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Diego Maradona of Argentina scoring his ‘hand of God’ goal past Peter Shilton of England in the World Cup quarter-finals, Mexico City, June 1986

In the 1960s, when I was studying philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, we had a regular visiting professor from Yale: an energetic little man who was warm to students. There wasn’t a subject in philosophy on which he hadn’t written a tome. He was a metaphysician; Reality—capitalized—was his thing.

In 1969, a book came out called Sport: A Philosophical Inquiry. The author was Paul Weiss, our metaphysician from Yale. It was savagely torn apart by the logician and philosopher Joseph Ullian, who called it “tedious, pompous, ill-written” and summed it up as “an unbelievably tiring array of little tidbits of bad analysis.” I had never seen such a scathing review before and probably haven’t since. I liked Weiss, so I decided to read the book and form my own judgment. It immediately became clear that Ullian had a point. This was the kind of book that gives philosophy a bad name: it was pretentious and ponderous and, more disturbingly, had no eye for reality with a small r.

I am a sports junkie. I watch more than my fair share of soccer and basketball, and thank God for that. As for philosophy, that is what I do for a living, and thank God for that, too. But I am not sure that I would thank God for a philosophy of sport, any more than I would for a philosophy of changing diapers.

David Papineau is a successful philosopher and a sports enthusiast. His book Knowing the Score is frightfully well informed, full of sparkling observations, and peppered with intelligent suggestions for improving the rules and practices of various games. It is a good book partly because it is not strictly a philosophy of sport. One can easily ignore its scattered philosophical remarks and still find it informative and readable.

“Great athletes are mentally as well as physically exceptional” is Papineau’s opening line. As Yogi Berra said: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” The actual mental maneuvers required here, however, remain maddeningly obscure. As anyone who listens to sports commentators knows, more often than not words like “determined” or “confident” are used to describe in mental terms the events unfolding rather than to actually give a sense of what might be going on in a player’s mind. An example: at one point during a soccer game between Manchester United and another English team, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Manchester’s Armenian midfielder, tried to pass the ball, but the pass was intercepted by a defender. Then came the explanation: Mkhitaryan is “not focused today.” About five minutes later, he curved the ball and struck the corner of the far post. Mkhitaryan was now deemed “very sharp,” focused, and determined.

“Loss of confidence” is another favorite phrase among sportscasters. A streak of bad shots in the first quarter by the basketball player Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is attributed to a loss of confidence, whereas an exceptionally good second quarter is explained as Curry “regaining” his confidence. With no independent account of Curry’s confidence level apart from the number of points he scored, “confidence” becomes merely a synonym for a scoring streak. We are left craving accounts that more fully explain what happens in the minds of professional athletes.

Papineau’s favorite example of mental strength is the sixteen-year-old tennis player Monica Seles beating Steffi Graf in the French Open in 1990 after a stinging loss to her the previous year. In an interview after her victory, Seles said: “As a fifteen-year-old, I couldn’t beat her mentally…. But today in the final, my strategy was to just play as well as I could…and not be afraid of her.” Papineau is convinced that Seles’s “mental steadfastness” explained her win. I don’t doubt that mental strength had something to do with her victory, but whose strategy isn’t to play as well as she can? What athlete’s strategy doesn’t include some variation on not fearing one’s opponent? Papineau rightly quotes Mike Tyson’s words of wisdom: “Everybody has a plan, till they get punched in the mouth.” Reality, in other words, has a tendency to make a mockery out of strategy. At fifteen, Seles was “punched in the mouth”; at sixteen she was not. Mental strength does little to explain this.

In addition to his discussions of concentration and confidence, Papineau deals with “choking” and “the yips”: “‘Choking’ refers to a deterioration in an athlete’s performance in the face of competitive pressure.” In many cases this happens on the verge of victory, when the choker becomes “distracted by the importance of the contest.” “‘The yips’ are the result of an excessive self-consciousness about technique,” whereby “concern about your movements becomes compulsive and constantly undermines your skill.” They afflict highly proficient athletes, usually without any warning, and only during movements initiated by the players themselves, like a serve or a pitch, when one is in greatest danger of overthinking one’s technique. The left-handed cricketer Keith Medlycott, who made it to the English squad in 1989, had to retire from the game at the age of twenty-six when he started failing to release the ball while bowling. (The yips, by the way, affect left-handed spinners considerably more than right-handed ones.)


But here too, Papineau indulges in an analysis of athletic mental states that simply rephrases the importance of “positive thinking”: “Athletes need to Have Their Mind Right when competing. They must focus on their intended plans, and clear their minds of everything else.” Yes, but how? Years ago, the political theorist Jon Elster noticed an important phenomenon he dubbed “essential by-products.” It does no good to order a dancer to be “spontaneous” or “natural” because there is no intelligent way to do this in response to a direct demand. Sport is full of essential by-products: concentration, focus, confidence, the right mindset. Instructions to achieve these things do not amount to a strategy.

