Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport – Review

Cesar Torres’ The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport has just arrived on my desk. Firstly I’ll say that I do have a partisan interest in it as I contributed a chapter towards the end on ‘Resources in the Philosophy of Sport’ which I’ll mention in more detail later.

My first thoughts on seeing it ‘in the flesh’ were ‘wow! what a great resource!’. If you are looking for a encyclopaedia on the philosophy of sport, this is it. It is different from all the other books in the field because it contains very short chapters on the whole range of issues by most of the eminent scholars working in the field today: Scott Kretchmar, William Morgan, Robert Simon, Jan Boxill, Angela Schneider, plus many, many others. These authors are serious experts and have reputations to prove it.

The structure is pretty straightforward and logical. It starts off with a brief history of the field, outline of typical research methods, consideration of key issues, detailed glossary of key concepts, before finishing with further resources and an annotated bibliography.

From a personal perspective I am really pleased to see space given to the different research methods used in the field. This will undoubtedly be helpful to my students who are often quite unsure and confused about philosophical research methods as they are often misled into believing that the only types of research in the study of sport are quantitative or qualitative; of which obviously philosophy fits into neither. The fact that a range of philosophic research methods are considered; Analytic, Continental and Eastern, means that I can give my students (and colleagues!) more direction as to what the philosophy of sport does and how it does it.

The largest part of the book is then given over to a consideration of current and future issues. This covers pretty much everything from fairness, equality, disability, risk, environment, aesthetics, knowledge, spirituality, technology and commercialisation. This strength of such a breadth is however unsurprisingly limited by a lack of depth, and it clear that many of the authors found it a challenge to cover arguments and discussion that are contained in hundreds of thousands of words, into just a short snapshot. I certainly don’t envy their task but generally they have done a really good job in setting out many of the key problems and providing some ways of solving them.

The glossary of key terms and concepts used in the philosophy of sport is really helpful and covers contested and difficult terms such as ‘cheating’, ‘deception’, ‘fair play’, ‘formalism’, ‘gamesmanship’, ‘rules’ and ‘sport’ itself. Again, the authors have had a tight limit as to what they are able to say but again, it provides a good introduction to these central concepts.

The final part is further resources, careers in the field and key literature. My chapter on resources essentially provides a complete reference list of works in the field and divides them into thematic sections, such as: general texts; ethics, values and fair play; sport and play; sport and the body; doping and sports medicine; aesthetics of sport; political philosophy of sport; coaching and education; Olympic philosophy; and epistemology, critical thinking and research ethics. I then provide other resources such as websites, videos, associations, and social media. The challenge with these kinds of electronic resources is obvious but as far as I know, they are still up-to-date upon the book’s publication!

The section on careers is a tricky one and I’m not sure why the publishers thought it necessary to include it. Studying the philosophy of sport will (unfortunately) rarely lead to a job in that field although the author is absolutely right to highlight the use and merits of studying philosophy itself. The inclusion of several courses and the content they cover may encourage other academics and managers to include the philosophy of sport in their curriculum although perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part. Equally, the inclusion of various associations, conferences and the grants available may be of use to undergraduates and potential postgraduates who are unfamiliar with the field. However, this is the chapter that I think is the least useful and as much as I respect and value my friendship with Charlene, I think she was given a pretty hard task in making this fit with the rest of the book.

The final chapter is effectively an annotated bibliography of key papers throughout the history of the philosophy of sport. Again, the authors had an almost impossible challenge in picking the most important papers and I’m sure that there will be disagreements about which papers were included and ignored. Nevertheless, I think the authors have done a pretty good job in tracing the development of the field by highlighting particular influential works.

So overall:

  • Positives: absolutely brilliant resource covering pretty much everything and anything in the philosophy of sport and written by the best scholars in the area.
  • Negatives: the broad scope of the book means that it is just a snap-shot of the key issues, concepts and ideas and is unable to go into any real depth.
  • Audience: undergraduates and postgraduate students studying sport, undergraduate and postgraduate students studying philosophy; it might also be of use and interest to the general reader.

Every library that supports students studying sport should have at least one copy. It really is an incredibly useful resource in helping to understand what the philosophy of sport is and the types of issues it covers.

Why Helen Grant’s MP comments were misjudged

Sport minister, Helen Grant MP, has just given an interview to The Telegraph newspaper stating that women should be given more opportunities to participate in feminine sports, such as cheerleading. The article goes on to quote that it enables “those participating [to] look absolutely radiant and very feminine”. And the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation have released a statement agreeing with her.

The problem is however, that it perpetuates gender stereotypes that suggest female = feminine and male = masculine. And it is these stereotypes that have held women in sport back for so long and led to years of people (mainly men) suggesting that sport is bad for women. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of weeks that we saw comments made by Russia’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, who said that women should not be participating in ski-jump because “Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”

So however well intentioned Ms Grant’s comments were – and I do not disagree with the fact that everyone (male and female) should have an opportunity to participate in a range of sports and exercise activities – unfortunately they were completely misguided. The headlines that have been drawn focus upon the notion that women and girls should (as a moral imperative) be emphasising their femininity through participation in particular ‘feminine’ sports.

