The Power of Football and Issues of ‘Sportswashing’

Golden trophy with football on grass
Image from Marco Verch Professional Photographer – Creative commons licence

Football is the most global of sports. It is played in every country, across all inhabited continents, by men, women, adults and children. Part of this is due to the simplicity of the sport, it involves a ball that gets kicked towards a goal that is defended. It can be played on grass, concrete, dust, and sand; indoors and out. It requires minimal technology (jumpers for goalposts!) and therefore is one of the most equitable of games. This is why it has spread far and wide and is so pervasive in modern human culture.

The basic rules make it an easy sport to watch but also one that can showcase incredible athletic skill, tactical awareness, creativity and flair. Paradoxically, its low scoring nature is one of the reasons it is has the potential for great excitement, drama and emotion. As the clock ticks down, the tension rachets up. A one goal lead is difficult to hold on to when the pressure mounts. Throughout the game, momentum shifts as one side pushes forward to score whilst the other retreats deeper to defend, until an opportunity for counter-attack arises, the pressure releases and the momentum shifts once again.

This is the essence of the beautiful global game.

It is also why it is a soft but powerful tool for politicians. In this it is a form of soft diplomacy. The American political scientist, Joseph Nye, defined ‘soft power’ as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”[1]. Sport is the means of attraction here. The global language of sport, and football in particular, enables host countries of mega-events to showcase themselves on the world stage. Hosting an event such as the FIFA World Cup is an opportunity to advertise yourself to the rest of the world. Often, this is by promoting business opportunities and tourism, but it also is a way of saying as a country, you have sufficient wealth to build new stadiums and infrastructure, even if these will end up unused and rotting away in the years to come. A quick internet search for abandoned stadiums indicates the sheer gratuitousness and scale of infrastructure waste from hosting sports mega-events. Consider, for example, the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium which cost $109 million and was used only four times before it was demolished, or the Hellinikon Olympic Complex in Athens which was left abandoned after being built to host the 2004 Olympic Games. Hosting these sports mega-events demonstrates this form of soft power.  The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, used the term ‘symbolic power’ to describe the way that political, economic and social capital could be impressed onto others. The symbolic power that says you can spend millions of dollars on stadiums that will be used once and then discarded is huge. It is a way of saying to other nations, that you deserve to be noticed and taken seriously. The fact that Qatar, as host of the FIFA World Cup 2022, can build seven brand new air-conditioned stadiums in addition to the infrastructure of roads, hotels and training grounds, over the space of a few years is a gratuitous display of wealth. That it has reportedly cost the lives of 6500 migrant workers[2] in doing so demonstrates greater power still.

Sport is supposed to transcend politics. The Dutch philosopher Johann Huizinga noted that play (and in this we will include sport) forms a ‘magic circle’ where the rules of normal life don’t apply. The rules of football are arbitrary; they exist purely to allow the game to be played. The only reason that players are not allowed to pick up the ball and run with it is that it would no longer be the game of football. So, players from all nations agree to abide by the same rules in order to play the game, and this works so long as the rules are arbitrary and outside that of ‘normal’ life. This is one of the reasons that soldiers were able to emerge from the trenches in Christmas 1914 to play a game of football over the blood-soaked soil that they had been fighting over. It is also why England is able to play Iran in their opening game of FIFA 2022 despite the diplomatic freeze between the two nations. The language of football is one that most people can speak.

And yet, sport is a human enterprise, and humans are political and social creatures with moral sensibilities. The rules of sport are insufficient in determining how the sport ought to be played beyond the formal rules of the game. This gives rise to the ethereal ‘spirit of sport’ that is often touted by governing bodies and sporting officials in relation to issues of fair play and sportsmanship. But these concepts are flexible, open to interpretation and can be viewed through particular political lenses. FIFA’s mission statement is “to develop a modern, accessible and inclusive game”[3] but accessible and inclusive to whom? This demonstrates the paradox at the heart of openness and inclusivity; one person’s inclusion is another’s exclusion, as the debates about the hosting of events in Qatar, China and Russia show. The perennial controversy over where global sports-events such as the FIFA World Cup are held, demonstrates the difficulty of retaining a separation between sport and politics, since the very act of awarding the hosting of a competition is to make a statement about values – and history tells us that in too many instances, the core value of those at the top of the game is that of money and influence. Awarding a sports mega-event to a small nation state in the desert with little history of domestic sporting competition, laws against homosexuality, poor gender equality, minimal workers’ rights and employment protections, is to implicitly condone the values that these things represent.

