Spring 2021: Philosophy of Sport (ASU)

In Spring 2021, I will be teaching “Philosophy of Sport” again! I’m stilling planning out the specifics (suggestions welcome!), but here’s a brief look at some of the issues/questions we’ll examine in the spring.

FYI: This course counts for ASU’s Sports, Cultures and Ethics Certificate.

Course Description:

An inquiry into philosophical issues in sport. Topics and readings will vary, but may include: the nature and definition of sport, an examination of the main theories of sport, metaphysical and epistemological issues, and the aesthetics of sport. Since PHI 370 Sports Ethics examines ethical issues in sport, this course will not primarily deal with ethical issues.

Tentative Plan of Possible Issues:

  • The Nature and Definition of Sport:
    • Can we, should we, define sport?
    • How does sport relate to and differ from: play, games, art?
    • What are the main theories of sport?
  • The Rules of Sport
    • How should we understand and interpret the rules of sport?
    • What are the different kinds of rules?
    • How do referees, umpires, game officials relate to the rules?
    • What parallels are there to how we might understand law?
  • The Mind and Body in Sport:
    • What can we learn about the mind/body relationship from sport?
    • What does sport presuppose about the relationship of mind and body?
  • Epistemological Issues in Sport:
    • What, if anything, can sport tell us about the nature of knowledge/knowing?
    • What do we know when we know in sport?
  • Technology
    • How does technology change the ways we understand and engage in sport?
    • What role should technology have in officiating sports?

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The Liveness of Sport and the Value of Watching Sport

One of the first signals that COVID-19 was going to be different was when the NBA decided to suspend its season. Soon all the major sports in the US followed suit. Two months later and while there are many reports and speculations about when and how (and if) to restart, none of the major US team sport leagues are starting up yet. NWSL looks to be the first team sport back, scheduled to come back in late June with a tournament.

Putting aside any of the questions about the justifications for the initial, and the continued, suspensions of play, it is clear that the leagues want to come back and fans want them back.

The desire for sports to return highlights the importance and value of sport for spectators. This pandemic induced absence points us towards why we look at sport so differently.


Sport provides an escape form the mundane, from the grind of our daily lives. This is true, of course, but I also think it is the least important aspect of why we watch sport. Many recreational and leisure activities and interests provide an escape. People can lose themselves in their music or books. They can escape into a world created for their pleasure and streamed to their home 24/7. Sport is one avenue of escape, a great one, but one among many. If it were just a matter of escapism, the TV ratings for the replays of classic games would be a lot better. Everyone knows how The Sopranos ends, but people still rewatch it again and again. If sport were just another form of recreational escape, we would rewatch the 2004 World Series in the same way. Some do, but most sports fans don’t. And it is not merely that we know the Red Sox won.

The Value of Spectating

Part of it is that we know the Red Sox won. Knowing the outcome takes away a lot of the drama and excitement. But knowing how a great TV show or movie ends also removes a lot of the suspense, and yet we enjoy getting caught up in the story all over again. There are, of course, many sports fans who enjoy re-watching games for similar sorts of reasons. But it is very different experience.

Notice, also, that even when we don’t know (or remember) the outcome, there is something missing from watching a recorded sporting event. Tape-delays and game replays feel different from a live match. (Think of the complaints about tape-delays during the Olympics.)

Sport unfolds before us: all its drama, narrative, glory, disappointment, arises spontaneously out of the actions of the participants. It is happening now; before our very eyes. Even thousands of miles away, we feel a part of the unfolding action. We are a part of it by witnessing it.

Personally, even a delay of a few minutes disrupts the experience. There is a part of me that knows that the goal has been scored (or it has not) even as I watch the play that leads to that goal develop. The magic has already happened; I know it even if I don’t know what happened yet. This is even more acute in person—and part of why we still go to games—and why we will go back in droves when we are able to.

