Well-written and well-argued contribution to sport philosophy

Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Aaron Harper
Sport Realism: A Law-Inspired Theory of Sport
172 pages, hardcover
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2022 (Studies in Philosopy of Sport)
ISBN 978-1-66692-008-6

In 1972 I attended the Pre-Olympic Scientific Congress arranged before Munich’s Summer Olympic Games, where the German philosopher Hans Lenk presented an overview of the most relevant examples of what could be called philosophy of sport. Most of them came from what is called the Continental philosophical tradition (phenomenology, hermeneutics, neo-Marxism, structuralism).

In the same year as the Pre-Olympic congress was held in Munich, The Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport (PSSS) was founded at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association held in Boston, Massachusetts. The first scholarly sport philosophy journal, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, appeared with its first volume in 1974. The sport philosophy that developed during the first two decades after the start in the early 1970s was dominated by American sport and its ideology and by the American academic milieu, which meant analytical philosophy focusing on conceptual and formal problems.

Today, philosophy of sport has spread to all continents and with various traditions and theories being represented. However, some of the early problems continue to attract attention. The most persistent is the effort to develop what is called a theory of sport. Aaron Harper’s recent book Sport Realism attempts to overcome deficiencies and shortcomings of earlier theories and develop a new and better solution. The goal is to define and describe the essential features of what can be called sport in such a way that all necessary and sufficient characteristics and conditions become clearly identified. A theory of sport should explain how sport functions and predict how it develops. But not all aspects of sports are in focus in so-called theories of sport. The rule system in particular is discussed, while little is said about the role of body and mind, skills and capacities, purpose and meaning.

The realists argue that the values in sport are objective in nature, while the anti-realists argue that they are based on discussion and consensus in the sporting community. A version of the latter view is William J. Morgan’s historically based conventionalism.

Most theories of sport start with Bernard Suits’ definition of sport as a physical game. That sport is a game means that it includes competition and an end-state that separates winners from losers. It must furthermore have rules defining the end-state and the means permitted to reach the end-state. It is characteristic of sport that rules introduce unnecessary obstacles which limit the most efficient in favor of more inefficient means. The easiest way to get a golf ball into a hole on a lawn is just to carry it over and drop it by hand into the hole. The rules, however, prescribe the use of inefficient clubs. In addition, sports must have a wide following and be backed by institutions, according to Suits. On the Suitsian account, rules thus have a central place.

The Suitsian account so inspired some that they argued that rules are everything. Formalism implies that sports are defined by their rules; the constitutive rules define the basic character of a sport, and the regulative rules prescribe how rule breakings should be dealt with.

The next step was to argue that rules are not all an umpire has to work with. There are unwritten rules and values that sportspersons are supposed to follow. The idea of sport includes an ethos – values, guidelines, and ideals. This became known as the interpretivist account since it focused on how rules need to be interpreted and supplemented by ethical ideals. Interpretivism has come in two versions. The realists argue that the values in sport are objective in nature, while the anti-realists argue that they are based on discussion and consensus in the sporting community. A version of the latter view is William J. Morgan’s historically based conventionalism. According to Morgan, specific sport communities develop deep conventions that influence how sport is viewed, which rules and norms apply, and how conflicts are solved.

Harper discusses these earlier theories in his book and tries to show that they are wrong or incomplete. He is closest to Morgan’s view but argues for a more central place for sports officials (judges, umpires, referees, etc.). Furthermore, he argues that we must look at how sport functions, how decisions are made, and how they most likely will be made in the future.

Harper is inspired by the law system and argues that we can learn much from how law is developed and practiced. He is influenced by the legal positivists who argued that law must be studied as it is, independent of what we might think it ought to be. In contrast, Harper argues, sport philosophers tend to make too many disputes into moral disputes. He uses cheating as an example and has a chapter in his book where he nuances the concept of cheating and comes up with his own views on the topic.

The latest complication to football refereeing – the controversial VAR. From the Polish Premier Football League, Wisla Krakow vs. Legia Warszawa, October 2017. (Shutterstock/Marcin Kadziolka)

Harper draws explicitly on the tradition called American legal realism. It implies that laws are found most clearly in the decisions made by legal officials like judges. By comparison, sport participants look to decisions made by sport officials. However, officials should be taken in a wide sense. Harper says: “Umpires and referees are obviously officials, but in practice, a sport official is anyone who resolves disputes and metes out punishments or sanctions” (p 8). This means that league commissioners, managers, and even players serve these roles. The goal of sport realism is to explain sport as it is actually played in order to provide a more accurate account of sport.

Harper argues that his theory is not limited to competitive organized sport. Sports realism has applicability to sports of all types, including amateur and informal sporting events that lack a traditional official such as a referee or umpire. He has, however, not convincingly shown how this is possible.

The outline of the book is as follows:

In chapter one Harper gives a good overview of existing theories, such as formalism, conventionalism, and interpretivism. Formalism defines sport in terms of its rules, and conventionalism in terms of its practices. None of them are satisfactory since rules and conventions cannot account for the ethos of sport, the unwritten rules and ideals that inform sport officials when they make decisions. Interpretivism comes in two versions. The realists argue that the sport ethos is based on objective values, while anti-realism argues that sport values are based on what the sporting community agrees upon.

In the second chapter, Harper critiques interpretivism based on its failure to give a satisfactory account of what sport officials should do in difficult situations. Harper presents two tricky cases, Michael Pineda’s ejection and suspension for the use of pine tar in a 2014 baseball game, and Tiger Woods’ illegal drop and mistaken scorecard without disqualification in the 2013 Masters. Neither interpretivism nor William J. Morgan’s recent version of conventionalism presents satisfactory solutions to such cases.

In the third chapter, Harper presents his own theory. He argues that a complete theory must include not only rules and values but non-legal reasons, like social consequences and pressures, which motivate and influence behavior. The goal is to have a realist theory that accounts for how sport is played and how its participants can be informed about how dilemmas will likely be adjugated in the future.

In the fourth chapter Harper tests his theory on the problem of cheating in sport. Cheating is traditionally understood as intentional rule-breaking aiming at some unfair advantage. The realist approach implies that cheating is a distinct kind of wrong that warrants sanction to restore competitive balance. However, different sports require different reactions. These can be moral or legal in nature. Cheating is not one thing.

In the fifth chapter Harper aims to show that two forms of normative analysis can support realism. The first is pragmatism, and the second American legal realism. These emerged side by side. Legal realism has long emphasized practical wisdom as a virtue of the judge. So even in Harper’s realist account, there may be a place for virtuous jurisprudence.

In conclusion Aaron Harper, who is associate professor of philosophy at West Liberty University, with his book has made a valuable contribution to sport philosophy. The book is well-written and well-argued. It gives a good overview of existing theories and presents good arguments to support his realist account. Like Morgan’s new version of conventionalism, the book shows that the wider context of sport needs to be considered when one wants to discover how decisions are made in sporting contexts. Rules and the idea of sport, its values and ideals, are not enough to give a realist picture of how sport is played.

Copyright © Gunnar Breivik 2023

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