The term ‘sportswashing’ has been recently used to describe the practice of using sport as a form of soft power to portray a ‘clean’ image of a country. As the cultural geographer, John Connell, notes, sport can “be used as a vehicle to counter and ameliorate perceived authoritarian, coercive, and nationalistic policies by creating a peaceful, amenable, participatory, and responsible ideology and image.”[4] Sporting mega-events are a particularly useful instrument in this because they are global events that capture the attention of the average citizen and are outside the normal world of politics. They are a means of presenting a sanitised version of a country’s image to an external audience of ordinary people.

One means of using the soft power of football is through the acquisition of sports teams and clubs, such as the high profile purchasing of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia. One might ask why the rulers of a sovereign country would be interested in owning a football club in the northeast of England when it clearly is not a purely economic business investment. The answer, I suspect, lies in the soft power leverage it provides in the form of networking and lobbying and access to both high profile figures in the sports world and, perhaps more importantly, in the political and business world. There is also a tacit belief that increased investment in the purchase of elite players and success in domestic and European leagues will provide supporters with a picture of benign benefactors that overrides adverse publicity about the owners’ other business enterprises and political activities.

Other examples of sportswashing involves persuading ‘influencers’ in the guise of high-profile players, ex-players, or sports fans, to act as ambassadors for the host county. This utilises the political soft power that individuals have other others. Whilst it may be unreasonable to hold players to a higher moral standard than the rest of us, since they are just mortal beings whose professional job is to play football, the fact that they have such visibility gives them a louder voice that garners attention. This was demonstrated by the footballer, Marcus Rashford whose campaign during the Covid19 pandemic embarrassed the British Government into providing additional free meals for pupils over the school holidays. So, when high profile ex-players advertise themselves in slick and glossy advertisements for the host countries of sporting events, they are making a moral statement about the acceptability of such events, in the same way that wearing rainbow laces or ‘taking the knee’ is a symbolic expression of their values. Similarly, when football fans are paid by host countries to attend major competitions but are contractually obligated to promote the host country in a positive light[5], they are implicitly condoning moral practices that they may personally express as abhorrent. But this is the power of football since the die-hard fan would arguably find it hard to resist the offer of free tickets, flights and accommodation in return for a few shots of their smiling face on social media.

Ultimately, most of us, when it comes to it, are hypocrites. We maintain that human rights and sexual equality matters, but these concepts fade into the background when the starting whistle blows. And this is what I predict will happen with the Qatar world cup just as it happened when similar mega-sport events have been held in countries like Russia, China and the UAE. When it comes down to it, the kicking of a ball between two metal posts for our entertainment is clearly not worth the human lives that were sacrificed in the process. But when the Qatar World Cup kicks off most of us will shuffle our feet and wring our hands, mumble something about human rights and how corrupt football is, for such thoughts to drain away as we turn on the television to cheer on our team. Such is the power of sport.

As the global game, football is one of the few arenas which hold political clout in the form of soft power. Although it is just two teams of eleven players kicking a ball towards a goal, it represents so much more. And whilst world governing bodies, such as FIFA whose ‘men in grey suits’ set the rules and offer the rewards, may say they wish to use football to “reflect the world”, the fact this world is currently ravaged by war, extremism and climate catastrophe suggests that they should be more careful about how they use the power that football holds.

[1] Nye, J. S. (2008). Public Diplomacy and Soft Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616(1), 94–109.



[4] Connell, J. (2018) “Globalisation, Soft Power, and the Rise of Football in China,” Geographical Research, 56(1), pp. 5–15. doi: 10.1111/1745-5871.12249.


The invisibility of trans men in sport and contested concepts of ‘fairness’, ‘safety’ and ‘inclusion’

I’m currently working on a research project with a colleague and a graduate student to document the experiences of trans men in sport and physical activity. And whilst we haven’t got to the stage of analysing the interview data yet, it’s raised some really interesting issues – particularly around an acute awareness of lack of physicality and height. I’ve also been struck by the seemingly contradictory guidance that World Rugby put out a few years ago regarding the inclusion of trans men and trans women in the sport.

Both of these have led to me to try to articulate my thoughts about the apparent invisibility of trans men in the discussion on transgender inclusion in sport, and how this might highlight some of the inherent biases involved in the issue. Below is the abstract I’ve just submitted to the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport (IAPS) conference which will be held at Penn State University in August this year.

JDW_8721-1” by John.Walton is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

The issue of transgender participation in sport has become a fervent and febrile topic in recent years as Western societal attitudes towards sex and gender have changed and greater numbers of trans athletes gain prominence. As the number of high profile and contested cases grow, Governing bodies in the typically sex segregated sports arena are finding that their policies (or absence of policy) on the issue are being more closely scrutinised as they defend their positions against proponents of diametrically opposing arguments.

