The Moral Significance of Sport

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The Moral Significance of Sport
Jan Boxill

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

There is no doubting that sports play a significant role in the lives of many Americans and indeed of many people around the world. What accounts for this fascination? It is doubtful that sports simply provide an outlet for violence in society. This is too simplistic. Sport, I maintain, fascinates for many reasons, including its beauty and its display of morally heroic virtues. Human beings admire the beauty and grace in sport; they are moved by the discipline of the best athletes; and often it is the heroism and courage in sport that they applaud, not the violence which occasion the display of these virtues..

But this is not all. I maintain that because of the nature and design of sport, sport provides a significant moral function both for the individual and for society at large. It does so first because it provides participants a vehicle for self-expression, and a means of self-respect and self-development. Sport in this sense may serve as what philosopher John Rawls calls a “social union” in a society of social unions, a community of people with shared ends and common activities valued for themselves, enjoying one another’s excellences and individuality as they participate in the activities.”1

Second, because sport is a microcosm of society, it dramatizes the social order. As a microcosm, sport represents the social order in miniature, a “slice of life” and exhibits that slice in an exaggerated and dramatic form, much as a play dramatizes an episode of life. Sport mirrors or reflects society, its virtues and vices, but unlike a mirror, which is passive, sport is active. It reflects back on society; its reflection affects what it is a reflection of. And finally, because sport functions analogously as an art form, as a controlled expression of emotion, it enhances the notion of sport as a social union, and further serves a significant moral function in the dramatization of sport as a microcosm of society.
Paradigm of Sport
In its paradigmatic form, sport can serve illuminate its moral significance, both negatively and positively. Four features exemplify sport in its paradigmatic form: 1) Sport is a freely chosen, voluntary activity; 2) Sport is rule governed with two sets of rules; 3) Sport is physically challenging; 4) Sport involves competition in a mutual challenge to achieve excellence.2 These features provide neither an exhaustive nor exclusive definition, but a model to examine the moral significant features of sport.

First sport is a freely chosen, voluntary activity whose participation is an expression of the individual’s creativity and his or her freedom to choose. Thus, sport is an unalienated activity, and as such is included in what Marx called “the realm of freedom.” As an unalienated activity, sport has as its end the activity itself. Thought it may serve other purposes, it is an activity complete in itself. It dos not have to have a product nor provide a service, nor is it a means to an end outside itself. Sport is an end in itself.

Of course, those who participate in a sport necessarily have goals. For example, to play basketball is necessarily to have the goal of scoring baskets. But the goal is within the context of the activity itself. That is, in stating the rules of the game, one necessarily states the goals internal to it which the participants must have. But the participants need not have goals external to the game.

In its paradigmatic form them, participation in sport is both conscious and free, and the participants know and freely abide by the rules. This voluntary co-operation is required to begin, continue, and end the activity. Thus, for example, when I play basketball, tennis, or golf, I freely choose to do so and am conscious of my freedom to participate in the activity for no end outside the activity itself. Neither my existence nor my subsistence depends on my participation in the activity.

The second feature of sport in its paradigmatic form is that it is rule governed. There are two different sorts of rules that are important to sport: regulative rules, e.g. decency or fair play, and constitutive rules. Some sports have more rules than others, and some may have only one sort. First there are rules of decency, safety, and fair play. For example, in boxing one cannot hit below the belt; in football one cannot tackle by grabbing the face mask or tackle a non-ball carrier from behind; in baseball one cannot throw at the batsman’s head; in cricket one cannot continually bowl bodyline, etc. There are very many rules for decency and safety, and when violated players are penalized. Rules of fair play include penalties for moves of strategy within the game. Rules of decency reflect basic moral standards. The basic ground rules are accepted, and they may be manipulated for strategy, but must not overstep prohibitive ones without swift punishment (e.g. fighting, biting, etc). The death of ethics is the sabotage of excellence.

Added to the rules of decency and fair play are constitutive rules which the game and the permissible moves. Their existence comes from their acceptance. Constitutive rules define the activity and are designed to develop and exhibit distinct sets of skills and talents. In combination these rules impose a discipline and create a framework for self-expression and self-development. These rules require calculations, decisions, strategies, and mental agility as well as a physical challenge. Thus, when I agree to play basketball, I agree first of all to abide by the rules which define the game, and the rules of decency, safety and fair play within the game. Further, I use thee rules as a disciplined means of self-expression and self-development. In playing basketball, for example, I cannot put the ball in the basket any way I choose. I must put it in the basket in the ways the rules permit. I cannot stand on a ladder, knock someone out of my way or climb on someone to reach the basket. Nor can I score a basket by sending the ball through the bottom of the net. To be sure these attempts use some skill and ingenuity, but the rules impose a kind of discipline that requires me to devise ways of scoring a basket which require skill, bodily excellence and ingenuity. The rules force me to use various strategies to create moves to score within these carefully specified rules.

