Just Do It?


Let’s start with a fact. People do not just 'like' sports. Talk to an athlete or a fan and you will find that there are beauties that belong specifically to baseball, soccer or basketball, beauties that are only brought out in the playing itself, and that show themselves in a certain pose of the body, a flash of agility or a triumph of coordination that is best described as 'flow.' Those who really know their game feel that it contains the basis for an entire ethics, that if we appreciate how the sport disciplines shape our minds and bodies we will have access to a model for living; and that, in playing, we will learn something about ourselves. The trained eye sees in each player or team not just a contestant or a 'side' but a distinct style of interacting with the game, a certain way of taking up the equipment of the sport and making it their own. And the players themselves see their teammates and adversaries in this way, in pick-up games and at the professional level. My teammate or opponent has a particular repertoire of 'moves,' a way of cutting his figure into the structure of the game. Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali are not really the names of people, but refer to singular, unrepeatable ways of speaking the language of their sport with their bodies. They are the poet laureates of basketball and boxing.

This may all sound overblown, but I think it gives expression to the way that athletes and fans feel about sports. There is an aesthetic, ethical and nearly religious relationship to the game that recognizes a basic truth about sport: that it is not just a leisure activity but a unique way of learning about our bodies, our relations with others and our freedom. If sport were not this, it would be impossible to explain the pseudo-philosophy of sneaker ads or the romanticism of Hollywood sport films. Nike can build an entire world view out of its 'just do it' slogan only because sport is, in itself, a profound experience, only because sport makes us suspect that it has important lessons to teach. Of course, none of this is reflected on in the heat of a contest. Athletes and onlookers alike are wrapped up in the game and could care less about the deeper meaning of what is going on. They are living through the experience, not reflecting on its significance. And this not-reflecting is part of what sport is. But this is no excuse for those of us who think about such things to drop the ball. Sports are such an important part of our everyday living, so dominant in our culture, that we cannot let shoe companies or television networks have final say on what they mean.

But how have progressive commentators tended to talk about sports? Unfortunately, they often behave as if sports are too lowly to require serious thought. The attitudes here range from simple dismissal to sophisticated critique, but almost everyone seems united on one basic point: sport, in and of itself, is not valuable as an area of human experience. On the one hand, there is the view that sports are something we enjoy for entertainment, but which we shouldn’t bother about when we are asking serious questions about society. Then there is the more 'sophisticated' ideological critique. Sport, we are told, is a kind of distraction that draws our mental and physical energy away from more pressing political matters. I recall Noam Chomsky once complaining that if Americans spent half as much time thinking about politics as they do memorizing sports statistics, we’d be far better off as a nation. Others may speak of how sport is fueled by the competition, violence and winner-take-all attitude of a capitalist, patriarchal society. And even when progressives look at sport as a lens through which to view working-class culture, or as a way of reading the contradictions present in a given society, there is often too little emphasis placed on just what kind of lens sport is. These commentators look at sports to learn about other aspects of the society, not about sport itself.

But there is a lot we can’t know if we stay on this level. For instance, when the women’s movement struggles for the application of Title IX to collegiate athletics, is it just a matter of equal opportunity and access? Or is there something about sport itself and the experience it gives us of our bodies that makes this issue particularly important for young women living in a sexist society? What is the significance of sporting leagues and events in which people with cognitive and physical disabilities compete? When Jackie Robinson struggles against racism at every step of the way, and still manages to excel in the major leagues, is this just a symbol for the kind of courage and heroism demonstrated by countless Black people during the period of de-segregation? Or does the game of baseball provide a way of dramatizing that heroism that only sports can provide? What are we to make of Greg Louganis, Arthur Ashe, Katie Hnida, Tiger Woods or Manon Rheaune? Are these figures important in their own right; is there something significant about the public display of the gay, Black or female body as graceful and physically glorified? Finally, is there something in sport itself that makes it an essential feature of working-class existence? Or should we treat sport as just another form of entertainment with no particular virtue of its own. Even to begin looking at these questions, we will have to ask a question that seems ridiculously simple: What is a sport?

Let’s try and zero in on sport by putting it between two things that it’s not. A sport is not a game. It is true that games and sports both suspend the seriousness of life. They bring us into conflict and cooperation with others, but in relation to goals and rules cordoned off from the aspirations and laws that govern our most earnest pursuits. Of course, we become 'invested' in our games and sports, often to the point of embarrassment. And all the words that describe the stakes of our everyday living have a place there: success, failure, victory, defeat, frustration, humiliation and triumph. We can make 'costly mistakes,' be 'disappointed' in others or ourselves and develop good or bad 'habits.' But sports and games share something essential in that they both lift this drama out of the sphere of mundane life where it weighs upon us with an unmistakable gravity. They both take the high stakes of life and pin them to 'useless' activities with which we can either pass the time or challenge ourselves.

What make sports different from games are two things. First, though games and sports are both rule-governed competitive activities, a sport must involve some kind of physical exertion and physical skill. Sports are not easy, and to play them I have to throw myself into the act. If I want to excel in a sport, I have to discipline and refashion my body, shape it to respond to situations and solve physical problems it would never encounter in the course of daily affairs. I have to react faster, be stronger, steadier or more precise than I normally would. Second, sports have a different kind of history and tradition than games. Even though dodge ball can be exhausting and requires agility and stamina, it is not a sport because there are no long-term statistics kept, no records, no hall of fame and no 'classic games' that go down in history and are held in public memory. Of course, if dodgeball became a recognized sport, there would be famous players, statistics and all the rest of it. But that’s just the point. It would mean something different to play dodgeball with your friends if there were a professional dodge-ball league or a national dodgeball team. These ways of distinguishing sports from games aren’t hard and fast because there are borderline cases. Is bowling a game or a sport? What about golf? Or chess? But I think our way of drawing the distinction makes sense of these borderline cases. People wonder about golf and bowling because they question the level of physical exertion required. Meanwhile, although you don’t need to get up to play chess, there are those who argue for its status as an Olympic sport because of the well-chronicled history of chess masters and the great matches they have played.