Most of the popular and academic discussion of transgender participation in sport is focused on trans women. When trans men are mentioned, it is often only as a footnote or addendum. It is this invisibility of trans men in the discussion that can help to shed light on the contested concepts of fairness, safety and inclusion and uncover hidden assumptions and biases.

An example of this can be illustrated by the World Rugby Transgender Guidance (World Rugby 2019) which concluded that allowing trans women to compete in women’s rugby would compromise the safety of the other participating women. Yet the same report also concluded that it would be acceptable for a trans man to participate in men’s rugby if they were willing to accept the risks. Such a conclusion is contradictory if it is based on the premises that, (1) there is such a significant difference in strength and power between biologically born men and women post-puberty, and (2) that the paternalistic principle of protection from harm over-rides that of autonomy of individual choice. The inferred conclusion from the World Rugby guidance is that a single trans woman poses a risk to safety when playing against a team of 15 non-trans women who should be protected from this harm, but a team of 15 non-trans men does not pose an equivalent or greater risk to safety against a single trans man. As such, it suggests that the real issue is not a primary concern for the safety of all individuals. Instead, it plays into the paternalistic discourse that ‘normal’ women need protection from ‘abnormal’ men. Both trans men and trans women as a result are unjustly discriminated against in this underlying discourse.

Similarly, UK Sport (2021) recently suggested, on the basis of fairness and inclusion, that two categories ought to be created for sport: women’s (which does not include trans women) and open (arguably, so as to include trans women without categorising them as ‘men’). Again, this neglects the position of trans men. If the argument is it is unfair for adults born biologically female to compete against those that are born biologically male, then it would not be fair for trans men to participate in an open category if they were competing against biologically born men.

This paper will argue that through a consideration of trans men in sport, a better understanding of the contested concepts of fairness, safety and inclusion can be provided.


UK Sport (2021) Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport.

World Rugby (2019) World Rugby Transgender Guidance.

Child and youth doping in sport

Figure skater on ice
Image by Benson Kua:

When it comes to the issue of doping in sport, I’ve tended to be on the liberal end – primarily on the basis that people should have autonomy over their own bodies despite them making choices that may be harmful. However, clearly such autonomy suggests that individuals are able to make free and rational decisions. And this is one of the criticisms of such a position – no (wo)man is an island, we all suffer pressures from others and sometimes despite the appearance of free choice, often our choices are highly influenced by others and society around us. This is moreso the case for younger adults and children who do not have the biological and cognitive development, or the wisdom that comes from life experience, to make what we might call ‘rational’ choices. I am now at an age where I cringe at some of the ‘choices’ I made as a young adult, some of which were highly dangerous and could have gone badly wrong. Children and young adults are highly suggestive and are able to be manipulated by those that they look up to, want to impress, or fear. That’s not to say they’re stupid or should not be treated with respect or given a voice, but we do need to recognise that they should be given more protection than we might afford an older adult.

This is why the case of Kamila Valieva in Beijing 2022 is particularly concerning. If an athlete under 18 years old tests positive for a prohibited substance (and Kamila was 15 years old), it suggests a serious issue of safeguarding. Some part of my imagination could accept the idea of a 17 year old rugby player searching the internet to buy steroids in order to bulk up, but the idea of a 15 year old female ice skater independently seeking out substances to improve her skating, is beyond credibility. The defence that has been suggested is that Valieva was subject to contamination from her grandfather’s heart medicine – the story goes that he drank from a glass after taking the medicine, leaving residue of the prohibited substance, that she then injested when she drank from the same glass. But it has also been reported that Valieva has a therapuetic use exemption (a way of taking substances that would normally be prohibited due to a medical issue) for other substances that allieviate angina and heart conditions. This now should be raising eyebrows – most 15 year olds are rarely going to take more than the occassional paracetamol or cough medicine. All of this taken together, along with the history of Russian doping, makes this story particularly troubling.

So what then ought to be done? At the heart of this is a very young athlete who is clearly one of the most talented skaters ever. There is no drug in the world that would diminish that fact. Some blame for this tragic state of affairs needs to rest with WADA and the IOC which despite evidence of state sponsored doping, reached an absurd conclusion whereby Russia, as a state, is not officially currently allowed to compete in the Olympics, but Russian athletes, under a new flag and name, are. This compromise may have been more acceptable had it not been the case that Russian President, Vladimir Putin was one of the few foreign dignitaries present at the opening Beijing2022 ceremony.

WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) do recognise the category of ‘protected person’ which is an individual under the age of 16 (or 18 if part of a registered pool), and those that have limited legal capacity. However, what this means under the WADA code is fairly minimal. The code simply states that the sanctions for an athlete that tests positive for a banned substance is more minimal than that given to a non-protected person and that they should be treated more leniently, i.e. they might just get a warning rather than a competition ban. This paucity of consideration over the responsibilities towards protected persons is concerning. As such, we can perhaps understand the CAS judgement that notes the ‘irrepairable harm’ that Valieva may suffer if she was disqualified from competing prior to a full investigation. As a protected person, it would not be right for Valieva to be treated as any other ‘doping athlete’. But at the same time, if we have concerns about the safety of a ‘protected person’ then to continue regardless is to abdicate the responsibility we have towards them. The trouble is that as citizens of a soverign country, sporting bodies do not have much power over how those citizens are treated – see the recent case of Peng Shuai to illustrate this. The only mechanism they really have is to bar particular individuals or states from competition. But in reality, international governing bodies, such as the IOC, are relucant to do this on the basis that they don’t want to get involved in political and ethical matters (I am laughing here at the ridiculousness of the idea that international elite sport can be separated from politics). This is why we end up with the tragic state of affairs where there are concerns about a young athlete from a country with a history of state sponsored doping, but whereby she is allowed to continue to compete on the basis that throwing her out of the competition will cause her irrepairable harm. Ultimately what this shows is the farcical and deeply sad nature of the doping saga in sport and the way that authorities continue to deal with the issue especially around the safeguarding of young athletes.

Watching virtual sport – better than the real thing?

Watching Virtual Sports

Emily Ryall

The existence of sport, for most, goes unquestioned. For many sports aficionados’ it is sport that regulates the calendar and marks the passing of one season to the next. Yet, this way of conceiving the world and our lives came to an abrupt halt in Spring 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, some sports tried to fill the gaps in the schedules, and appease the desire of their fans, by bringing in virtual forms of their sport. There are several examples of this, from Formula 1 which pitted F1 drivers against what might be called ‘gamers’ in simulated races, to the virtual Grand National, to the Skoda and Zwift cycling races, to elite tennis players playing tennis simulation games against each other. All of these examples are slightly different in their relationship to sport and the reasons for their introduction. The Grand National involved no players at all, just an AI generated race, the tennis example required none of the skills required to hit a tennis ball in real life, but the cycling and F1 events were more representative of the skills required for the real thing – cyclists wired up their bikes to the internet to take account of actual pedal power, whilst the F1 drivers sat in replica cars which required the same motor control as the real thing (albeit without the g-forces). So, whilst the experiences for the players and athletes may be very different, the question is what about the experience of the spectator? What do we, as spectators, want sport to look or be like? Does reality matter or is appearance of reality sufficient? And can virtual sports replicate the experience of ideal sport for spectators as well, or even better, than the real thing?

In order to consider these questions, a broader question about the ideal of sport needs to be answered. What does the ideal form sport look like? One way of answering this question is consider the features that are necessary for good sport: excellence of skill, novelty, genius, drama, anticipation of success of outcome. Equally, we might want to consider features that are antithetical to good sport: poor skill, mundanity, cheating, death and injury, lack of attainment.

Let’s take the aesthetic element first. One of the features of beautiful sport is graceful and smooth action. We enjoy the rhythm and flow; the ability to move the body successfully from one position to another. Think about the symmetry of a rowing eight moving their oars through the water in perfect sync, a skateboarder’s smooth transition from rail to rail across a three foot gap whilst the board turns and spins under the skateboarder’s feet in mid-air, or a footballer’s deft turn and sprint to navigate the ball past a defender. Now think about the common glitches in poor virtual simulations: the blocky and blurred graphics, the staccato movements of virtual players that defy the laws of physics as they overlap and appear through inanimate objects or other players, and the repetitive actions that are unable to replicate the originality of individual form and gait. As Roberts (1975, p95) notes, pleasure is gained from watching sport when our ideals match the reality: “the pleasure aroused will be proportionate to the degree in which the particular impression embodies the form of the evoked apperceived ideal and is thereby an exemplar of its class.” Our experience of watching past incarnations of virtual sport bear little resemblance to our ideals and illustrates why watching the ‘real thing’ is more attractive.