Now it is a fact that not all sports impose a defining set of rules, for example, mountain climbing. However, besides the rules for safety, there are impositions that require bodily excellence and ingenuity, rules that require strategies for climbing to reach the top. The goal is not just to reach the top, but to climb to reach the top, and this requires adherence to rules, or laws, of nature. No artificial rules need be imposed.

It is this rule-governing feature that contrasts sport to play, where the rules are simply the more general rules of the society. In play there is little to guide the play activity except the general rules that guide normal human behavior, in particular rules against harming others. But such rules impose no discipline for self-expression or self-development. (They do serve to develop character however.) The rules of sport, on the other hand, provide a framework for creativity in accordance with aesthetic standards, requiring both mental and physical energies. It is this last notion which signifies the third feature of sport.

The third feature of sport in its paradigmatic form is that sport is physically challenging. This feature contrasts sports to games. It is the rule-governing feature of sport that makes sports coextensive with games, but games to not always emphasize a physical challenge or require bodily excellence. Both sports and games are rule-governed, but not all games are sports, and are not when there is no physical challenge. Thus, for example, chess is a rule-governed activity and is a game, but it does not qualify as a sport because it is not physically challenging. The rules which define the sport activity are specifically designed for displaying and expressing bodily performance and aimed at bodily excellence. Thus, these rules often create artificial obstacles for just this purpose. Further, often rule changes are made for just this purpose. Without these rules no particular bodily perfection would necessarily be exhibited.

Using the example of basketball again, rules and obstacles are designed so that baskets scored require skill, coordination, strategies, and bodily excellence. The obstacles and rules present a challenge. The size of the court forces the action in a relatively small area. The “three-second lane” forces continuous action around the basket and prevents a very tall players from simply standing next to the basket for a dunk. This is why we have heard some advocate for raising the rim of the basket to eleven or twelve feet, so that the tallest players must create moves which require bodily excellence. Dunking itself displays a tremendous amount of ability—coordination, timing, jumping ability and balance. It is probably one of the most beautiful moves in basketball because it requires such a combination of abilities—mental and physical.

A rule that imposes another discipline is the shot clock. In college men’s basketball the shot clock is 35; women’s is 30; and in the professional game it is 24 seconds. The shot clock requires a basket to be attempted with the time allowed. This not only requires bodily excellence, it requires mental concentration and strategies. Interestingly the women’s rules, once they changed to approximate the men’s rules, included a 30-second clock in their revision, and this still remains. Professional men’s basketball has required a 24-second clock since 1954. In every case the clock serves to keep the game challenging, mentally and physically, and also serves for spectator appeal.

Obviously some sports impose more obstacles and discipline than others. However, as I mentioned above, not all obstacles need be artificial. The mountain itself is the obstacle in climbing; as the water is for kayaking and white water rafting. But all impose some obstacles providing a physical challenge, and forcing the participant to create ways to display their abilities. Cricket, for example, does not allow the bowler to throw the ball to the batter in the same way the pitcher throws to the batter in baseball. Also the bats are very different. But in both baseball and in cricket the bats are very specifically designed with definite specifications stipulated by the rules.7 All these rules, obstacles, and equipment specifications are designed for displaying and creating bodily excellence.

What is interesting and significant is that the different sets of rules which define different sports are designed to exploit the different bodily excellences which correspond to the different body types in men. A good basketball player for example, does not necessarily make a good football player; a good football player does not necessarily make a good swimmer, etc. The point is that certain body types fit different types of sports. There presently exist sports opportunities for nearly every male body type; though there have been great strides, this is not the case for women.

