Shawn E. Klein
Arizona State University
There are some excellent chapters in this new anthology on sport and the pandemic, but my overall assessment of the volume is mixed. There are some issues with it that prevent me from recommending this work without qualification.
In general, the book seems rushed. I don’t mean that it was sloppily copyedited or anything like that, I mean that some of the chapters would have been better with more time and hindsight between the heights of the pandemic and publication. Most of the essays, as far as I can tell, where written in early to mid-2021. On one hand, it is good to have this perspective on sport and the COVID pandemic written while things were still relatively hot. It offers a time capsule into the thinking about the pandemic during the pandemic. This is particularly true for the first set of chapters focused on the decisions to return to play. These provide a useful window into the contemporaneous thinking about the ethics of returning to play. So, even if from the point of view of hindsight, one might think it is obvious that return to play was mostly unproblematic, it is important to see that at the time it was a much more contentious issue.
On the other hand, though, it makes the chapters and the book feel somewhat out of date. For example, there are several different chapters that in various ways make assertions that the pandemic has changed sport in some fundamental way and that it will never go back to pre-pandemic ways of operating. Writing now in the early days of 2023, these claims written with such certainty at the time strike me as certainly false. Drop a fan or participant from 2018 into sport in 2023 and I am not sure they would notice much of a difference. That’s not to say there aren’t any far-reaching consequences to the stoppage of play or other longer-term pandemic effects, but the fundamental nature of sport, the relationship between the sport and its fans and the media, and the way athletes engage in it, does not seem to have changed in any deep sense.
For example, there are several different chapters that in various ways make assertions that the pandemic has changed sport in some fundamental way and that it will never go back to pre-pandemic ways of operating.
Any work dealing with an ongoing issue will have problems like this, however, and I don’t think it is a failing of the book that it contains this kind of presentism. That said, the authors and editors might have done more to temper their predications.
I have three more substantive concerns: repetitiveness of some of the chapters, lack of fit for a philosophical work, and superficial relationship to the pandemic.
The first half of the book focuses on the moral questions about the return to play. The editors had what I think was a good idea: focus on different levels of sport (professional, college, high school) and different kinds of sport (football, soccer, tennis, nature sports). Each of those pose different problems and questions about return to play. However, the chapters ended up being too repetitious, covering similar ground in similar ways. On their own, several of these chapters are quite good. In particular, Nicholas Dixon, Andrew Fiala, Chad Carlson, and Dennis Hemphill each penned chapters that thoughtfully examine the complexity of making nuanced decisions about the difficult question of canceling and then returning to play. They acknowledge the challenges of the trade-offs of the different values and ends that had to happen in making these decisions with limited and imperfect information. They bring to bear conceptual frameworks and philosophical tools of analysis to guide the analysis. But while each has its own flavor or emphasis, these chapters all kind of end up in the same place.
Lack of Fit
There are also several chapters that don’t fit well in the volume. In some cases, this is a matter of tone. Alex Wolf-Root’s chapter tends too much towards the polemical for my taste. In a few others, they are not sufficiently philosophical. Latoya T. Brackett and Conrad Webster’s contribution is really a sociological take and Ron Welters’ essay is more of a literary analysis. Without commenting on the quality of these contributions, they just didn’t fit well with the rest of a volume focused on philosophical issues using philosophical methods of inquiry.
Superficial Relationship to Pandemic
The second half of the book focuses on “Sport today and tomorrow” and seeks to examine how COVID impacted sport more generally at the height of the pandemic and how the pandemic might impact sport in the future. Some of these chapters are thought-provoking, looking at important developments in sport due to the pandemic. For example, Emily Ryall and Andrew Edgar’s chapter on watching sport explores the value of watching live sport and how the growth of esport might have accelerated during the pandemic due to the stoppage of live sport.
But many of the chapters in this section have too superficial a connection to the pandemic. These chapters read like they could have been written for any collection on sports ethics with a few additions relating it to the pandemic. For example, Paul Davis and Charlene Weaving’s chapter is an interesting analysis of how different traditions of feminism deal with sport but the connection to the pandemic is, in my view, somewhat tenuous. S.P. Morris and Gabriela Tymowski-Gionet provide a concise overview of animal ethics, but again, the chapter seems only superficially related to COVID and the pandemic.
Ending on Positive Note
The last chapter in the book is Tim L. Elcombe and Douglas Hochstetler’s “Rethinking sport ethics in a complex post-pandemic world.” This chapter exemplified the best of this volume. It provides a fresh analysis of an essential issue in philosophy of sport: that is, how should we think about sport? Elcombe and Hochstetler take on the dominant theoretical approach: internalism. They argue that the pandemic demonstrates that these traditional views have difficulty dealing with the actuality of sport. In the real world, sport needs to be much more adaptable and flexible to the conditions and circumstances of how things actually play out in real time. The pandemic made clear that sport is too complex, too uncertain, and too imperfect to fit neatly into the models that internalism seems to depend on or posit for analysis. They propose instead an appeal to pragmatism and its notion of “meliorism.” This approach focuses on making things better in a world that is imperfect, incomplete, and uncertain. While personally I am not as sanguine about pragmatism as a conceptual framework as Elcombe and Hochstetler are, I think their analysis was rich, original, and added to my understanding of philosophy of the sport. Fry and Edgar’s volume, at its best, does this. Unfortunately, in my estimate, it didn’t do this consistently or do it enough for me to recommend, without qualification, the volume.
Copyright © Shawn E. Klein 2023
Table of Content
Part I: To Play or Not to Play…
Part II: Sport Today and Tomorrow