Yet it seems as if these limitations are being overcome. Consider, for example, game-play footage from the latest Madden game; a simulation of NFL football. The original official trailer interspersed real-life NFL footage from the virtual game footage and the differences between them can at times be hard to identify[1]. The movement of the simulated players replicates that of real players; it appears natural and represents a relationship between player intentionality and the laws of physics, such as when a player uses all their bodily effort to ensure both feet stay within the on field boundary when catching a ball; or when a player deftly ducks under a lunging tackler’s arm, or makes a hard cut in their running direction to avoid an oncoming defender (Figure 1)[2]. Similarly, when watching footage of real-life Formula 1 action and that which is virtually simulated, it is equally difficult to tell the difference (Figure 2). The camera angles are the same, the cars are as realistic in appearance, the movement and the physics replicates that of reality. The only significant identifying differences are with the quality of the virtual crowd which all seem to be the same human avatar with limited features and movement actions. On this basis then, the aesthetic differences in the realistic quality of movement and appearance of features and objects in simulated versions of real sports have diminished to such an extent that it is increasingly difficult for the human eye to tell the difference between them. Virtual sport is starting to match our apperceived ideal. Moreover, the latest releases of these virtual sports more accurately replicate the unique movements, gait and characteristics of real players. Such is the relationship between games franchises, sports governing bodies, and professional clubs, that players’ faces and bodies are 3-dimensionally mapped so that they are easily identifiable in the game itself. Fans are able to watch their real-life heroes perform on the virtual stage, and this enables salacious competitive match-ups and combinations. For instance, teams can consist of heroes from different decades, so Pele can play alongside Messi with Lev Yashin in goal.


Figure 1. Screenshot from Madden21 ( and from NFL game (File Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI:


Figure 2. Screenshot from F1 virtual Grand Prix ( and British Grand Prix 2020 (×534.jpg)

Let us move then to the related issue of demonstration of excellence of skill in sport. This is arguably one of the main reasons why elite sports are more attractive than amateur sport and why broadcasters will pay millions to show the English football premiership, the Olympic Games, and the Super Bowl. Audiences want to see the most skilful athletes perform at the highest level. And unless they have a personal or familial connection, they are not interested in watching a village team turn out to play on a Sunday afternoon. As noted above, past simulations of sports have tended to be based on limited actions of player or avatar and have been based on incomplete or inaccurate physical laws. In early manifestations of soccer games, balls could be kicked from player to player with little finesse: players who seemed to be a distance away from a landing ball would suddenly find it appear at their feet, whilst a ball that appeared to have been shot over the crossbar would end up in the back of the net. Not only was the quality of the graphics poor but the movement and skill of the players was limited in scope. There was little similarity between a real footballer controlling the ball and that of his graphic counterpart. Yet in the game FIFA20, there were 73 unique footballing skill moves able to be performed by players and ability level is based on their skill level as a real human athlete (so former FIFA world player of the year, Christiano Ronaldo is able to be far more skilful than second league, Grimsby midfielder, Brandon McPherson)[3]. The possibility of utilising and demonstrating such a range of skill within the game itself illustrates how the realism gap has reduced. As noted by Robin Bairner on

“There are as many as 21 dribbling tricks unique to 5-star skillers in FIFA 20, including the sombrero flick, the triple elastic, the advanced rainbow and the tornado spin left and right. These are the most spectacular dribbling moves in the game and are capable of bamboozling any opponent, so are worthwhile honing if you favour a side that has a high technical level. Meanwhile, there are also 11 5-star juggling tricks, including the in air elastic, flick up for volley and the drag back sombrero – a new trick added to the game.”[4]

What a player cannot do however is create their own tricks and this is arguably a key feature of ideal sport: the moments of genius whereby athletes enable a paradigm shift in how the sport is played (Lacerda and Mumford, 2010), e.g. Cruft turn, Fosbury flop, Mullen kick-flip, Schuschunova straddle to front support. Games players are only able to complete pre-programmed actions and whilst there may be scope for originality in game-playing through identifying programming glitches (Hemmingson, 2020), this does not allow the in-game character themselves to create new, sports specific bodily-realistic movements. Nevertheless, there is still potential for creativity and originality in the way in which the game is played. For example, the winner of the 2020 Madden championship, (aptly named) Joke, produced a controversial but highly original strategy for winning by putting a punter at quarterback, thus leveraging more player points for dominating the defence and run options[5]. He won the championship without making a single pass. Although this strategy was highly unusual and has not (so far) been attempted in the ‘real life’ version of the game, Joke was praised by EA Sports:

“For years Joke has been an innovator in Madden’s competitive formats, constantly pushing for every advantage. There is a reason he has been a constant presence in Madden’s majors. Other players in the event tried forms of that strategy and couldn’t pull it off.”[6]