To be a spectator of sport is not mere vicariousness. It is not analogous to watching a movie or TV show, or a live concert or theatre production. I watched the finale of The Clone Wars (fantastic, btw) the day it dropped on Disney+. But this was just because I was so excited to see how it ended—had I waited a week it wouldn’t have changed my experience at all. This is not at all like the reason I get up early on Saturday mornings to watch Liverpool. Even just watching the replay (ignorant of the winner) a few hours later is different and not as satisfying. To miss the live game when it airs is to miss something that one cannot recreate later.

No doubt, we can experience dramatic, exciting action in many forms: but these are scripted or planned. Sport is not aesthetics or artistic performance (though it shares aspects of these). An improv routine that fails to be funny or witty is a failure. A match that is building towards some dramatic comeback that does not materialize is not a failure of the match. It is a disappointment to the team, and its fans, that was not able to complete the comeback, and it’s a relief to the winning side and its fans. Sport can disappoint its fans in way other performances cannot. That disappointment is, in fact, a necessary part of sport. A musician that repeatedly fails to perform to expectations will soon have no more gigs and no more fans. In sports, we call that the New York Jets and they have no shortage of fans.

Consider as well the difference between watching a game and watching a sports movie—even a well-done sports movie. Sports have ridiculous moments that could never fly in a movie. No writer would ever write the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI comeback against the Falcons: no one would find it believable.

The thing I want to emphasize here is the ‘liveness’ of sport; its in-the-moment spontaneity. This is something almost totally unique to sport. It is this liveness, this being a part of it through witnessing it, that is so much a part of the value of watching sport. I don’t know what sport will ultimately look like when it returns in full—but whatever shape it takes, the unmatched thrill of  live sport will return and I will relish it.

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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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Filed under athletes, Books, law, Reviews, Women's Sports

Sign-Stealing and Stupid Rules

The recent MLB sign-stealing cases raise some important questions and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it. Here are some of my thoughts.

I am not all that interested, from a philosophical perspective, in whether the Astros or Alex Cora/Red Sox are facing appropriate consequences. (As a Red Sox fan, I have some worries for sure.) The investigation has concluded that there were violations of the rules regarding sign-stealing and the league has doled out what seems to me to be serious penalties. MLB wants to signal that it won’t tolerate such activities in the future and I think these penalties do that. Break rules, get punished. Nothing philosophical interesting with that.

What is far more interesting, philosophically, are the questions this raises about the rules. Why have rules against sign-stealing via technology? And this pushes us to consider the nature of rules in general and how they are meant to govern the activity. It also raises important questions about what kinds of rules we should have and what the appropriate scope of the rules should be.

In the case of sign-stealing, it is not clear to me what the rule is trying to prevent. When I think about rules against pass interference in football or the balk rule in baseball, I can understand the point of the rule. These may be difficult rules to apply at times, but the importance of prohibiting the activities these rules prohibit is clear enough. But sign-stealing is allowed in baseball—it’s always been an aspect of the game. The problem here is that teams employed cameras and other technologies to help them steal the signs and it’s this use of technology that is against the rules.

But why? Sure the tech makes it easier and faster to identify the signs (or at least seems to). But does it change the game? Does it undermine the skills of baseball? The pitcher still has to make the pitch. The batter still has to hit the ball. The latter might be easier if you know the pitch that is coming (though even knowing it is curveball doesn’t tell you the actual speed and location), and that seems to be the concern. (Though it is not clear any advantage was gained ).

But this concern strikes me as somewhat myopic. If sign-stealing, even with cameras and replays or whatnot is allowed, the pitching side is going to devise ways to hide their signs better and also to fool those trying to steal them. If you know someone is watching (and you are on TV, millions are watching), you’ll figure out a better way to hide it or misdirect the watchers trying to decode. So why should we assume that the sign-stealing with cameras is going to make it any easier to guess the pitch. (This is an empirical question—but when we look at the history of sport (and almost any institution) it is evident that each new development is met with a counter-development).