But sport is also not work. Though it involves my body in an exacting effort that can become exhausting, sport frees this effort from the arduous toil to which it is bound in work. Even if it is the same exact movements that I carry out when at work and when competing, they take on an entirely new significance when they are liberated from the confines of the labor situation. There are lumberjack competitions that involve nothing other than sawing down trees and cutting up logs. But when these 'tasks' are integrated into the context of a sport, the effort and sweat expended on them are detached from the work-situation where my 'livelihood' depends on them. My effort is dramatized, and is held in the balance between the 'thrill of victory' and the 'agony of defeat.' In sport, my struggling body can attain glory in its successes, and because of this, no matter how much pain my exertion involves, I enjoy my effort. Only when defeat is certain do I discover its 'futility.' Only then do things become tedious; only then do I have to be a 'good sport' to continue on. There are, of course, people we call 'professional athletes' who receive salaries for playing sports. Still, we shouldn’t let this trick us into thinking that when David Beckham steps out onto the field he’s 'working.' He works when he shoots commercials or public service announcements. And even though nothing he does on the soccer field transgresses the laws of political economy, we would pass over the meaning of what he’s doing if we insist on reducing it to work just because he’s getting paid. People dream of becoming professional athletes precisely because they fantasize about a life where they are paid, not to work, but to play.

So what does all this mean? Where has our attempt to answer the ridiculously simple question 'What is a sport?' gotten us? Are we now in a position to address the more complex questions we posed at the outset? We can, I think, at least make a beginning. We have seen that sports are a kind of escape from the cares of the work-a-day world, but that this escape, whether we’re watching or playing, is not the same kind of escape as a game, literature, music, art or simple relaxation. This is because what we experience in sports is the effort of the focused body, working toward a 'useless' goal, in which it can be glorified. Sports provide a specific structure that allows this glorification to happen. First, it is the body-in-effort that is glorified or attains a special kind of value. It is what succeeds or triumphs in its grace, coordination, focus or 'flow.' To win or to triumph, to play the game well, is to make my body adequate to some goal beyond its normal 'reach,' or beyond the reach of 'normal' bodies. Second, that in which I glorify my body is its 'work.' But the work I accomplish in sport is thoroughly 'useless' by the standards of the work world. I shoot an arrow into a target, throw a ball through a hoop, or run toward an arbitrary goal. I concentrate all my power and focus on these aims, but they are freed from the serious consequences that govern my normal concerns. Third, the body-in-effort attains glory in that its triumph in its work is commemorated by being 'entered into the records.' This means that score is kept, records are held, medals are awarded, etc. There is a running record in each sport that documents excellence and promises to the athlete a place in history.

We can now begin to see how the relation between labor and sport makes sense of its importance in working people’s culture, especially under an economic system that conceals the social and historical value of work. Only in sport can one turn away from the monotony and toil of labor and rediscover the body-in-effort as graceful, exalted and capable of glorification. Sport is a significant departure from work precisely because it is not rest or leisure, but an exertion and effort liberated from tedium. In work, I am always being confronted with tasks, things I have to do in order to do other things. And I do these things in order to get paid, and I get paid in order to take care of others and myself. This whole cycle is lived under the sign of necessity. It weighs upon us and exhausts us, not necessarily because it physically tires us, but because it is work. Sport is the opportunity to place the body in a new sort of world, where its skill and effort are made poetic and lyrical, where they are enjoyed and celebrated. No matter how our economy is organized, sport will always be a special kind of transformation of the effort our bodies exert in our everyday life and work. It is not some symptom destined to wither away with the exploitation of one human being by another. We can talk all we’d like about how sports encourage competition, and how the fanatical identification of onlookers with one side or another leads to a nearly violent desire to crush the opponent. But beyond or behind this, fans and athletes who truly love their sports can always appreciate a 'good game.' Beyond the question of which side wins or loses, fans and athletes have a sense of whether the game itself is being respected or abused. We can talk all we’d like about how sports are a way of avoiding our responsibilities, of displacing our emotions and attaching our aspirations to meaningless outcomes. But why should it be sports, and not something else that so absorbs our attention? Only by looking into the essential features of sport itself can we begin so see the reason behind this appeal and its connection to our economic existence.

But perhaps the most important consequence of this kind of questioning is that it puts us on the road to understanding the extent of the crisis we face concerning gender and sports. It was no one less than Plato who argued that in a healthy society women must be allowed to engage in athletics alongside men. He was well aware that this flew in the face of the social conventions of his time. But he insisted. We should keep his insistence in mind when we hear 'common sense' reasons for the inferiority of women’s athletics, and when the notion of devoting equal resources to them is dismissed as ridiculous. If sport is defined as the opportunity to glorify the body as a subject of effort, skill, coordination, strength and agility, then it is obvious that sports are a vehicle of liberation for women, whose bodies are too often considered passive objects incapable of navigating the world without a male guide and protector. And the systematic exclusion and undervaluation of women in sport is part and parcel of this oppression. How can we measure the existential consequences of having never been encouraged to play sports, of never having known what it means to triumph or to fail in the unique context of bodily effort that sport provides? I hope that our reflections have at least given the hint that exclusion from sports is not a trivial matter, but should be considered on par with being deprived of an education in art or literature. This may seem laughable, as it was during the time of Plato. But we would do well to think twice. The effort to win equal access to sports for women involves opening up an entire dimension of experience, one that re-captures the body-in-action as a source of power and value.