David Papineau on The Philosopher As Sportsman

What can sport teach us about philosophy?

David Papineau is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and City University of New York Graduate Center, and the author of Knowing The Score, a collection of essays exploring philosophical issues at the heart of sport.

Papineau began his academic career with a degree in mathematics at the University of Natal, South Africa, before returning to England to make the formal transition to philosophy at Cambridge. His philosophical interests cover issues in metaphysics, philosophy of science, and the philosophy of mind and psychology, which often sees him as a contributor to The TLS, Aeon and The Philosopher’s Magazine.

Following a landslide of technical issues, this conversation took place through a complex system of devices being held to microphones. Fortunately for this interviewer, David didn’t let any of it dampen his enthusiasm for our conversation.

—David Maclean


DM: What came first for you – sport or philosophy?

DP: That’s a good question! I guess it would have to be sport since I was a keen sportsman as a child—although not an especially good one, truth be told —and only came to philosophy after I had taken my first degree in mathematics.


DM: There are obviously quite a few notable examples of sportsmen turning their hand to philosophy. The French existentialist Albert Camus claimed that football had taught him what he needed to know about morality.

DP: From my own standpoint, I’m not so certain that sport is morally exceptional. I think that the lessons in morality that sport provides can also be applied elsewhere. However, it does highlight a whole lot of moral issues and I find it a very useful testing ground for philosophical theories. I think one issue it highlights is the way that people often make decisions as units. Economists, game theorists and quite a lot of moral philosophers assume that when people act, it’s the result of them each individually working out the best thing to do. But in a lot of contexts, especially sporting contexts, people come together to ask “what should we do”, and although that’s a very important part of life in general, it comes into focus more within sports.  The team will have a discussion about what’s the best way to play the other side, and everyone will accept the result even if it’s not necessarily what they would have wanted for themselves. Successful teams rely on thinking of themselves as one agent making a single decision.


DM: One of the ways that these moral dimensions manifest within sports is the rules. But how do these work as an applied set of ethics?

DP: There’s a whole range of different kinds of rules that apply in sporting contexts. There’s the rules as written down for that particular sport, be it cricket, soccer, or whatever. But people have long noted that referees don’t always apply these rules strictly, so there are also the rules as applied by the referee. If you think about soccer and how the players will steal five yards on a throw-in: the rules say that they have got to take the throw from where the ball went down but the referee doesn’t really bother with that much. So the rules as applied by the referee are about what transgressions you’re actually going to penalize. But then I think much more important for thinking about morality in the context of soccer and other sports is the code of fair play as agreed by the players, and that can often diverge from the rules even as applied by the referee. So in professional football it’s considered acceptable to bring down a player when they’re one-on-one with the goalkeeper in a professional foul – this is something the players accept – but there are other things that the players will be very upset about and go beyond what’s acceptable, such as putting one’s foot over the ball and doing a dangerous tackle. Or in northern countries they think it’s not acceptable to fake an injury to get somebody else sent off. So above the question of the referees’ rules is the code of fair play and some things that aren’t allowed by the referees the players will consider fair, and indeed some things that are allowed by the referees the players will consider unfair.

By and large, the moral thing to do here is to abide by the agreements that the players have set up between themselves, even if that means breaking the referees’ rules and paying the price for that. But then there’s a further set of rules -- which is real morality. As a general rule, it’s a good thing to abide by the conventions of your society, but that doesn’t always apply. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ only takes us so far. The Romans practiced slavery. Similarly, there are some sports where the code of the fair play as practiced by the players is in fact encouraging downright immoral behavior. Just think of all those cyclists encouraging one another to take performance-enhancing drugs. I feel the same about those footballing cultures where it’s considered clever to fake injuries to gain an underhand advantage.


"It’s not insignificant that the United States doesn’t participate in international sporting competitions in the same way as other nations. And I think that’s a terrible pity, in that exceptionalism on the sports field can breed exceptionalism off it."


