What is sport?

What is sport? The truth is that no one knows, and the challenge to define it, or at least to describe its characteristics, has engaged the attention of some of the best scholars of our time, always with beneficial results but never with answers that satisfy completely. Says Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens, a book that is sine qua non on any aspect of the subject of sport, "In our heart of hearts we know that none of our pronouncements is absolutely conclusive." Like Tennyson's flower in the crannied wall, we know that sport is, but we do not know with certainty what it is. Nevertheless, we are compelled to seek understanding of anything that so engages the interest of mankind as sport or play. In fact, play has become so important that it can no longer be left exclusively to the players. The influence of games on societies, from "the bloody Roman spectacles" to the staged demonstrations of the modern Olympiad and the Super Bowl, is simply staggering. Sport, as one observer has claimed, is the new opiate of the masses, as it has probably always been, though never so freely administered as in the modern world.

Drawing upon earlier works, Paul Weiss in Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry has grappled admirably with the problem of definitions and provided worthwhile distinctions among sport, play, and game, but does not, and indeed cannot, remove the overlap that exists in the common understanding of the terms. Since time and space do not allow me to delve into the nuances that Weiss establishes, I must, out of necessity, proceed, not on differences of opinion between him and others, but upon some common ground of agreement, with an invitation to the interested scholar to go directly to the sources himself.

"'Sport', 'athletics', 'games', and 'play'," says Weiss, "have in common the idea of being cut off from the workaday world." Here he is in agreement with Huizinga as he is with Roger Caillois who claims that play is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, and governed by both rules and make-believe. "Sport," as Weiss reminds us, "means" to disport, "that is, to divert and amuse." Hence in this study I regard sport as that aspect of culture by which men divert themselves from labor as opposed to work. This important distinction between labor and work is well made by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition in her discussion of the difference between animal laborans, laboring animal, and homo faber, man the maker or artist, which is so succinctly implied in the phrase "the work of our hands and the labor of our body." Today it is essential to realize that in professional sports, especially in professional sports, the athlete is quite often player, laborer, and artist all, one who laboriously sculpts a life of meaning out of his physical nature. Though lines between different activities frequently become blurred, I regard sport as a diversion from labor. I am considering sport as "unnecessary" action in the sense that it is not required for survival as are forms of labor, such as farming. I must also add that I regard sport as an activity that requires the expenditure of a substantial amount of physical energy, more than that needed to play a game of bridge or checkers, though these too are certainly forms of play and diversions from labor.

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