Papineau devotes a fascinating chapter to the question of how we should react to professional fouls—instances when players deliberately break the rules—that are not spotted by the officials. First there is a conceptual problem: Does a professional foul mean that the player is not playing the game properly, or at all? Then there is a moral problem: How should we morally assess a transgression that escapes the notice of the referee?

Papineau’s prime example is the soccer player Thierry Henry’s deliberate handball that went unnoticed by the referees and allowed France to advance to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of Ireland. There is, of course, a much more celebrated example: Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” incident, in which the Argentinian scored a crucial goal against England in the 1986 World Cup by committing a blatant handball, which the referee failed to spot. When Maradona was asked after the game how he had scored the goal, he memorably retorted: “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”

A plaque, erected in 1895 at Rugby School in England, bears the inscription: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game. A.D. 1823.” This story is too good not to be true. A disregard of the rules in this case led to the invention of a new game. Maradona’s and Henry’s fouls, on the other hand, were not fine examples of disregarding the rules. They were cases of successful cheating.

Philosophers distinguish between two types of rules: regulative and constitutive. A recipe for a chocolate cake is a set of instructions for baking one. Such instructions are regulative. But the rules of soccer, for example, define and constitute the game. The prohibition against deliberately using one’s hand, for instance, is a constitutive rule. Flouting the rules may mean that the players are not actually playing soccer, whatever else they may be doing. So the question becomes: By using their hands, were Maradona and Henry still playing soccer?

Papineau’s suggestion, though phrased differently, is that the game is defined by implementation of the constitutive rules as recognized by the officials. If they authorized Maradona’s and Henry’s goals, then the goals were legitimate. One hopes that in the future electronic measures will put an end to the intervention of “invisible hands,” but at the moment video replays are better for spotting players disobeying the offside rule than they are for spotting handballs.

Papineau attempts to draw a political lesson from professional fouls that go unnoticed by officials—an answer to the fundamental question of politics: Do we have any moral obligation to respect the laws of the state? His suggestion is that we are not obliged to obey the laws of the state as such but only the authority of officials, much the way we do in sports. I hope that this is for him a belief weakly held. After all, we don’t want to be guided by the maxim that if you can get away with murder, you should go for it.

On the whole, however, I find Papineau’s breezy attitude toward moralism in professional sports quite refreshing. He views remnants from periods when the chivalry of amateurs guided professional sports with a degree of suspicion. In cricket, for example, sportsmen were not just expected to play according to the rules of the game but also to behave in the spirit of “fair play.” Violating this spirit is, or at least used to be, harshly condemned. Papineau details an infamous play in the 1981 One Day International cricket match between Australia and New Zealand, in which the Australian bowler rolled the ball underarm to prevent the Kiwis from hitting it in the air and getting the six runs they needed to win. After the match, the prime minister of New Zealand called it “the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket.” The spirit of the game tells us that such underarm rolling may not break the rules, but it still stinks.


In another chapter, Papineau addresses what he calls “the logic of fandom.” This is a particularly valuable discussion even if the expression may strike us as oxymoronic. After I stopped being an athlete—a triple jumper—a long time ago, I became a dedicated supporter of the North London soccer club that Papineau sees as a paradigmatic example of fandom: Tottenham Hotspur (aka the Spurs), which has a long-standing and intense rivalry with another North London club, Arsenal (aka the Gunners).

Supporters of both clubs, he writes, “think that what they desire is really worthwhile, namely the Gunners thrashing Spurs, or vice versa, as the case may be.” In my family, it’s vice versa. My children, my grandchildren, and I badly want Spurs to thrash the Gunners, though we don’t always join in the Spurs’ battle cry: “If you hate Arsenal stand up.” After all, we come from the Middle East, where hatred is a precious commodity, not to be too easily wasted. Even as a Spurs fan, I confess that one of the best accounts of fandom I’ve read was written by an avid Arsenal supporter, Nick Hornby, in his glorious Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life (1992). Hornby managed to capture like no one else the misery and petty obsessions that go along with being a fan, especially when you are on the losing side. Fandom is a source of constant anguish broken by short spells of relief following a victory.

Papineau is less interested in describing what it is like to be a sports fan than he is in justifying a fan’s belief that a victory for his side is important and valuable. There is nothing objectively valuable about the Spurs beating Arsenal, to be sure. Papineau reasons that “to appreciate the logic of fandom we have to accept that the worth of some things is irreducibly parochial.” He assumes that the things we care about are, by the very fact of our caring about them, both important and valuable. But it seems very possible for me to coherently and reasonably care greatly about the Spurs winning even without attaching any importance to the victory (“It’s only a game”). Papineau disagrees. And he has the fabled manager of Liverpool, Bill Shankly, on his side: “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.”