What we really need to be doing (and this has been a focus in Parliament recently) is trying to dispel the gender stereotypes that begin at birth and are enforced throughout childhood. We need to stop ourselves saying to girls in particular ‘that’s not for girls’ or ‘that’s not very ladylike’ in the way that we expect them to behave where we have no issue with ‘boys being boys’ and playing roughly or getting muddy. This is what will help to change attitudes for girls participating in sport and exercise, so that when they get to secondary school they don’t feel that sports which leave them hot and sweaty aren’t for them.

Yes there should be a range of activities for both girls and boys that enable them to enjoy physical activity, but focusing upon ‘femininity’ just seeks to preserve the same old stereotypes.

How Nelson Mandela Used Sporting Patriotism for Good

In Tännsjö and Tamburrini’s excellent edited collection, ‘Values in Sport’, Paul Gomberg and Nick Dixon debate whether patriotism in sport is a good thing. Whilst Dixon argues that a ‘moderate patriotism’ can be morally defended, Gomberg presents a vehement argument against it. For Gomberg, patriotism is morally equivalent to jingoism and any patriotic attitude can be used for nationalistic purposes: “..moderate patriotism, even as cultivated in sports, gives way in these situations to the most barbaric, fascist attacks on others, all in the service of the capitalist ruling groups who initiate this process.” (p98)

However, when Nelson Mandela chose to wear a Springbok shirt at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 he showed how patriotism can be a force for peace rather than war. Mandela wanted South Africa to be for all South Africans, and in a climate of uncertainty where many white South Africans were fearful of the future and retribution for the past, this simple patriotic gesture helped allay fears and heal rifts.

Mandela and Pienaar 1995 RWC

Mandela showed how patriotic identity in sport can be morally acceptable. And Gomberg is wrong in his argument that “being moderately patriotic is like being a little bit pregnant” (p87) – this analogy is just incorrect. Being patriotic is not the same as being jingoistic, rather it is about holding and forming an identity. Mandela wore the Springbok shirt not to show a hatred of other nations but rather to show that there is a common humanity between us all and he could identify as much with the white South African Francois Pienaar as he could with those that had been oppressed by racism in all corners of the globe.


Dixon, N. (2000) ‘A Justification of Moderate Patriotism in Sport’

Gomberg, P. (2000) ‘Patriotism in Sport and War’

Both in:

Tännsjöm T. and Tamburrini, C. (2000) Values in Sport. London: Routledge.

Why it is wrong to stop benefits for the under 25s

I understand the rhetoric of the Conservative party. They want people to go out and work, pay taxes and be decent citizens of the United Kingdom. And George Osborne says there will always be a safety net to prevent those unlucky or unfortunate enough falling through the cracks. But apparently this doesn’t apply to anyone under 25. Why? I’m presuming because anyone under the age of 25 shouldn’t be unfortunate enough to need benefits. Or perhaps it’s because the under 25s are an easy group to target. They vote in far fewer numbers than other age groups, they hold far less power and influence, and others are far less likely to protest in their support. If you’re under 25 the Conservatives expect you to be either working or in education. And if you’re not, then you are left to your own devices. But you won’t get any help from the State. This seems unreasonably callous for an age group that are often struggling to find their way in life.

My experience of claiming benefits was as follows. I had just graduated from University and was trying to find a job. I probably could have returned home to live with my parents but I thought that it would be far easier to find a job in the affluent city of Norwich than my impoverished rural home in Cornwall. The benefits provided a short term safety net for me for four months until I got a temping job at Norwich Union. That the was the one and only time I claimed housing benefit and I really needed it then. Admittedly I was lucky enough to have parents that would be willing to put me up for a bit but not everyone is this fortunate. What of the 21 year old who has been in full time education his whole life but who is unable to find work as soon as he graduates? If he doesn’t have a family that will support him, and won’t get any help from the State, that education may come to nothing if he ends up homeless and on the familiar downward spiral that it often becomes.

Sometimes I find myself warming to the Conservative party. Sometimes, I feel that they have left the callous days of New Right Thatcherism behind them. And then they come up with a heartless policy like this and any thoughts I might have of voting for them evaporates. It is an easy target but that doesn’t make it a good one.

Technology and the future divide between the haves and the have nots

I’ve written a few times now about The Singularity and technological advancement and have just found this great TED talk that continues some of these ideas. In it, economist Andrew McAfee speculates about a likely near future and what it means for society. He gives some compelling data regarding the recent life-courses of those who have a good education, and are in professional, creative type jobs, and those that have had minimal schooling and have been limited to unskilled or semi-skilled manual jobs. Life has been good to the former whilst the latter have been marginalised and alienated as they have increasingly found themselves being long-term, out of work. Interestingly, an article on the BBC website only today reports an argument being made to the heads at the G8 summit, that more investment should be given to schools and universities in order to continue a prosperous economy. That education is the means to freedom and a better life is generally uncontested. But when this is considered in the light of McAfee’s predictions on a future high-tech society, it is clear that we should be taking this seriously in order to give everyone a chance of the good life that most of you reading this will already have.

