Philosophy of Sports: From a Wrestling Plato to Modern AI
By Keith Tidman
The towering ancient Greek philosophers were not immune to the allure of athletic competition. Much to the contrary. Take Socrates, for example, who once uttered, in an outpouring of unabashed sports partisanship,
“I swear it upon Zeus, an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler.”
Plato might have blushed if he had overheard Socrates, as Plato — whose name was derived from “platon,” or broad-shouldered — was himself a wrestler, who in the 5th century BCE competitively wrestled in the Isthmian Games. Such realities, along with the astonishing thousand-year history of the original Olympic Games, speak to the reverential place of sports, athleticism, and physical training in human development and enrichment those many centuries ago. So, fast forwarding, what are the purposes — from virtues to vices — of sports in today’s world? I’ll focus on two related themes: Ethical values and character building; and imitation of society and life.
Ethics is a key place to start in assessing the purposes of sports. Indeed, ancient Athens, Sparta, and Rome, as did earlier civilizations (like Egypt and China), accentuated the importance of physical activity to the development of a moral foundation and in coming to an understanding of one’s ethical duty. That is, the rigors of athletics were viewed as essential in complementing the rigors of academics and of intellectualism in order to form a better-rounded, accomplished person. Plato and Aristotle, among others, seemed to believe so: Plato having prophetically included women as moral beneficiaries of athletic activity (witness the all-female Heraean Games); and Aristotle, fervent about pentathlons, his having taught at the Lyceum (gymnasium).
In this vein of character building, Aristotle inspired a core tenet that we now take for granted in athletic (and of course academic) performance:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
As he went on to explain, “You become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, and brave by performing brave actions.” To Aristotle’s point, we associate with practice and morality in athletics innumerable behaviors, among them the following: not cheating, adhering to game rules, engaging in fair play, eschewing illegal performance-enhancing measures, accepting the role of chance, relating positively with spectators and communities, and not aiming to harm competitors. Some of these practices are long based in history, whereas others (like performance-enhancing drugs) more reflect current capabilities and cultural norms. The intent is for athletes to acquire the qualities listed above increasingly as what Aristotle referred to as “habits,” in helping to manage and steer the competition.
These behaviors also reflect the core guiding values of modern Olympics: courage, equality, determination, inspiration, friendship, respect, and excellence. Ethical values that apply not just to Olympic competition, but to sporting activities across the board, of course. As do other virtues, like resilience, collaboration, honesty, compassion, justice, and loyalty. That the challenges confronted in sports are artificially manufactured just for purposes of the contest does not diminish the meaningfulness of these virtues; these challenges count in sports as much as in the rest of life.
“Courage is the most important of all the values because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently” — Maya Angelou, American intellectual and poet
Moral behavior is enshrined in the principles of how to treat others in the contest, with the reasonable expectation of reciprocity. The situation is two-edged: Athletes’ acts in the simulated fray of competition are assessed on their own intrinsic ethical merits, apart from their consequences; and, too, they are assessed on the basis of their (beneficial or harmful) outcomes. Assessments based on outcomes represent a utilitarian, rather than solely principle-based, frame of reference. Based on this ethical model, some people may regard those sports that intend to inflict harm — such as boxing and “ultimate fighting” — as morally problematic, even though both parties in the contest freely consent. “Nothing in excess” and temperance, being among the Platonic ideals, are arguably scarce (and even absent) in such sports.
There’s similar ethical concern directed at the physicality of such sports as ice hockey, rugby, and American football — although, with irony and visions of Roman amphitheaters, many spectators regard that physicality as the sports’ core allure. Spectators, some fretting over the mundane stressors of daily life, find the physicality a welcome diversion, turning their attention to team support at the stadium. Although debilitating harm is not the prescribed intent of such intense sports, major injuries of course occur as a byproduct of highly conditioned players moving astonishingly fast and calculatingly colliding, sometimes with devastating effect (like lifelong brain injury). Competitors’ regard for values such as integrity, responsibility, and respect may, at moments of intense rivalry, be temporarily suspended, at least until the dust of competition has settled.
A second key dimension to assessing the purposes of sports is how athletic competition broadly imitates other aspects of society and life, with implications for behavior, character, and values. One way this occurs most fundamentally is as sports-cum-business: at both amateur and professional levels, there are patrons with competing interests, fueled by multibillion-dollar stakes. This dimension of athletic competition reflects the commoditizing, monetizing, and politicizing of especially professional sports in society.
