Inside Sport: ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’

In the BBC programme ‘Inside Sport‘, Ed Smith asked, ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’ This isn’t meant as a literal question, but rather one that focuses upon the individuals participating in sport at a professional level. Smith’s argument is essentially that being a professional (where the goal of winning becomes paramount – whether that is monetary reward, medals or status) requires putting aside those things that enable individuals to get to that level in the first place; things such as: fun, self-expression, enjoyment, playfulness, flair and instinct. This, Smith argues, is a bad thing, as he concluded towards the end of the programme when he threw his lens upon Tiger Woods:

“People usually argue that the rest of his life is damaging Tiger’s golf. In fact, maybe it’s too much golf that has harmed the rest of his life.”

It think it’s this sentiment that is the most important aspect of Smith’s analysis. It’s not that the levels of performance in sport have got worse through professionalism; as records will show. Humans now run faster, kick more accurately and tackle more powerfully (in rugby for instance). But all this improvement in overall performance is at the detriment of the eudaimonia (well-being) of individual athletes and also at the expense of other aesthetic and emotional values of sport.

I’m giving a talk in October for the Gloucestershire Philosophical Society on the technologicalisation of the athlete, which is going to focus upon some of these issues. The problem, I will argue, is not to do with innovations in technology which are used to dissect and analyse performance in order to perfect techniques and movement, but rather the real problem is with our attitude towards sporting performance believing that it ought to be treated in this technological way. The upshot of this technological attitude is that we treat humans as automatons that can be controlled and manipulated in every way to achieve a specific sporting goal. We forget that the human experience and what it is to live a good life is so much more than this reductionist approach to improving sporting performance. As Ed Smith quite rightly demonstrated through his interview with former England cricketer and Strictly Come Dancing winner, Mark Ramprakash, there is more to life than this narrow view of winning in sport.

Incidentally, if you fancy coming along to my talk to discuss these ideas in more depth then details can be found here: 27 October 2010,  19:30 – 21:30, Room HC203, FCH, Uni of Gloucestershire, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ.

What if the beautiful game was performance sport?

Following a stimulating first year seminar group this morning, I’ve decided to explore one of the questions that we were discussing further:

What would be the effects if the objectively-evaluative results orientated sports became more subjectively-evaluative performance sports? 

The example we were discussing in class was that of football. The stimulus that got me thinking about this issue was the frequent use in television  soccer programmes of the ‘goal of the month’ or ‘goal of the season’ piece or competition. This seems to provide an indication of an answer to the question, ‘Is a skillfully created move that involves many players and a variety of skill that ends in a goal better than a goal mouth scramble where the ball crosses the line after ricocheting off a defending player?’ – well, ‘yes’ we seem to want to say. Yet, if the outcome is the same for both these situations (i.e. the ball crosses the goal line) then the rules determine that both situations are of equal worth, (i.e. a goal = 1 point).

This leads on to what could be an interesting thought experiment: what if a goal could be worth a variety of points depending on how it was scored? What would it mean for league positions, and moreover, what would it mean for the sport itself?

So this is my project (if I have time). I will now watch Match of the Day (a programme I rarely watch) in order to evaluate the quality of goals scored and produce a league table (of the English Premiership teams) of my own. I feel that I am reasonably qualified to do this as I’m not a particular fan of football and don’t have any affinity to any particular team. I do however, have an appreciation of footballing skill and aesthetic quality, and therefore, my judgements should be as balanced and nonpartisan as they possibly could be.

What the criteria I will use for my judgements remains to be decided. It might be that I decide there will be three or four points available, so teams will receive one point for the aforementioned goalmouth scramble, two for a reasonably produced goal, three for a well worked move or individual skill, and four for an outstanding piece of skillful and beautiful play. The scores will be collated and will be depicted in a table to be compared with the current league table.

As this is merely a thought experiment, the effects that the change of scoring criteria has on the game itself will be more speculative. My initial hypothesis is that football would develop to be an even more beautiful and skillful game as players would want to score the highest number of points for each goal. This would ultimately make the game more entertaining to watch which in the professional market economy in which the sport is currently contained would not necessarily be a bad thing.

[I have briefly thought about whether this could work for other sports but have decided to concentrate on football as it is arguably easier to judge aesthetic criteria; for instance, the different positions and skills required in a game such a rugby makes it more difficult to judge whether a try was more skillfully scored – as many front-row stalwarts would argue that a pushover try from a scrum involves as much skill as a creatively worked backs move. Additionally, players are less constrained in football than they are in other sports as to positional or territorial opportunities available, i.e. netball players have are much more limited in the space they have available to play. It might be that the scoring system does work for sports such as tennis, but it will be something that I need to give greater thought to.]