Philosophical Sports Films

As part of my contribution to Cesar Torres’ ‘Companion to the Philosophy of Sport’ (due out next year) I wanted to include a list of films that covered philosophical issues in sport. I use a few for a module I teach called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ as films and documentaries provide a real wealth of resource for discussion. I quickly discovered that there were far too many to include in a book chapter so decided to collate a list of as many as I could find, put it online, and provide an electronic link to the list.

So here’s the list: Sports films relating to philosophical issues

Many thanks to all my friends and colleagues that have provided suggestions to this list, particularly to members of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and the British Philosophy of Sport Association.

Some of the films I would not rate at all but obviously other people do (otherwise they wouldn’t have suggested them to me) so I’ve included them anyway.

Nevertheless, here’s my top 5 and why:

  1. Dogtown and the Z Boys (2001) - There’s always been something about skateboarding that has fascinated me. The idea that within urbanisation there can be freedom and creativity. I’ve spent many an hour just watching skateboarders, either just hanging around at the South Bank in London, or in competitions on huge vert ramps. This film shows the history and development of skateboarding as well as the (often troubled) lives of some of the more famous names in the sport. It also highlights the relationship between technology, sporting performance, and creativity.
  2. Step Into Liquid (2003) - There are many good surfing films (and many that are more beautifully shot) but this is probably my favourite as it is so wide-ranging in the types of surfing that it covers, from the big (and I mean BIG) wave surfing, to children mucking about in the water. Coming from a surfing county (Cornwall) I grew up in the water so have first hand of the beauty, but also sheer power of the wave. Surfing really does have something to say about the sublime.
  3. Man on Wire (2008) - Technically this isn’t a sports film at all but I like to include it because it’s a very powerful and emotional demonstration of the human spirit and physical endeavour. You see this in the fact that those that took part are still brought to tears by the memories 35 years later. It is all the more poignant because it is set around the building of the Twin Towers in New York.
  4. Rollerball (1975) - Although many aspects of this film got the future (today) completely wrong, there is also a lot that does resonate with today’s world, particularly the power of multi-national corporations. There is also something to be said in the way that the commercialisation of sports feeds the base desires of the masses and that athletes are merely pawns in the entertainment world to be used and disposed of at will.
  5. This Sporting Life (1963) - This is a dark and slow film that highlights the absurdity and mundanity of life (don’t expect any Hollywood special effects or fast action). It slightly plays on the stereotype of northern English life but it does demonstrate the relationship between sport, meaning and life more generally.

Is Lance Armstrong a bad guy?

Following the apparent ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey, have we actually learnt anything more about Armstrong? My inclination is to say no. What we know about Armstrong is that doper or not, cheat or not, he was still an exceptional cyclist. Yet, what the interview emphasised was his Machiavellian streak. He knows how to play people, to influence them and demand their loyalty and he’s never been afraid to get what he wants through using them and casting them away when they’re no longer needed. Unfortunately, as with all Machiavellian characters, the trail of destruction that they leave behind eventually catches up with them. The interview with Oprah was an attempt to wrestle some control back over his life and other’s perception of him. He failed miserably. The bitterness and betrayal that people feel towards Armstrong is so deep that only a genuine display of humility and remorse would have given any chance at redemption. Instead, his insincerity was apparent and he’s only managed to damage his reputation further.

Armstrong’s narrative will be used as morality play. It is the story of the bad guy who gets to the top and then suffers a dramatic and humiliating fall. But is this a fair representation? What ever you might think of Armstrong and his character, the fact is that he has raised millions of dollars for a cancer charity. If he hadn’t had doped, if he hadn’t had made a dramatic comeback from suffering such a debilitating and deadly disease this money might not have been raised and peoples lives that are afflicted by cancer might be all the poorer. So the utilitarian might calculate that the Armstrong story is actually a good one whereby his choice to cheat had more beneficial consequences than a choice not to.

My view is that Armstrong is a flawed character that has no empathy for others. He isn’t someone that I would want to spend any time with. But that is not to say he hasn’t done amazing or inspirational things. And he rightly says that he’s not the only one that is culpable in the doping scandal within cycling. A culture developed whereby doping was the norm and he used that to his advantage. If we agree with Armstrong’s view on cheating (which I don’t necessarily) and that cheating is the deliberate attempt to break rules to gain an advantage on others, and there is no real or theoretical advantage since ‘everyone is doing it’ then at the very least we can say that Armstrong is guilty of gamesmanship – in that he attempted to use the rules or the lack of the enforcement of the rules to his advantage. The perception of Armstrong being more bad (yes I know it’s not good English) than others (e.g. Millar, Hamilton, etc.) is that a) he lied more about his doping and with greater conviction b) he is still trying to manipulate his audience into believing and trusting him. But this doesn’t make him technically any more guilty than any of the other athletes who have been guilty of doping.

So perhaps rather than feeling vitriolic towards Armstrong, we should just recognise him for the deeply flawed person that he is. But we also shouldn’t forget the good that has come out of him.