Women cannot as a rule compete in football and boxing, nor compete with men inmost other sports. Although there will always be exceptions, because these are exceptions there will always be societal prejudice which guarantees inequalities of opportunities. Therefore, there is a case for developing sport activities that exploit women’s body types. In some cases this may simply involve revising the rules of existing sports, such as in basketball by reducing the size of the basketball for the college players. In other cases it may require developing entirely new activities. In any case since sport is already the single most available activity for self-expression for men, as is clear by the great variety of sports which serve most men’s body types, it seems reasonable that similar activities ought to be provided for women. It is interesting to note that basketball was originally created for men to play in the winter between the fall and spring sports. This testifies to the truth that a sport can be a fresh creation made to satisfy definite purposes; other sports could be similarly created. What is also fascinating about basketball is that women played the same game as the men in 1892, but due to concern for women’s bodies, it did not develop as the men’s game did, and only in 1976 was women’s basketball an Olympic sport.

The final feature of sport in its paradigmatic form is that it requires competition. And it is in competition that the mental and physical skills, talents, and coordination come together. Competition in sport obviously compels the players to exercise and develop their mental skills. Each must develop strategies to counter a competitor’s skills and strategies. Here coaches often play significant roles; they are the skilled strategists and work with the athletes in practice and discuss the mental aspects of the sport in the locker room. But once on the court or the playing field, it is up to the athletes to make quick calculations and decisions. Only the most basic plays and moves become automatic. It is seldom that every play of the game is automatic, so quick calculations and decisions based on past behavior and conduct are required. The quarterback in football must be able to “read” and understand the opposing team’s defense and then call the next play accordingly.8 And if the defense shifts in anticipation or if the play does not go quite as it should, the quarterback must make a quick calculation and decision, and the other players must do the same. Good players are neither afflicted with decidophobia nor rashness. In most activities challengers change in unpredictable ways and so one must be prepared to counter within the rules. Making these decisions in those circumstances can serve an important moral function. It is not only in sport that one has to make decisions quickly, but not rashly.

It should be noted here that not all sports require person-to-person competition nor even team competition. There are different forms of competition. Sports such as rock and mountain climbing do not require competition between persons; rather they pit a person against nature. This may be understood as “contention” rather than competition; but the requirements are the same in that one must put ones mental and physical skills to the test. However, while this is the case, in analyzing the moral significance of sport, my discussion centers on the person-to-person aspects especially seen in organized sport.

This feature of sport dramatizes the morality of a community in competition. Sport dramatizes how competition can lead to friendship, to a cooperative challenge toward a shared end. When the game is played fairly according to the rules of the game, and when the competitors are relatively evenly matched, the participants take pleasure in a well-played game, whereby the participants put out their best efforts in the desire to win. This requires the cooperation of all involved. The shared end is the game well played. Without the cooperative efforts of the participants, referees, etc, such an end cannot be achieved. This cooperative effort constitutes a mutual challenge. I am challenged by my competitor as she is challenged by me. I am not interested in destroying her as an enemy, nor subjugating her. I do not view her as an enemy, but as a challenger, someone who by her efforts makes me work hard to develop my abilities. In this way I respect her as a person with similar abilities and virtues and also respect myself in this mutual cooperative challenge. That competition leads to friendship is epitomized by the traditional handshake at the end of the competition. That the competitors are saying in this symbolic gesture is, “Thanks friend, I could not have done it without you. Thanks for the challenge.”

Unfortunately sport also dramatizes how competition may lead to combat. But the dramatization in either case serves as a significant moral function. It shows our intense passion and desire to be victorious as well as our failures. Competition as a challenge to better oneself is a value to society and to the individual. This is not unique to sport situations; it is important in all fields of endeavor. Competition is valuable when it is viewed as a cooperative challenge and not as combat, when it is viewed as a means to friendship and not as a means to alienation. In these ways competition does serve to develop citizens as well as individuals. Competition enables participants to deal properly with other realities.

Now, of course, this does not carry over into all activities and realities. It does not mean, for example, that participants now put as much energy into activities they dislike or find great difficulty doing. There are, of course, aberrations, and these aberrations are definitely dramatized in a sport context. This is especially seen when competition is viewed as combat, emphasizing the “win-at-all-costs” syndrome, and when viewed as a zero-sum game. It has been argued that these are essential features of competition. But if my analysis is correct, these “features” are not essential to the notion of competition and are, as I have noted above, aberrations.