One legitimate concern is that technology could get out of hand. Do we want teams bugging dugouts, hacking into communication devices, and other kinds of technological surveillance? Probably not. But a few things to say in response to this. First, sign stealing has always been a part of baseball—bugging the dugouts has, to be my knowledge, not been. Second, we can draw a principled line between surveilling those things that are out in the open (like pitch signs) and things that are not (like a dugout conversation). This might be parallel to the expectation of privacy doctrine in law. The signs for the pitch are on national TV, so there is little reason to expect privacy. The conversation or communication between the dugout and the bullpen are not broadcast, and so there seems to be an expectation of privacy.

Nevertheless, it is against the rules and the teams that knowingly and intentionally engaged in these activities were wrong to do so and it looks like most of those involved are facing serious consequences for this. But punishments and punitive measures only go so far. It would be better if we took a step back to think about what the rules are trying to do, whether they accomplish that, and whether those goals are good ones, and whether the rules are good rules.

And I don’t think sign-stealing with technology passes that consideration. To be even more blunt: I think it is a stupid rule.

I think it fails to be a good rule in at least three ways. Good rules should be (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Clear and not ambiguous
  • Reasonably enforceable
  • Reasonably justified or make sense for the game.

How are these cases unclear or ambiguous? Don’t use cameras or other technology to steal signs. That seems clear enough. But the problem is that the activity being made impermissible is something that is allowed in some situations but not others. You can steal signs if you are a base runner on second. But you can’t do it if you are in the bullpen. You can make use of video to study pitching signs during the preparation for the game, but not during the game. Also what counts as technology? In the past teams, like the 1951 World Series winning NY Giants, apparently used binoculars. I just don’t see a clear, non-arbitrary set of principles to justify why doing it with cameras/tech is prohibited while without such tech it is allowed and this makes it ambiguous.

Enforceability: The fundamental problem with these cases is that we are trying to prohibit the team from looking at things that everyone can already see. To be effective, these rules would necessitate massive and expensive policing of teams, crowds, and broadcasts to truly combat it. And it would still likely fail to be effective.

Justification: As I wrote above, it’s just not clear why we should prohibit these activities. The advantages seem minimal – especially if the surveillance is transparent (that is, allowed and understood to be going on). Allowing the teams to look at what everyone can see anyway and what they can look at outside of the particular competition doesn’t seem likely to upend the nature of the game.

None of this is meant to justify or excuse the activities of those involved. I would like to hope, however, that these cases push us to think more about the nature of the rules of our games. Having good rules to govern our activities will make those activities better.




Filed under baseball, Cheating, rule-violations

NCAA looking at rule-changes for player compensation

This is huge. We will see where it ends up, but just the fact the NCAA says it is willing to even discuss changing their rules to allow for athletics to benefit from their name, image, and likeness is a titanic shift.

First, that it comes this quickly after California’s passage of the Fair to Play Act (FPA) is surprising. I would have thought the NCAA would drag its feet for as long as they could.

Second, this is a big move away from the rhetoric before and after the passage of FPA. The FPA was presented by the NCAA as fatal to a level playing fields and the “amateur” model of college sports. NCAA president Mike Emmert said of the law: “This is just a new form of professionalism and a different way of converting students into employees. (They may be) paid in a fashion different than a paycheck, but that doesn’t make them not paid.”

But now the NCAA Board of Governors votes unanimously: “to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

This sounds a lot like the NCAA acquiescing to the spirit, at least, of California’s FPA (and similar state bills around the country).

Of course, there is a lot of wiggle room in the NCAA’s announcement. The details and specifics of the rules have yet to be determined and spelled out. How will they define ‘benefit’? What will it mean to be ‘consistent with the collegiate model’? Will the rules become just another byzantine structure for schools and athletes to navigate?

