A Critical Note on Sporting Supererogation | A Summary

Steffen Borge
Nord University, Norway

Supererogation denotes the idea that a certain action may be laudable, but not mandatory or required. For example, morally supererogatory actions or efforts surpass the demands of morality, making things better or having a tendency to make things better. They are beyond the call of duty. Alfred Archer argues ‘that there is good reason to think that sporting supererogation exists’ (2017, 359).

Sporting Supererogation: The domain of sport includes acts of sporting supererogation if and only if:

      1. Sport generates requirements.
      2. It is possible to perform acts that are both permissible (according to the domain of sport) and better (according to the domain of sport) than the acts that are required by sport (2017, 362)

Archer argues that there are ‘acts that are better from the sporting point of view than what is required from the sporting point of view’ (2017, 363). Only that would give us sporting supererogation proper.

The two key cases supporting the notion of sporting supererogation are from the world of association football. There is the player-cum-referee-corrector case where Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler asked the referee to reverse a penalty decision he thought was mistaken and the player-cum-sport-suspender case, where West Ham’s Paolo Di Canio stopped play due to the opposition’s goalkeeper being injured. The betterness from the sporting point of view of this type of actions in player-cum-co-referee cases, where players in effect take on the role of co-refereeing matches, supposedly follows from them correcting game advantages received, not due to sporting abilities or skills. The latter, according to Archer, distorts sporting competitions. Unfortunately, the two key cases do not support the notion of sporting supererogation.

Archer here fails to acknowledge the chaos at times surrounding the phenomenon of voluntary suspension of play in football.

If the player-cum-referee-corrector cases become a practice, then that puts “the conscientious and able player at no small disadvantage, while the ignorant will be awarded” ([2010] 2018, 171). From the sporting point of view, such a practice is not better than actions required by sport because unfair penalization of fair-minded unbiased players also distorts sporting competitions.

One would expect that if what Fowler did is sporting supererogatory then more of the same would, from a sporting point of view, be even better. Archer and I both agree that the latter is not the case, yet only Archer still thinks that what Fowler did qualifies as sporting supererogation. This makes sporting supererogation a luxury phenomenon. Incidences like Fowler trying to correct the referee are laudable as long as they do not end up forming a practice. This is a very different phenomenon than the familiar moral supererogation phenomenon. Nothing in the latter suggests that if going beyond the call of duty became a practice, then that would in fact not be a good thing. The label ‘sporting supererogation’ should be withheld from the player-cum-referee-corrector action type.

Both of David Seaman and Robbie Fowler were surprised with the referee’s penalty decision in the Asenal–Liverpool match at Highbury stadium on March 24, 1997.

The player-cum-sport-suspender cases are beset with the same problems. Archer wants the voluntary suspension of play, as exemplified by De Canio’s action, to be recognized from the sporting point of view as better than those required by footballers in football matches, since it nullifies a game advantage received not as a consequence of sporting abilities or skills. At the same time, Archer does not want voluntary suspension of play to be a sporting practice requirement for footballers as “[s]uch a norm may be liable to abuse by goalkeepers” (2017, 367). Archer here fails to acknowledge the chaos at times surrounding the phenomenon of voluntary suspension of play in football. History has already shown us that when player-cum-sport-suspender cases become more frequent or widespread, we find ourselves in unwanted situations. Archer ends up endorsing a certain kind of action, which our recent footballing history has shown to be an action type that – when it becomes more frequent or widespread with all sorts of expectations of predictability, reciprocity, actual and possible exploitation, and so on and so forth – is not better than other actions required by the sport of football. Again, sporting supererogation looks like a luxury phenomenon and the label of ‘sporting supererogation’ should be withheld from the player-cum-sport-suspender cases.

There is a further issue with the player-cum-sport-suspender cases and the incident of Di Canio stopping play. Archer’s explanation for why this kind of action is praiseworthy from the sporting point of view concerns sport results being decided on the basis of sporting merit. Yet, the emphasis is on Di Canio’s action allowing ‘Gerrard [the injured goalkeeper] to receive treatment’, and when Archer considers why voluntary suspension of play should not be a norm, but still be seen as a good thing, the emphasis is yet again on health concerns, as Archer tells us that ‘in cases where a goalkeeper is clearly injured, there is good reason to stop play in the way that Di Canio did’ (Archer 2017, 366, 367-368, my italics). However, health concerns are not the same as sport concerns. The case of voluntary suspension of play due to a player’s injury does not connect with the sporting part of Archer’s so-called sporting supererogation, because this is not a consideration of the end result and sporting merit that warrant suspension of play, but health concerns. Moreover, health concerns could even dictate suspension of play in cases where such a stop would in fact distort the sporting competition by taking away one team’s chance to score.

Copyright © Steffen Borge 2021


Archer, Alfred. 2017. “Sporting Supererogation and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 44 (3): 359-373.
Borge, Steffen. (2010) 2018. “In Defence of Maradona’s Hand of God.” In Ethics in Sport, third edition, edited by William J. Morgan, 161-176, Champaign IL: Human Kinetics.
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