DM: In order to make the best ethical choice when enforcing the rules, should a referee take a utilitarian stance – the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

DP: I think that the referee’s job is to apply the rules and to impose a penalty when they see an infraction. To use the example of Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ from the 1986 World Cup, all that went wrong is that the referee simply did not see it. If he had seen it, then he would have called a handball and that would have been the end of it. There’s a further question as to whether Maradona was acting immorally. In football, there nowadays exists a kind of catch-all rule that the authorities have set up to penalize players who are acting in a manner that will ‘bring the game into disrepute’. And so if you do something that’s really out of order, strong extra penalties can be imposed after the match beyond any applied on the field by the referee. There’s an interesting question about whether that should have been done to Maradona. I think the idea behind the catch-all rule is a good one. It is one way the authorities can intervene and place checks on the players’ own understanding of what’s acceptable. Someone needs to intervene if the players’ sense of what’s allowed goes beyond what is really morally acceptable.


DM: Why do we invest so much of ourselves and our cultural identity into our sports teams? There’s the rather notorious example of El Salvador and Honduras going to war with one another based on the result of a football match

DP: Many people dislike sport—especially international sport—because of the extent to which it encourages chauvinist sentiments and antagonism. George Orwell remarked that international sport was ‘war minus the shooting’ and was unsurprisingly quite opposed to it on those grounds. I hold the opposite view in that I think it’s perfectly healthy and natural to be an enthusiast for one’s team, whether that’s a local team or the national team, and enjoy seeing them win. In my view, a great virtue of sporting contests is that they’re somehow morally leveling. If you take matches like the recent one-day cricket final between India and Pakistan, or football matches between England and Argentina, here are two nations who have a whole history of antagonism and resentment stored up that might (and indeed has) spilled over into real violence. But here they are represented on a playing field and in a way the sporting context washes out the resentment that lies between them. Both sides can see that here are two teams competing on an equal basis, and both sides can see that the winner will have won because they’re more worthy in that context. The whole point, as it were, is that it puts both sides on an equal moral footing, and for that reason I think sport is a terribly good way of fostering international harmony and good relations. While I’m on the subject, it’s not insignificant that the United States doesn’t participate in international sporting competitions in the same way as other nations. Their main sport is American football, which no one else plays, and even other games like baseball and basketball, where there is international competition, you often don’t see the top professional athletes playing for the national team, as though they don’t regard international competition as something they do. And I think that’s a terrible pity, in that exceptionalism on the sports field can breed exceptionalism off it.  Without the reminder of the equal standing of different nations provided by international sport, it becomes all too easy to see yourself as one special country among others, entitled to special treatment in the political sphere. 


DM: That leads us nicely into the broader philosophical implications. Where do you see the similarities between authority and sport, and the constraints we encounter in everyday life?

DP: So I have quite a radical view here that many of my philosophical colleagues would disagree with. Drawing the analogy from sport, I think of the laws of any country as akin to the formal rules in a game like soccer or tennis. In the first instance, these are simply like the referees’ rules, and sometimes people break them and then they get a penalty – that’s how things are arranged. But I don’t always think it’s always immoral to break the referees’ rules in sports, and I feel the same about breaking the country’s real laws and taking a penalty. Of course, I think it would be a terrible thing if we didn’t have a civil society and legitimate authority with a system of policing and laws and so on, and so I am all in favour of the authority of the state, but beyond that I don’t think I have any moral reason to obey the law. That’s not to say it isn’t generally moral to obey the law, but that’s because in most cases what the law requires is moral anyway, and not simply because it’s the law. And I think that’s quite analogous to the sporting case. If you think of when people in the sporting game break the rules because that’s the tactically important thing to do, in many cases it’s not even a question of cheating. Take the example of basketball where the other side has the ball and you have 20 seconds left on the clock and you’re a point behind. The other side can just keep passing the ball back and forth to one another, so what do you do in that situation? The solution is to foul the other side and they’ll get a penalty shot but you get your 20 seconds. That’s perfectly standard and not considered bad behavior at all. So in that case breaking the referees’ rules and taking the penalty is a perfectly proper way to proceed. I have the same view in the civil context—there is often absolutely nothing morally wrong about breaking the law and taking the penalty—think of laws regulating drugs or sexual behaviour. Note that this doesn’t make it all right to murder someone and take the penalty—but that’s because murder is objectively immoral, not because there’s a law against it. Similarly, in sports, where some infractions of the referees’ rules are acceptable parts of the game, others take us into the realm of genuinely nasty behaviour.