As further context for sports imitating life, many societies are competitively tribal and siloed — plugged into political, social, demographic, and other classifications. Each group vies for recognition, plaudits, and some manner of gain, be it tangible (material resources) or intangible (influence, fame, and adulation). In similar fashion to society writ large, sports form tribal-like teams, seeking gain (wins, honors, stature, adulation, statistical performance measures) and engaging in rituals: visceral game-time chants and scripted celebrations of scoring, among them. Teams coalesce around players, who share characteristics (for example, particular talents); complement one another, even in their diversity (for example, across racial, ethnic, and national categories); overcome obstacles before them; and pursue typically zero-sum stakes (such as the spoils of victory, from trophies to money to rankings).
Antipathy toward the “collective other” — the competition, on the field of play and among enthusiastic spectators — is never far from the surface. A point Noam Chomsky descriptively underscored in evocatively referencing ancient Rome’s iconic competitors:
“Sports are designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.”
Yet at the same time, sports paradoxically help cross team borders, through socialization and reciprocal respect, once the clock expires and the earnestness of the contest, zealousness, and contrived “antipathies” (grudges, even) are set aside. Also, athletic competition crosses national borders as globalization has increasingly taken root. This dynamic encourages personal relationships, understanding, and camaraderie internationally while helping to lessen cultural stereotypes and racial and ethnic typecasting.
Crucial to big-picture performance is development of the objectives of individual athletes and whole teams. To achieve those objectives, competitors must cultivate, share an understanding of, and internalize complex strategies, tactics, and techniques, for almost-instantaneous reaction on the field of play. That process also entails attempting to mitigate those regulations perceived to unduly constrain performance as opposed to their shaping the sport itself. The American philosopher John Searle elaborated on the two different functions of regulations this way:
“Some rules do not merely regulate, they also create the very possibility of certain activity…. The rules are constitutive of [a sport] in the sense of playing [that sport] is constituted in part by acting in accord with the rules.”
The ancient Delphic aphorism “Know thyself” relates to athletes, as elsewhere in society. It’s incumbent on athletes to understand their capabilities, including limits — as well as how to apply this knowledge in competition. This is as much a mental activity, harnessing the mind. The power of such perceptual training — repetitively imagining game execution and results — is a critical mind-body discipline, believed to shape performance. This harnessing of imagination affects whether and when, in sports, events in the contest are really as they appear to athletes during the flow of the contest: the power of perception and its power in shaping reality. Perception (derived in the mind) and work ethic (derived from both the mind and body) compatibly supplement one another.
Athletic competition has two other aspects that parallel life and society — both diametrical yet compatible with one another. On the one hand, the notions of “contest” and, especially, “conflict” point to the not-uncommon conceptualization of athletic competition as a proxy for war. Although the metaphor has long become over-worn, it still manages to stir and rationalize spectator passion. At the same time, this bellicose aspect of athletic competition is balanced by an aesthetic aspect. The latter is reflected in the choreographed fluidity of the game — captured by some sports, like figure skating, diving, gymnastics, skiing, and dressage, more than others. This pursuit of aesthetic perfection is characteristically elusive.
Humans seem instinctively drawn not only to compete in sports and games, but also to invent new games: witness the recent novel use of artificial-intelligence algorithms — beyond the imaginations of even the great ancients — to help design and create Speedgate. It’s an increasingly popular outdoor sport internationally, described by its founders as a blend of aspects of rugby, croquet, football, and ultimate Frisbee. Team players use hands and feet to move the ball in accordance with strategies, as well as rules and regulations, ultimately to kick the ball through the “gates” to score.
The kind of algorithmic influence of modernity apart, the purposes of sports today probably haven’t deviated very far from sports’ ancient roots. Wonder; motivation; traditional virtues (like honor, resilience, fairness, heart, and loyalty); the tension between sportsmanship and competition; and spectators’ quenchless thirst — they all remain firmly grounded millennia later. As do suspense in how the next contest unfolds, the derivation of personal worth from athletic success, and sports’ remarkable fit in deeply different cultures across the globe. Sports today thus still echo the essences of Plato’s ideal of the “good” and of human excellence.