However, the comprehensiveness of sports simulations, along with advances in artificial intelligences could spark originality and genius in the games themselves. In game characters could be enabled to develop original movements within the confines of physical laws. Artificial intelligence is able to produce original artworks, poetry, music, and dance choreography so it does not seem unreasonable to suggest it could create novel sporting movements.[7] After all, the rules of sport provide the boundaries but not necessarily the means. If the ‘rule’ is to navigate the ball with control past the body of an opposing player without using the arms, then there are undoubtedly methods of doing this that have so far been ignored or considered beyond the boundaries of human capability. But as shown by the fact that every year new and previously considered impossible sporting skills, are successfully completed, originality and creativity in sport continues. In a virtual world where no-one gets injured or is plagued by self-doubt or fear, the possibilities for original sporting skills and manoeuvres may be all the more likely.

This last point relates to a further concept of ideal sport in the reduction of risk and harm to those participating. Brain injury caused through sport is an increasing and high level concern, particularly in contact sports such as boxing, rugby, American football, and association football. In virtual sport, whilst injuries may be simulated for in-game characters, no actual harm comes to the real human players outside them. Consider for example, the virtual simulations of cycling or motor racing. Spectacular crashes may occur in virtual races but the cyclist pedalling on her static bike or sitting within the cockpit of the simulated car will not bear a scratch. In this then, we may wish to argue that the simulated versions are morally better since they reduce the risk of harm to those that participate in them.[8] For the sporting spectator however, we can have our cake and eat it. We can witness and revel in dramatic crashes, one punch knock-outs or brutal tackles safe in the knowledge that no-one has really been hurt in the process.

Ultimately then, the gap between real harm and virtual harm may also extend to the harm produced through unsporting conduct or cheating. Since the virtual game characters (and the background programme itself) are devoid of feeling emotion, they do not try to intimidate or challenge the referees or officials into changing their decisions. Similarly, they do not try to deceive officials into the fact they have been tackled illegally in the penalty area or in using prohibited equipment. That is of course, not to say that human players of these virtual sports do not cheat, since there have been high profile examples of cheating, such as Cameron Jeffers who was fined and banned by British Cycling from competition after using illegal equipment in a Zwift esport cycle race[9] and Daniel Apt who used an imposter to drive for him in a virtual F1 race[10], however, the in-game characters themselves have no motivation to cheat since they are not subject to the same human fallibilities and motivations. Equally, whilst game programming can be hacked, in the most part, the programme limits the type of rule breaking that can occur and limits the likelihood of players deceiving in game officials into making the wrong call. For the purist sports fan then, this lack of cheating and motivation to cheat may make the experience of watching virtual sports better since it will focus on the demonstration of excellent sporting skills rather than be spoiled by the negative aspects of human character.

Finally, let’s consider the future of the spectating experience for the sports fan. Purists and partisans alike may argue that the richest experience takes place by being in the sports ground itself; by feeling the mass of bodies drawing breath and exhaling together, cheering and jeering at scores and misses, the ground beneath your feet juddering as the benches you are sitting on shakes with anticipation of the starting whistle. Watching a replication of the sporting environment on screen is anaemic as a result. Yet the development of virtual reality suggests this may be able to replicate the experience of being live at a sports event, including experiences that you could only get if you were exclusively rich or were part of the team itself. Virtual reality for the sporting spectator could mean a seat on the front row, or the team’s bench, or even as an official or player themselves. The sporting spectator could watch the game through the eyes of someone else with a particular vantage point: sports could be watched from any perspective imaginable.

The possibilities of virtual sport becoming a viable substitute for the real thing may not therefore be as far fetched as one may initially suppose. When we ask ourselves, what do we want as spectators of sport, we come back to those sporting ideals which include beauty, excellence, originality, drama and a richness of experience, all of which may be replicated (if not now, but soon) in virtual mediums.






Cardy, S. (2020) Madden Championship Won Without Playing a Quarterback or Throwing a Pass. IGN. 26 May 2020. Available at: [Accessed August 2020]

Gumbrecht, H. U. (2006). In praise of athletic beauty. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hemmingsen, M. (2020). Code is law: subversion and collective knowledge in the ethos of video game speedrunning. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 1-26, 1–26.

Kreft, L. (2012). Sport as a drama. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 39(2), 219–234.

Lacerda, T., & Mumford, S. (2010). The genius in art and in sport: a contribution to the investigation of aesthetics of sport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37(2), 182–193.

Mumford, S. (2012). Watching sport: aesthetics, ethics and emotion. London: Routledge.