"Of the 650 –odd men who’ve played cricket for England, nearly a quarter have had fathers, uncles or brothers who have also played for the national team. What’s the explanation? Nature or nurture?"


DM: Pulling on that thread of advantage, one of the ideas you cover in your book is the role of genes and the question of nature versus nurture, particularly with regards to sporting dynasties.

DP: This is another case where sports can illuminate issues of general interest which aren’t so easily analysed outside of the sporting context. Here’s a quite amazing fact: of the 650 –odd men who’ve played cricket for England, nearly a quarter have had fathers, uncles or brothers who have also played for the national team. What’s the explanation? Nature or nurture? Is it due to genes being important in cricket, or environments? Many people would take these kinds of family dynasties to be show that genes are doing the work. In the 19th century, Francis Galton wrote this great big tome called Hereditary Genius listing families of eminent people in music, politics, medicine and so on, and showing how these areas of eminence very much ran in families. He concluded on this basis that excellence in these families was due to hereditary material. But if we consider the sporting cases more carefully, we can see he had things completely the wrong way round. Compare cricket with soccer. In soccer we get nothing like the same family patterns – there are perhaps a handful of footballing families. So why is it that in cricket we see this pattern and not in football? The comparison strongly suggests that it is environments that are doing the work in cricket, not the genes. After all, the genetic attributes required for both games are not at all dissimilar, but when it comes to environments it is chalk and cheese. Anyone can kick a soccer ball around and it doesn’t require any special facilities or training, but in cricket it’s the reverse—not only do you need special equipment and grounds, but the movements are all unnatural and require lots of coaching. Comparing those two cases gives us reason to think we will get family dynasties specifically  in sports where environments are crucial. This might seem puzzling—aren’t genes are guaranteed to be handed down from parents to children, but children’s environments likely to be different from their parents’? But the truth is that genes don’t get handed down in a very tight way. Take a sport where physical attributes are crucial, such as the NBA. Just because you are seven feet tall, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a seven-foot tall son—because your spouse is very unlikely to be as much of an outlier as you. So the genes of children aren’t always as tightly linked to those of their parents as their environments are. That’s what explains the difference between cricket and soccer—environments matter more in cricket than soccer, and environments are things that can be tightly linked across generations. And this also shows that Galton had things completely back to front. If it was genes that mattered in music, politics, and medicine, and not environments, then all those tight family dynasties would never have occurred


DM: What are your thoughts as a philosopher on cases where that might not be so clear cut, such as the South African runner Caster Semanya, who was accused of having an unfair advantage due to being intersex?

DP: That’s such a tangled case because of the arbitrariness of organized sporting competitions. If you think about it, we have weight divisions in weightlifting, but not in shot put. Why not? Why shouldn’t there be a lightweight and a middleweight division for shot putters as well for the weightlifters? You might equally consider that the way we divide our sports into male and female competitions is also pretty arbitrary, especially when there are quite a number of sports that need no such distinction, including equestrian events, archery, shooting and bowls. Still, in many other sports I think it’s pretty clear that we do need gender divisions in order to have meaningful competitions, including track and field sports like running. On your specific question about Caster Semanya and other women with abnormally high levels of testosterone, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the view that objections to them competing are unwarranted. Usain Bolt is 6’ 5” and has been blessed with a physiology exceptionally well suited to high-speed running. Should he be disqualified on those grounds? I think the case is comparable and that it’s wrong to start excluding women just because they’re blessed with something that helps them run faster.

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