Well written, well-argued and accessible introduction to the philosophy of sport

Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Stephen Mumford
A Philosopher Looks at Sport
142 pages, paperback
Cambridge, Cambs: Cambridge University Press 2021 (A Philosopher Looks at)
ISBN 978-1-10899-493-4

Stephen Mumford is a Professor of Metaphysics at Durham University. He is the author of numerous books, including Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion (2011), Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction (2012), and Football: The Philosophy Behind the Game (2019).

In the series ‘A Philosopher Looks at,’ philosophers offer a personal and philosophical exploration of a topic of general interest. This means that Mumford’s book is written for a broad and interested group of readers, not specifically for academic sport philosophers. Such books are very welcome. Mumford is a general philosopher but has a great interest in sports. He is well known to the sport philosophic community. He has attended sport philosophical conferences and has written articles and books about philosophical sports topics, such as those mentioned above.

In the introduction, Mumford points to the COVID-19 experience and the consequences for sport. Will sport be the same again? This also leads to a political question about what sport can and should be in the future. Against this backdrop, the book contains six chapters, identified by six keywords; physicality, competition, definition, spectacle, ethics, inclusion.

In the first chapter, “Physicality”, Mumford underlines that we are essentially bodily beings. We do not accidentally have bodies, as the tradition from Cartesian dualism entails, but are inherently linked to our bodies. Furthermore, we enjoy being bodily active.  In sports we get opportunities to develop our skills in a safe and controlled environment. The exercising of various bodily skills is thus enjoyable in itself and linked to our identity as human beings. This physical exercise also involves thinking and monitoring of what we are doing.

In the second chapter, “Competition”, Mumford discusses different ways human beings can compete. There is a difference between 100-meter sprint and football. In both cases one must agree upon goal and means. Competition may also include cooperation, as on a football team. Competition may seem essentially linked to sport, but is non-competition possible? Can one compete against oneself? Mumford draws on Wittgenstein’s discussion of the non-possibility of a private language and concludes that sports rules must be official and agreed upon. Sport is thus inherently competitive but is in contrast to wars and serious conflicts inconsequential. This does not mean that it is unimportant. Sport competitions inspire higher achievements and big rewards, and some athletes are willing to use unacceptable means to succeed, for instance, cheating. Even if rule-breaking, in general, is unacceptable, some forms can be compensated for by penalties, such as free kicks in football.

His fundamental notion of sport is the right to exercise one’s capabilities and flourish. Whether one leans on the deontology of Kant or the utilitarianism of Bentham, one can argue that all have the right to participate in sport.

The third chapter about “definition” starts with discussing different types of definitions. Mumford thinks that essentialism is not the solution. The various sports do not have one common core of essential characteristics that are the same across time and place. Instead, he favors a Wittgensteinian approach where the different sports are similar to each other as the members in a family but without sharing exactly the same traits. He does, however, not stop here but goes on to advocate an institutional theory based on the ontological characteristics of sporting practices. Sport is an institution in the same way as art or dance. What counts as art is decided by the art community. What can be accepted as sport is similarly decided by the sport community.

In contrast to art or dance, sports have a clear verdict on who are winners and losers. Furthermore, sport must have physical activity of some sort and a display of motor skills. With the institutional theory as background Mumford discusses activities that are on the borders of the sport institution, such as parkour. The borders here are not sharp. While games, according to Suits’ well-known theory, can be clearly defined sport cannot be clearly defined from an institutional viewpoint.

The fourth chapter, “Spectacle”, links sport to spectacle, the spectacular and spectators. Sport is attractive for spectators because it is a vicarious way to experience exercising of physical skills and capacities in a spectacular setting. One can identify with athletes even in a sport that is unfamiliar to oneself and also with athletes who one dislikes. One can furthermore identify with one’s team, the supporters, and the club. But it is also possible to enjoy performances in a detached and neutral way and focus on the aesthetic or moral qualities. Spectators are, according to Mumford, not an added or additional element to sport but were a part of sport right from the start. Sport is made to satisfy spectators. With the industrial revolution, new communication means furthered spectator sport, and with present-day media and commercialism, spectator sport has reached new heights.

In the fifth chapter, “Ethics”, Mumford states that sport is inherently imbued with values and norms. In sport people participate in a bubble with its own ethical rules. According to the institutional theory, sport is, however, influenced by society, and society is influenced by sport. There is a double dialectics sport-society-sport. Due to its bubble character, sport functions as a moral laboratory where one can test the interactions between rules and actions. A central value is fairness, since testing who is best at something is only meaningful under fair conditions. Even if fairness is central, sport allows some chance and luck factors. From a spectator viewpoint, this increases interest. Fairness and fair conditions can be secured during the competition, but not before. Some live in countries and under circumstances that make them privileged and give them advantages in international competitions. But fair conditions are not the whole story. What we call fair play is more; it is a shared and tacit understanding of the moral atmosphere of a contest. It is about respect, freedom, and autonomy for all competitors.  And it is about respect for ‘the spirit of the game.’ Mumford then discusses some ethical problems related to the consequences of sport, such as physical injury, racism, early specialization, commodification. An important part here is to protect and increase athletes’ rights.

The sixth chapter is about “inclusion”. It is undoubtedly the chapter with the highest ethical temperature. Mumford here discusses disability and gender issues. His fundamental notion of sport is the right to exercise one’s capabilities and flourish. Whether one leans on the deontology of Kant or the utilitarianism of Bentham, one can argue that all have the right to participate in sport. This means, according to Mumford, that inclusion is the default. Disability is relative to circumstances but often negatively perceived in some social contexts. The position called ‘ableism’ is often taken as the starting point, but Mumford argues for non-ableism and a focus not on what others can do but on what oneself can do. This does not prevent some disabled, for instance, Oscar Pistorius, from using technological devices that outperform abled persons.

When it comes to the gender issue, women have been treated non-favorably. They have entered the sport scene later than men, earn less money, and so on. Mumford argues that it is men that have subdued women, not nature. He holds an optimistic view of women’s capacity to increase performances up to the level of men sometime in the future. He argues that in cases like Semenya’s, inclusion must overrun fairness and that, in general, athletes that cross gender borders must have full rights to compete. Transgender women must be allowed to compete in women’s classes, even if this diminishes the chances of ‘ordinary’ women to succeed. It seems that Mumford would be most satisfied if the women and men classification system disappeared since it is a residue from a male patriarchal system. In my opinion, this would only be meaningful if women improved their performances considerably, around ten percent in most events.

In conclusion, Mumford has written an interesting book. It is well written and well-argued and has good examples and cases to illustrate key points. It is furthermore a non-technical and relatively short book. This is a good place to start for people interested in deeper aspects of sports than one finds in the media and in superficial literature. The book contains relatively few references to sport philosophical literature in the main text but has a list of referenced works at the end and a list of suggested sport philosophy books for further reading.

Personally, I liked Mumford’s take on the definition problem and his non-essentialism. I also applaud the founding of sport in the enjoyment of exercising physical capacities and skills. In the last chapter on inclusion, I think he is too optimistic about overcoming sex differences in performance. This means that sex-based classes will continue to be a good idea. Finally, I believe letting transgender women participate in women’s sports jeopardizes the fairness principle and lets ‘ordinary women’ down. Here Mumford invites to debates that will continue.

Copyright © Gunnar Breivik 2021

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