Roberts, T. (1975) Sport and the sense of beauty. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. 2(1): 91-101. DOI: 10.1080/00948705.1975.10654101


[2] However, there are some very good analyses of in-game player movement that suggest that the realistic appearances are superficial, see RyanMoody21’s ‘Madden21 gameplay – this looks awful’:



[5] As in the NFL and other franchise sports, there is the equivalent of a ‘salary cap’ which means teams have to be strategic about where they use their strengths. Most teams will go for a highly rated quarterback but this limits the amount left to use on other players: by omitting a quarterback this left Joke the room to enhance the rest of this team.

[6] Cardy, S. (2020) Madden Championship Won Without Playing a Quarterback or Throwing a Pass. IGN. 26 May 2020. Available at: [Accessed August 2020]


[8] A counter-argument may be that playing virtual sports for long periods of time stores up the potential for chronic health conditions, since there is little physical activity taking place and even less time spent outside in the fresh air and with nature.



Comment to World Rugby Trans Athlete Panel

World rugby recently conducted an expert panel into the participation of trans athletes – particularly male to female athletes – in rugby. This comprised of medical, legal and ethical expert opinion on the topic as well as contributions by those affected, notably players and others involved in rugby. I was disappointed not to have been asked to provide the expert philosophical opinion as I felt that I was able to offer a unique perspective in understanding the game as a player and coach as well as having a day job of philosopher of sport. But I think the omission was one ignorance rather than deliberate slight. Nevertheless, the convenor, Ross Tucker, asked if I would provide a written contribution which I give below:

Dear Ross,

Thanks for asking me to email your thoughts to pass on to the World Rugby consultation. Just to give you a little background on myself. I am currently a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and have a background in both philosophy and sport. I played rugby for over 15 years at various levels including national representation, and was part of national league and cup winning teams in both the 15s and 7s form of the game. Similarly I have coached women, again at various levels in both the 15s and 7s form for over 20 years. Overall, I have been involved in women’s rugby since 1995 and would consider I have very good knowledge and understanding of the game as both as a player and as a coach, but also from the perspective of an academic specialising in the philosophy and ethics of sport. I have published several books and many peer-reviewed articles in the philosophy of sport, am a former Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and am currently Associate Editor for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

On the issue of trans athletes in rugby, I have the following comments to make. First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is vital to recognise that any policy decisions affects the lives of real individuals, and with both populations (trans individuals and women) suffering from endemic societal discrimination, any policy recommendations need to be sensitive to this. My second comment is related to the concept of sex. I’m not convinced by the argument that sex is non biological but nevertheless the notions of biologically male and biologically female presuppose that there is a definitive and categorical means for determining this. However, as sports authorities have discovered over the years, sexual anatomy, chromosomal makeup, genetic markers and testosterone, etc. may not perfectly align for 100% of the population. And using proxies such as testosterone again presupposes that a) this is a reasonable substitute for sex, and b) it is a determinant of fair competition.

In relation to the specifics of rugby, it is worth bearing in mind the history and development of the women’s game. Women’s rugby was always marginalised and often (unreasonably) viewed as the epitome of the sport for ‘butch lesbians’. For a woman, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (and perhaps even today) to play rugby was to attract a fair degree of scorn and ridicule. Fortunately this is now changing. Nevertheless, rugby was a ‘safe’ environment for many women who didn’t always feel welcome in other sports or in other aspects of society. In particular, it allowed large, strong and powerful women to succeed at sport due to the attributes it tested. This is really important to remember if there is any suggestion that size and body mass is a relevant factor to determine physically safe sport for women. On a personal level, I have played with and against many women who have been much taller than me (I am 5’4”) and larger than me (in my playing days I was about 10.5 stone) and with a very ‘masculine’ appearance. But that was accepted because women’s rugby has always been a sport that is inclusive and accepting of all women’s bodies – again, due to the fact that it was a marginalised sport that many men believed was not appropriate for women to play. Facing someone who was significantly larger in stature and size is an accepted risk of rugby, and primarily requires good coaching techniques to ensure players can manage contact effectively. Any proposal to limit the size of players would radically alter the game at all levels and for all sexes. (And although there does seem to be a more recent deviation to a norm with male players since professionalisation, one only has to remember the difference in size and stature between players such as Jonah Lomu and Rory Underwood at the 1995 men’s World Cup to illustrate the acceptance of size difference in rugby.)