Shankly’s saying rings like a Yogi Berra adage, leaving the listener to wonder whether it is stupid or brilliant, or both. But Papineau elsewhere suggests another way of explaining the value of sports, aside from the very fact that we care about them:

The real worth of sport, I say, lies in the pure exercise of physical abilities. Pride in physical performance is a deep-seated feature of human nature. Humans hone their physical abilities and take delight in exercising them. Perhaps this originally had its roots in the practical needs of hunting, fishing, and fighting, but we have come to value physical performance as an end in itself. We devote long hours to improving our physical skills, and seek out opportunities to test them.

The “we” of the author seems to encompass only the players, and not the vastly greater number of spectators. If so, then the question remains: Why do spectators find sports valuable? The answer, I suspect, is that they, too, are delighted in the physical performance of the players.

Papineau’s account of the value of sports provokes yet another question: Why wouldn’t ballet be a sport? After all, one can hardly find more perfection in a physical performance than in the dancing of Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova. Papineau’s answer: “The physical skills of the dancers are only a small part of what the fans find to admire in the dance.” I’m not so sure. Nijinsky was once asked if it was difficult to stay in the air after jumping. No, he famously replied. “You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.” Michael Jordan could have said the same. Nijinsky’s jumps in the air were a significant part of what spectators admired about his performance.

Simon Critchley is another philosopher who is also a sports enthusiast. In What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, he has written a slim book with a misleading title. It is not at all clear who the “we” is supposed to include, since no one else thinks quite like him. Critchley tells us that his aim is to describe “a poetics of football”—namely, the lived experience of a soccer spectator from a first-person point of view. This description gives him license to free-associate and wax lyrical about the game.

The book is illustrated with superb black-and-white photos assembled by Mark Ellingham. Some incongruities between the written text and the photos—purposeful incongruities, one assumes—are jarring. The opening chapter, for example, is called “Socialism” and explores Critchley’s declaration that socialism is “the proper political form of football.” And yet one of the photos included in this section is not a sea of flat caps, cigarettes behind ears, and chips with vinegar in hand. It is of Sepp Blatter, the notoriously corrupt, disgraced former president of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. During Blatter’s years as head of FIFA, working-class people were priced out of attending matches altogether. To his credit, Critchley is quite aware of this incongruity between the sense of community that unites players and fans and the dirty money that floods the game.

If the photos are perfect, the book is not. It is peppered with pronouncements that call to mind what Joseph Ullian hated about the work of Paul Weiss. For example:

Football needs a poetics to save it and us from oblivion. It requires a phenomenology where, for a few moments, and in those moments of moments, we are free to subsume ourselves in the twisting elaborations of fate—and perhaps the free submission to fate is the only real experience of liberty that is possible for us.

We are also lavishly served with what Vladimir Nabokov once called “cocktails of Schlegel and Hegel (with a dash of Feuerbach).” In Critchley’s case the menu includes a cocktail of Heidegger’s “within-time-ness” mixed together with “Klopp-time,” named after Jürgen Klopp, the justly celebrated German football manager (currently with Liverpool). There is even a single-malt Hegel: “As Hegel might have said, if he’d had the good fortune to think about football, the being of the players is not being-in-itself, but being-for-us, mediated through the spectators and requiring their recognition in order to affirm the players’ existence.” These, and many more sentences in the book, too often read like some kind of French philosophy in a bad translation.

Critchley nonetheless evokes all the right sentiments about soccer and politics. In a chapter entitled “Disgust,” he worries that he might love the game too much given its nasty aspects, which “can license the most egregious forms of tribalism at the level of club and the ugliest nationalism at the level of country.” He tries to delve deeper into the ugly side of soccer by claiming:

Football is a vehicle for the most outmoded colonial assumptions about the relation between the properly patriotic natives and the manifestly inferior and untrustworthy foreigners, between us and them, and we are always better than them.

That last claim, like others of its kind in the book, is vaguely true but seems to be about nothing in particular. It conveys the right mood without adding to our understanding.

The issue of tribalism in sports is certainly worth discussing, and Papineau is helpful in this regard. In 1990, Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher’s most trusted ally in the British cabinet, offered a sporting criterion for patriotism. “According to the ‘Tebbit test,’” Papineau writes, “Britons with an Indian background, say, aren’t properly loyal unless they support the English team when it plays cricket against India.” Another test, directed at players of immigrant descent, checks to see whether they join in the singing of the national anthem while playing for the national squad. Both tests are meant to be a trap for supposedly ungrateful immigrants and their children.

Philosophers have long argued over what distinguishes humans from all other animals. Rationality is one answer. Another answer is that man is, uniquely, a maker of tools, Homo faber. Still another philosopher held that man is a symbol-making animal. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian of immense learning and inordinate ingenuity, insisted instead that humans are, at their core, Homo ludens: we are made distinct by our capacity to play.

Competitive sport is the epitome of play, and the fact that it is governed by strict rules makes it a uniquely human invention. Watching excellence in sports is watching humans in their fullest expression. True, competitiveness can breed parochialism, which may turn very nasty very quickly, but the spectacle of sport is a celebration of a vital aspect of our humanity. It brings out the Homo ludens in each of us.