable arguments (and many bad arguments too) for many different positions on all the various aspects of these issues. That said, my default position is towards the liberty of athletes to compete in the sport of their choice. [My interview with Tracey Holmes on these issues] I don’t mean to say that is the answer: but only that it is my starting point. It is the presumptive position that I think any argument to limit this liberty and opportunity needs to overcome.

Joanna Harper’s Sporting Gender is a good starting point for looking at many of the issues and arguments that might defeat or sustain this presumption. Harper’s book, as the subtitle indicates, takes you through the history, science, and stories of transgender and intersex athletes.

Starting in the early part of the twentieth century, she presents many stories of the individual trans and intersex women and their struggles to compete in sport. Many of these stories are tragic; too often rooted in ignorance and prejudice. For those that think these issues start and end with Castor Semenya, this history is essential.

Harper also discusses the science of sex and its impact on exercise and athletics. She details the many different ways that one might not fit neatly into either of the more familiar categories of male and female. Biological sex is nowhere near as simple as one might assume. (Not to even get into issues of gender.) There is some technical stuff to wade through, but the general gist should be digestible by those without much science background. This is summary, though; there are better places to look for more detailed discussions of the science (much of which can be found in the book’s endnotes).

Another important element of the book is Harper’s discussion of some of the legal cases that punctuate the history of trans and intersex athletes. The details and decisions of these cases are historically important and they had direct influence on the current regulations and guidelines of the major sport organizations like the IOC and IAAF.

Much of the latter half of the book focuses on two recent important Court of Arbitration cases involving intersex athletes (Chand and Semenya). Harper was involved in both cases as an expert witness. While I appreciated the inside look into these cases, this is where the book was at its weakest. I wasn’t all that interested in Harper’s evaluation of the various lawyers involved and whether their closing remarks were powerful or not. There was a lot of that sort of thing in these sections and that took away from the more important issue of rehearsing the arguments presented.

Harper is a trans woman and a runner, and she uses her own experiences to help frame parts of the book. This is both a blessing and a curse. It helps to contextualize and humanize much of the more abstract history and science. But it also means that the book is part memoir and so there are various tangents about her own life that were not part of my reasons for reading this book.

Harper’s ultimately position is that elite competitive sports needs to find the right balance of rules and methods to maximize “the possibility that all women can enjoy equitable and meaningful sport” (247). Furthermore, that there are good reasons to keep separating athletes in to male and female divisions and that the use of testosterone levels is the best current method to make this distinction (247). Though she does provide reasons for why this is her position, the book is not really set up to be a clear and cogent argument to support these claims. Its focus is more on presenting the history (both personal and legal) and the science. And on that front, I’d recommend it for those interested in this issue.

I don’t think the book deals enough with the philosophical and ethical aspects of trans and intersex athletes. What makes for fair and meaningful competition? Why are male/female divisions important? If there is a performance advantages by being trans or intersex, why should that matter and how is it different from other kinds of (non-doping) performance advantages? Harper broaches these questions to a degree, but she is not a philosopher and so the discussion is, in my view, too superficial and limited. There is also almost no engagement with the sport philosophy literature that discusses these issues. I still would recommend the book for the history and science angle, but it is not going to answer the meatier questions of philosophy or ethics.

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Defining Sport Reviewed

When a book you edited gets a positive review in the top journal in your field, a little tooting of your own horn is justified. So: Toot! Toot!

The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport published a review by Steven Piper of my Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines (Lexington Books). If you have access to the journal, you can read the review online.

Here’s the closing paragraph:

There is an endearing honesty of endeavour to this book that renders it difficult not be persuaded by many of the claims made by its various contributors. That is not say that this book is naïve or lacking philosophical ‘heft’, indeed, quite the opposite is true. One of the main strengths of this book is that it has achieved something fundamentally necessary for any philosophical work to be successful: it has taken complex concepts and ideas and distilled them into something palatable enough for students to understand, but robust enough for scholars to refer to. It has also successfully taken work by philosophers fundamental to the discipline (Suits, Meier and Huizinga most notably) and found fresh ways to build on their fundamental ideas and concepts. This book is a fine addition to the philosophy of sport, and will ensure that students and academics alike will continue to engage in the questions that surround any attempt to define what sport is or could be for years to come.

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The Sum Less Than the Parts: A Review of The Ethics of Sport: Essential Readings

Idrottsform.org, Nordic Sport Science Forum, published my review of The Ethics of Sport: Essential Readings, edited by Arthur L. Caplan & Brendan Parent (Oxford University Press).

Here’s the opening of the review:

Most of the papers collected in The Ethics of Sport are interesting and informative. They provide insight into many different aspects of the study of sport and of sport itself, and they do so from different disciplinary perspectives.

Nevertheless, this collection as a whole is a disappointment.

Writing a critical, negative review is difficult. There are many things I liked about the book, and I tried to highlight these even as a point out the book’s many flaws.

You can read the rest of the review here: http://idrottsforum.org/klesha_caplan-parent170906/

 

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Review of _Defining Sport_

Anne Tjønndal of Nord University, Norway writes a kind review of my anthology Defining Sport at idrottsforum.org, Nordic Sport Science Forum. From the penultimate paragraph:

In my opinion, it has great potential to be a standard tome for many of these groups of readers. If you are looking for a book to give you a short but full introduction to theories of what sport as a concept is, and empirical contributions based on these theoretic approaches, this is the book for you.

Full Review

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Golf As Meaningful Play: A Philosophical Guide

I am pleased to announce the publication of a new book in the Studies in Philosophy of Sport series from Lexington Books:

Golf As Meaningful Play: A Philosophical Guide by W. Thomas Schmid

Golf as Meaningful Play offers a philosophical introduction to golf as a sporting practice and source of personal meaning. It is intended both for scholars interested in the philosophy of sport, and for intellectually curious golfers who seek a better understanding of the game.

This book describes the physical, emotional, mental, and ethical aspects of the game and how they influence golf instruction. It looks at golf as play, game, sport, and spectacle, discusses golf’s heroes, communities, and traditions, and analyzes the role of the virtues in golf, linking them to self-fulfillment, the ultimate good of golf experience. The book concludes with discussions of classic works of golf literary and film art, including Caddyshack, Missing Links, Tin Cup, and Golf in the Kingdom, which celebrate its follies and glories.

The fact that golf can serve as a playful laboratory to test oneself is a deep part of the game’s attraction. Golf, if played well, conveys an experience which unites happiness, excellence, and interpersonal flourishing. This book strives to give an account of golf both as it is and as it ought to be—how golfers may improve their games and even themselves, in meaningful play.

Available at Amazon, Lexington, and other book sellers.

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Blog of the APA: Golf as Meaningful Play

I was interviewed about the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport’s session at the APA Central Division Meeting in March 2017 in Kansas City. The session, as readers of the blog are probably aware, was an Author Meets Critics on Golf As Meaningful Play: A Philosophical Guide (forthcoming) by W. Thomas Schmid (University of North Carolina at Wilmington).

You can read the Blog of the APA interview here.

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