As such, it is important to be sensitive to the history of women’s rugby and not to produce policy that may vilify the very players that rugby has always attracted and accepted. Whilst male to female trans athletes may have a significant advantage in both physique and physiology it is not clear that this will be outside the total range of all women players. I would encourage World Rugby to commission some research that considered the upper quartile of women players in terms of physique over the last 30 years (though unfortunately I doubt this data would be available) and then compare this to male to female trans players. My intuition (from experience) is that male to female trans athletes would not be outside these limits even though they may be at the top of these limits. As such, an argument based on excluding trans athletes on grounds of size and player safety seems wholly unreasonable and unsupported by evidence, other than anecdote. Players are injured by other players for a variety of reasons: poor tackling technique, poor body management, poor officiating, poor luck and illegal aggressive behaviour (I have a list of personal injuries from all of these). Considering the prejudice that trans athletes face in their wider lives, to give the impression that they are some kind of ‘monster’ who is likely to leave a pitch full of broken players behind them, just plays into the prejudice they already face.

Any policy change needs to consider the effect that it would have on current and future female-born players and current and future male-born players who have transitioned to female. From my perspective, the primary factors needed to be considered are the history of women’s rugby, its inclusivity and the type of players that it has always attracted, and to ensure that World Rugby does not seek to maintain or promote the narrative around trans-athletes being abhorrent and unwelcome in sport. Whilst the safety of players should be a key consideration, and rugby is a fairly high risk sport due to its contact element, it is far better to ensure that there is appropriate medical support (something that many clubs still do not have) and to ensure that all players receive quality coaching. My view is that this is where there needs to be significant investment in the women’s game. Not to vilify trans athletes who are likely to have suffered significant prejudice in their wider lives.

I realise that emotions run high in this area, primarily because women’s sport has always faced a tough struggle to be accepted and funded. I recognise the fears that some women have who may feel threatened at what they see as the prospect of ‘cheating men entering and ruining our sport’. And I do share concerns about the numbers of children and young adults who show signs of body dysmorphia and who wish to change sex as a result. Not withstanding this, I think that a much more pragmatic and sensitive approach can be taken in respect to rugby. Policy should ensure that individuals cannot ‘game the system’ in being able to identify as one sex on one day and another sex on another day. As such, it seems reasonable to specify a period of time that an individual must have lived their life as their non birth-assigned sex before they are allowed to participate in rugby. However, any policy that seeks to use testosterone or body mass or any other sex marker to prevent individuals participating in rugby is not reasonable and justified. Rugby should remain as inclusive as possible at the same time as it accepts and mitigates the risk as a contact sport.

I hope you are able to present this to the panel. As I said, I would have like to have been able to participate in person but recognise that other appointments and invitations have been made. Please do contact me if you have any questions or require more detail.



Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!


Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions

I’m just in the process of going through the proofs of my new book which should be out in the next few months. Each chapter is based on a question in the philosophy of sport and contains sub-questions and independent study questions, plus there are chapters of questions addressed to some key figures in the area. So lots of questions… and a few answers! The book is published by Bloomsbury and should be out in late Spring.

Here’s the chapter list:


  1. What is the philosophy of sport?

Interview with Warren Fraleigh

Defining sport

  1. What is sport?
  2. Can cheaters ever win?

Interview with Jim Parry

Sport, knowledge and truth

  1. Are there different types of sporting knowledge?
  2. How can philosophy underpin research in sport?
  3. Is the referee always right?
  4. How much is too much technology in sport?

Interview with R. Scott Kretchmar

Interview with Mike McNamee

Sport, body and mind

  1. Is the body just another sporting tool?
  2. Is sporting success ‘mind over matter’?
  3. Is it right to separate sport according to sex?
  4. Does sport discriminate against transsexual and transgender athletes?
  5. Is elite disability sport an oxymoron?

Interview with Pam Sailors

Interview with Takayuki Hata

Sport and the good life

  1. What is the value of sport?
  2. Is utopia a world full of games?
  3. What is the value of dangerous sport?
  4. Are Olympic values worth aspiring to?

Interview with Randolf Feezell

Interview with Heather Reid

Sport, art and aesthetics

  1. Is sport art?
  2. Does beauty matter in sport?
  3. Is it better to be a purist or partisan when watching sport?

Interview with Stephen Mumford

Interview with Graham McFee

Ethical questions in sport

  1. What is fair play in sport?
  2. Is sport a moral educator?
  3. Is competition morally acceptable?
  4. Is gamesmanship just another skill in sport?
  5. What is wrong with doping in sport?
  6. Do elite athletes deserve hero status?
  7. Is it wrong to be patriotic in sport?
  8. Can you respect someone you’re trying to beat?
  9. Can violent sports be ethical?
  10. Should sport be used as a political tool?
  11. Does commercialism ruin sport?

Interview with Sigmund Loland

Interview with Angela Schneider


Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.



Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.