This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Are sports destroying American universities?” with guest Murray Sperber. Click here to listen to the episode.
Philosophers have long debated the purpose of sport. Is it a celebration of human excellence or war in another form? Are competitive games shared experiences that help maintain stable societies or simply panaceas intended to distract people while their leaders exploit them? If you add education into the mix, the conflict only gets worse. Should student athletes get special treatment? Is money for sports better used in the classroom? Why is bad behavior so frequently excused, whether on the part of athletes, parents, or fans?
All of these debates have philosophical roots. They exploit the tension between individual benefit and collective good, and they blur the lines between the public and private. When people disagree about the fairness of tax-funded stadiums, they are asking about the political role of sports, and when they argue about whether kids should play team sports, they are questioning the nature of education. Today’s show is going to focus to the relationship between sports and undergraduate education, but it will dip into all of these topics in the process.
With this in mind I’d like to make a few comments, in part because when people talk about sport they often take certain ideas for granted. First, we have to acknowledge the difference between sports and athletics. Athletics are physical activities that people do for exercise or entertainment; they are often organized by the players themselves and aim at personal health, well-being, and social unity. They share a kind of interpersonal intimacy and can include friendly pick-up games on the basketball court, but also be a solitary jog or meditative swim. Of course, they can be dangerous or hyper competitive, but for the most part, athletics add nuance and balance to people’s lives. Sports, in contrast, are organized competitive events that are aimed at spectators as much as participants. The people who manage them are different than the people who play them. They are specialized activities that glorify competition and they are often focused on extrinsic not intrinsic goods.
Let me explain the last part: an intrinsic good is a benefit that is inseparable from an activity—jogging intrinsically improves stamina and baseball intrinsically improves hand-eye coordination. An extrinsic good is a benefit that doesn’t really have anything to do with the game. So, a jogger may get a date because he or she looks good running, or a baseball player may get rich, but most people never see these benefits and you could take them away without affecting the activity. Sports focus on extrinsic goods because their athletes are not just interested in the skills, they want fame, money, scholarships, and college admission. This is not to say that sports don’t have intrinsic goods as well, but all professional and Division I and II college sports prioritize the things that simply don’t have anything to do with the game. Our conversation today will be about this, not about the athletics that are necessary for all of us to be physically and mentally healthy people.
We should also be attentive to what I call “the sports ‘we’,” the phenomenon of fans celebrating a team victory or loss by shouting “we won!” or “we lost!” This is more than just brand loyalty, it is identifying with someone else’s achievements. It permeates all sports, from championship riots to the national celebration of 1980’s Olympic “miracle on ice.”
Athletes say fan response is important to teams, and as someone who has spent a lot of time on stage, I get this. But inspiring someone is not the same as accomplishing something. To me, at least, it feels like the sports “we” is just another way of getting people to buy more sweatshirts and enabling them to sit on the couch eating nachos while taking credit for other people’s hard work.
My final comment is not about sports at all but about the college experience. Given the nature of our guest’s work, we are going to be critical of sports in higher education. It may sound, at times, as if we long for the so-called great universities of the past, a time when students learned for learning’s sake and colleges were pure in their academic missions. This would be misleading. That time never existed. Universities have always been complex. Students have always been easily distracted and teachers have always had diverse talents. Historically, college life has been exclusive and elite.
In contrast, the American system of higher education is teaching more students from more backgrounds than ever before. They are more responsive to the economically disadvantaged, the ethnically diverse, and those with different abilities. These are wonderful achievements and should be celebrated. The question before us is what sports has to do with them and whether they hinder or helped schools evolve. What we will see is that sports has changed both the college experience and the purpose of education itself. Whether this is good or bad will be for you to decide.
Follow the author on Twitter at @jackrweinstein.