The point of competition is not just to win, but to function at a maximum, to develop oneself to the fullest, and to do this one must compete against those who challenge. If it were simply to win, one would choose weak opponents that one could always defeat. Generally one prefers to lose against a strong opponent than win against no competition at all. This is evidenced by the expression “hollow victory.” Certainly winning is part of the game (i.e. someone must win), but one does not see an opponent as an enemy to be defeated, but one whose excellences challenge and make possible one’s own best performance. This point was made clear to me in the 1993 National Indoor Tennis Championship. Roland Thornquist of the University of North Carolina disagreed with a line call that was in his favor saying, “I’d rather lose a match and be a good sport than cheat and win the match. I think you win in the long run.”9 This epitomizes competition in sports. The goal is not to destroy, but to achieve, to discover how effectively one’s power can used to bring about a successful outcome under the established rules, not at all costs. Again here I am talking about person-to-person competition. These observations are not present in all kinds of competition, as I noted above, but perhaps we ought to derive our the model of competition from that of the mountain climber, or kayaker, or rower, where strategy is used to challenge the mountain or the river. The point is not to subjugate, but to challenge, to achieve, where the struggle involves the process, he desire to be tested. The win-at-all-costs syndrome does not seem to be present in sports where the competition does not involve other persons. Much can be learned from this and transferred to the person-to-person organized sports which is the focus of this project.

To illustrate the virtue of competition as an achievement toward a shared end, David Halberstam, a noted sportswriter writes:

“When most oarsmen talked about their perfect moments in a boat, they referred not so much to winning a race as to the feel of the boat, all eight oars in the water together, the synchronization almost perfect. In moments like that, the boat seemed to lift right out of the water. Oarsmen called that the moment of swing. … it allowed you to trust the other men in the boat. A boat did not have swing unless everyone was putting out in exact measure, and because of that, and only because of that, there was the possibility of true trust among oarsmen.”10

This same moment of “swing” can be seen in other team sports when the play works beautifully because everyone is putting out the same energy to be synchronized with each other.

These four features constitute a schema for sport in its paradigmatic form, and it is these four features that characterize the importance of sport. Sport, therefore, is an unalienated activity which is required for self-development, self-expression, and self-respect. This is part of its fascination. I do not deny that other activities provide vehicles for these goods; there are others. What I contend is that sport is the single most available means and single most participated means for attainment of these goods. It is in this sense that sport is the art of the people and is therefore morally significant.

Sport as a Microcosm
It has been argued by many that sports mirrors the society in which they operate. In this way sport is a microcosm of society.16 Sport is society in miniature, complete with all its conflicts, assets, and defects. Society is lived by people and sports are played by people. Sports provide an effective medium for bringing out the characters of people. They serve to bring out the best and the worst of people. In observing sport as a microcosm, just as there is corruption in society, there is corruption in sports; just as there is violence in society, there is violence in sports; just as there are drugs in society, there are drugs in sports. On the other hand, just as there are rules of conduct in society, there are rules of conduct in sport; just as there are successes and heroes in society, there are successes and heroes in sports. In all these ways and others, sports reflect the society in which they operate. But while I agree with this analysis, it is only part of the picture. Sport is more than a mirror reflection. A mirror provides a passive reflection, but sport is not a passive reflection. Sport is active and affects what it is a reflection of. Further sport not only reflects society, it also dramatizes the social order. These unique aspects are what make clear the moral significance of sport both for the individual and society at large.

In its being a miniature of society, it compresses and heightens aspects of society, much like a dramatic presentation. Aspects of society are exaggerated and dramatized, and in this way are made clear to all of us. Like drams, sport may reveal to the society virtues it has not yet recognized, or present new values to the society and criticize old ones, or dramatize the established virtues and values in a society. For example, in the triathlon competition perseverance is dramatized in the mere attempt to finish the competition. This dramatization shows the virtue of perseverance and the struggles involved. We admire the finisher as well as those who merely push themselves to the limit in an attempt to finish.

In all of these ways sport may spur moral change. Insofar as it declares the virtues and values of society, sport tells people when they do not live up to their ideals, chastises them for their laxity and prods them to be better people. For example, “that’s not cricket” is not said only in cricket.

We espouse the virtue of hard work. Sport does much to dramatize this, and it is with this in mind that some rules changes are made. Surely some people have more talent and aptitude than others. That is as it should be; but raw talent is usually not sufficient. No one, no matter how apt, is naturally great. To be great, an athlete must become great. This is why Michael Jordan is a great basketball player, and Tiger Woods is a great golfer. They both have talent, but they dominated their sports because they developed their natural abilities to be the best they could be. Sport emphasizes the development of the raw talent, and this carries over into society.