Nevertheless, I think this is a move in the right direction. It could, for example, lead to athletes staying in college longer rather than jumping ship to get paid. This can lead to more athletes taking advantage of the education opportunity afforded to them by their athletic ability. And it could serve to help athletes better develop their athletic skills prior to going pro—giving them greater opportunity to succeed at the next level. And it could mean better college sports with the better athletes staying longer at that level. Just as importantly, it could provide essential opportunities for all the athletes not playing men’s football or men’s basketball (which is most athletes).

I don’t see many downsides either (without, that is, knowing the details). Emmert has voiced concern that this moves towards professionalization and turning athletes into employees. Some might see that as feature, not a bug. But even if such an outcome is undesirable, it doesn’t seem likely. First, making athletes employees opens up huge, unwieldy cans of worms. From issues raised by labor and health and safety laws to impacts from Title IX, schools paying athletes directly is far too complicated. Second, it’s not clear how this will work in so far as most college sports (read: anything but men’s football and basketball) are not revenue generating sports and really can’t pay their athletes. And even for the revenue generating sports, most of these programs (as they are currently structured) are likely not sustainable in a pay for play model. As much money as the top-tier college sports generate, that gets spread far and wide. A million dollars is a lot of money unless you have to split it among million people.

Another concern raised by Emmert and others is that this will lead to unfair competition. Just in virtue of being in Los Angeles, UCLA will have many more promotional opportunities for its athletes than Nebraska. Won’t UCLA then be able to bring in better recruits? Probably. But is that unfair? Maybe, but fairness is too squishy of word to be helpful here. The heart of the concern is that some programs will have advantages in recruiting over other programs. But for this to be unfair assumes that all programs should be able to recruit on equal terms (as opposed to equal rules). But that’s false. It is descriptive false: that is, it is just not true that programs today recruit on equal terms.  UCLA already has a lot of built-in advantages (depending on one’s preferences) over Nebraska: nicer weather, easier travel, broader regional opportunities. It’s not clear that allowing athletes to get compensated for their name and likeness is going to shift this in dramatic ways. (If it does shift things, it is more likely to shift in ways to that might give schools in less desirable locales the ability to attract athletes they couldn’t otherwise attract.)

It is also normatively false: that is, it is not the case that programs should recruit on equal terms. There are many different athletes, with different purposes, needs, and goals. There are many different schools, with different missions and different programs. Recruitment is in large part a sorting mechanism for fitting the athlete and the school. We need these natural differences and inequalities in order for there to be a sorting, for athletes to find the programs that fit them, and for the schools to find the athletes that fit their program.

I’m usually quite critical of the NCAA, but here it is important to praise them for at least gesturing in the right direction. Hopefully, they can follow up with a set of rule changes that are effective, transparent, and equitable. We shall see.

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ASU Course: “Games, Utopia, and the Good Life”

In the Spring 2020 semester, I’ll be teaching a Discovery Seminar called: “Games, Utopia, and the Good Life”

Discovery Seminars are small, 1-credit courses offered by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. They are exclusively for first-year students, offering these students the opportunity to have an engaging, small class seminar experience.

The description for my seminar:

What would you do in Utopia? In his classic The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits argues that with all our needs satisfied, we would play games. Through a close reading and shared inquiry, we will explore Suits’ account of the nature of game-playing and its role in a meaningful life.

If you are a first-year ASU student, talk with your advisor about signing up for this course.

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CFP: IAPS @ Pacific APA 2020

I am organizing the IAPS meeting at the Pacific APA and I am looking for participants to present or comment.

I like to have a theme. I already have a paper on “fair weather” fandom, so other sports fandom papers/ideas would be great. But other topics are also welcome.

Where: San Francisco, CA

When: April 8–11, 2020

What I need for the proposal:

  • Name and affiliation
  • CV
  • Paper title
  • Paper abstract

Just interested in being a commentator? Send: Name, affiliation, CV

Send to: sklein _at_ asu.edu

Deadline for proposal: Friday October 11, 2019

If you are interested, please let me know ASAP. It’s quick turn around, the deadline for submitting the group request for the program snuck up on me and I need to get the APA the information by Monday October 14.


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Football: A love letter

Stephen Mumford’s short monograph on football(soccer) is a philosophical love letter to the game. His goal is to explain, from a philosophic point of view, why football has such a hold on us. Worldwide, it’s the most popular game and this has given rise to any number of theories of why that is and what that means about the world or about the game. Mumford takes a stab at this by using philosophy to examine the nature of the game itself. 

While I think Mumford does a great job of pulling at these pieces and examining the nature of soccer, I ultimately think the project itself was doomed from the start. I guess that’s because I’m a sport pluralist: much of what he says about soccer can be said about other sports. I love soccer (though clearly not as much as Mumford); I’m just not convinced of soccer exceptionalism. 

But that said, this book is delightful. Mumford takes on the familiar idea of soccer as “the beautiful game” and examines the aesthetics of football and how they relate to the playing of the game itself. I particularly found the chapter on space and how that works in soccer to be one of the most interesting chapters (maybe because much of it was novel to me). The last two chapters, Chance and Victory, explored important philosophical questions about sport and games.

The book is short, 121 pages. There are no footnotes and only short bibliography. The audience of this book is, I think, someone who enjoys sports/soccer and also has a taste for philosophy. That doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to professional philosophers and academics (it appeals to this one); I think it can. It might also be a good book to introduce a more traditional philosopher to the richness of the philosophy of sport.

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Nizkor (We Will Remember)

September 6 is the anniversary of one of the worst days in Olympic history: the 1972 terrorist attack by the PLO terrorist group, Black September, against the Israeli Olympic delegation at the Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. On September 5, the Israeli Olympic delegation was taken hostage in the Olympic Village. Two Israels were killed fighting back during the hostage-taking. The next day, the remaining nine Israelis were murdered after a failed attempt at the rescue of the hostages.

Nizkor (We Will Remember):

The names of the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered in 1972 at the Munich Olympic Games:

  • David Mark Berger.
  • Ze’ev Friedman.
  • Yossef Gutfreund.
  • Eliezer Halfin.
  • Yossef Romano.
  • Amitzur Shapira.
  • Kehat Shorr.
  • Mark Slavin.
  • Andre Spitzer.
  • Yakov Springer.
  • Moshe Weinberg.

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Filed under Munich Massacre, Olympics, Uncategorized

Sport and Society

This week in Sports Ethics we look at some questions about the relationship of sport and society. Such questions could encompass a whole course on its own, my focus is more specifically on two main questions:

  1. How has sport influenced society? Specifically, how does it unite people, bringing them together in positive ways? How can it, on the other hand, be divisive and negative?
  2. Assuming sport does impact society and social relations, how should it be (and should it be) used for social goals?

To spur the discussion we watch the documentary The 16th Man about the South African Rugby World Cup in 1995 and we read selections from Jane Leavy’s biography on Sandy Koufax and Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day about Jackie Robinson. We also look at Pam Sailors’ journal article: “Zola Budd and the Political Pawn.

When I first start teaching Sports Ethics, the tone of this discussion was always much more positive. Sport was seen by my students as nearly universally a positive force. More recent instantiations of the class have been more divided (particularly during the peak-Kap era). I am curious how this year will be.

I am excited to rewatch (again) The 16th Man in preparation. It’s a great documentary: it is emotional moving and informative, while also entertaining and compelling. I think the fact that it is focused on South Africa and on rugby, gives my US students some distance that helps think more critically about the questions regarding sport and society. With Koufax and Robinson, since it’s about baseball, it is much more familiar. That helps too, in a different way. The mix of these –with their contrasts and comparisons –helps underscore the ways sport influences society.

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Filed under Arizona State, Classes, Movies, Sports Ethics