We also espouse the virtues of courage, patience, sportsmanship, perseverance and determination. These are emphasized in sports, but are also dramatized so that when they are undermined, they become more obvious and acute. And in so doing we chastise not only the violators but society itself for its laxity. This was illustrated quite well in our attitude toward John McEnroe, who in his displays on the tennis court dramatized the lack of some of our cherished values. Again some rule changes have tried to address such behavior.

Another value society holds dear is justice as fairness. Sport may serve to dramatize how justice ought to be administered and how fairness is emphasized. This is done by carefully specified rules, both to define the game to provide for development, bodily excellence, hard work and fairness, and to provide for proper conduct within the game. With regard to the latter, penalties are swiftly and surely dealt with. Referees and umpires mete out immediate justice. It is in playing the game that one agrees to abide by the rules, recognizing both their importance and their essential fairness. In this way participants are aware of each other as individuals with shared ends. And it is in this way participants come to appreciate others as moral persons and as such constitute a moral community.

It is because sport is an art form and dramatizes our virtues and values that we are outraged at the aberrations. And it is therefore most important that these be corrected within sports and don so surely and quickly. Hopefully this dramatization and change carried over into society spurring further changes in society, which leads me to the aspect of sport that it affects what it reflects. Sport is not a mere passive reflection, but is active in that it affects society even when it is not intended.

We can see this in the circumstances and changes in our own society and in sport in America, in particular baseball, football and basketball. In baseball there were black and white leagues, no integrated teams. This was a glaring violation of the ideal. When dramatized and thus with the emergence of Jackie Robinson into the Brooklyn Dodgers, it stimulated or provoked analysis and criticism of wider issues in society. .

Athletes also serve as role models, as do those who run the programs. People in power as well in other roles in our society, by their very chosen positions, take on the duties attached with those positions, because they exemplify what is allowed in society. This includes owners, CEOs, public athletes, professors, to name a few. It is through these people that society learns what is proper, what is tolerated, and is right or wrong.. Once you choose to become a public figure, you also choose the duties that go along with this because it is the nature of being a public figure that you affect others in society. Since sports have become the most public of all professions, they impose more duties. Sports figures are role models; it goes with the territory.21
Sports reveal who we are and may reflect who we are in society, but it is up to us to recognize our duties to ourselves and others. In this way sport serves a different but compatible function. And in this function lies its moral significance.


That everyone is entitled to self-respect and self-esteem is undisputed. These are as Rawls claims, primary social goods. That everyone has capacities that ought to be developed is also undisputed, capacities that include the moral, the rational, and the aesthetic. These are often referred to as “uniquely human attributes.” What are required for self-respect, self-esteem, and the development of these attributes are activities. One kind of activity is productive activity, i.e. work. But another kind of activity is also required and that is “unalienated” activity—activity designed for no end outside itself, designed to emphasize creativity and enjoyed for its own sake. Work cannot always serve this function, so some other activity is necessary. Sports, I have argued, are such activities. And further there are all kinds of sports at all levels of participation. Thus sports are the single most available unalienated activities which provide autonomous agents a vehicle for self-expression, self-respect, and self-development, because the excellence of the athletes in themselves. In this way sports serve to humanize individuals and thus serve a significant moral function.

Sports also serve a significant moral function to the society at large. I have argued that in its dramatization and active reflection, sports may spur moral change. But while sports may be the “art of the people,” they may also serve as the moral opium of the people.24

1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 523.

2 This concept I take from Robert Simon, in Fair Play: Sports, Values and Society, Westview Press, 1991.

7 Recall the controversy when George Brett hit a game-winning home run with a bat with too much tar, and further controversy over the “super-bats.”

8 Admittedly technology has made some decision making less spontaneous.

9 Roland Thornquist went on to play professional tennis and is currently the Head Women’s Tennis Coach at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

10 David Halberstam, The Amateurs, William Morrow & Co., Inc., New York, 1985, p. 40.

16 For example, see D. Stanley Eitzen, “Sport as Microcosm of Society,” in Sport in Contemporary Society, Sixth Edition, Worth Publishers, 2001, pp. 1-9.

21 Kit Wellman discusses this issue in his essay in this collection.

24 I have had the benefit of helpful comments and criticisms from a number of students and colleagues, most notably Bernard Boxill, Thomas E. Hill, Jr., Jacob Hale, Kit Wellman, Shirl Hoffman, participants at the Hillsdale College Conference, “Who’s on First? Liberal Arts, Christianity or Sports,” where an earlier version of this paper was presented, the Johnston Scholars Honors and my First Year Seminar students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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