sport, philosophy, and good lives

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Rothfuss

4 september 2013       archive

In Sport, Philosophy, and Good Lives, Randolph Feezell relates sports to life's so-called "big questions," particularly whether sports can and should be part of a meaningful life. The book is broken into three sections—"Sport and Good Lives," "Sport and Ethical Guidance," and "Sport and Meaning"—and nine chapters. The road connecting sports to meaning is a long one, with several thought-provoking detours along the way.

Feezell opens by attempting to pin down a definition of sport, beginning with the idea of play. In the following chapter, he tackles the pessimistic views of sports. Feezell is particularly interested in the rhetoric of Alfie Kohn, who argues that the "my success requires your failure" equation of sport renders such activities damaging to human life. While physical injury is mentioned as a risk, these potential psychological effects are what interest Feezell most. He lingers on the idea of defeat, continuing this exploration in the next chapter.

Unlike Kohn and other sport detractors, Feezell does not believe one must avoid competitive goals altogether, but advocates "a wise adaptation strategy." What he proposes in the chapter "Losing Is Like Death" is something he calls the "multiplying desires" approach:

Multiplying desires—or simply recognizing that there are many reasons to play sports, many purposes involved, many things to want or care about—serves to undermine the supposed authority of the all-consuming desire to win and to undermine its power to disrupt our psychological well-being, moral character, and personal relationships.

Chapter 4, "The Pitfalls of Partisanship," is a particularly engaging moment in the book, in which Feezell exposes his own view of sport while imagining a dialogue between a "purist" and a "partisan." A purist is one who appreciates skilled athletes and enjoys a well-played game regardless of the outcome—Feezell categorizes himself this way. In his hypothetical conversation he finds a counterpart in Nicholas Dixon, drawing from his essay "The Ethics of Supporting Sports Teams" to supply the partisan argument. Dixon defends what he calls the "moderate partisan": one who has allegiances to a team first and foremost, though he or she may also enjoy the aspects of the game that attract purists. Throughout the engrossing dialogue, Feezell repeatedly rejects the arguments for the virtues of partisanship, particularly Dixon's claim that a love of a team is similar to that of romantic love, thereby making it virtuous. Feezell even goes as far as to "recommend" his own version of fandom, "a moderate form of the purist attitude of spectatorship."

I can't really fault that recommendation, especially in the context of Feezell's project—to situate the role of sports in a good life. Yet the sports fan in me can't help but be partisan (hopefully moderately so), as I find the attitude to be one of the more enjoyable—if not exactly morally edifying—aspects of sport. It's freeing to abandon the thoughtful, rational part of me (the professor, the conscientious citizen) for a few hours on an autumn Saturday, to imagine "my" team as the heroes, the opposition as the villains. Does that make me immoral, my life less good? I suppose that depends which side of the conversation I find more compelling.

The chapter on sport and dirty language isn't as provocative as one might wish—the arguments are predictable: cussing is unwelcome in certain circles, but can grant an "in" status in others, particularly on sports teams. One highlight, however, is when Feezell delineates the difference between "horseshit" and "bullshit": "horseshit" being a "universal term of disparagement in baseball," applying to anything from a team to a city to an unfavorable call, "bullshit" applying only to the "world of words … stories, explanations, and scouting reports." Who knew?

In "Celebrated Athletes and Role Models," Feezell employs a similar—and similarly effective—strategy as he did in the chapter on purist and partisan fans, using athletes Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as representatives of two sides of an argument. Malone illustrates the side for "exemplarism"—the view that (and I'm simplifying here) athletes can and should be role models—while Barkley represents the against. In a move that may surprise potential readers, Feezell convincingly argues for Barkley's view.

Perhaps my favorite chapter, "Coach as Sage," tackles what Feezell calls "coach books": tomes in which a coach fashions himself as not only an expert on his sport, but also life in general. It's a well-argued moment, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace's "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," putting a finger on why these books are disappointing at best and infuriating at worst: dynamic personas on the playing field expose themselves as dullards on the page, espousing platitudes and not much more. Feezell chooses as his case study Jim Tressel's book The Winners Manual, which includes banal instructions for "the journey of success," faith, and teamwork. At this point I should probably disclose that my status as a Michigan alumna and fan likely makes me more receptive to criticism of the book, given Tressel's status as former head coach of the Ohio State football team. (I did admit I was a partisan.)

Rivalries aside—and Feezell makes it clear that Tressel's book is just one example of the genre; he's not faulting him specifically—an excellent point is made here: how these coach-as-sage absolutist claims are directly at odds with the mission of a liberal arts university. He writes that as he read: "I wondered about the reactions of at least some of Tressel's players who were pursuing a broad liberal arts education and were being challenged in their classes to think about fundamental issues in ways that expose the shallowness of Tressel's blueprint for the good life." Upon finishing the Manual, he concludes, "The fact that Tressel forces his players to read his manual is an affront to higher education. Better that he uses his authority to force his players to attend university lectures, poetry readings, art exhibits, documentaries, or noncommercial films of note."

I have to admit a slight disappointment in Part Three of the book: "Sport and Meaning." As Feezell admits, he, "spend[s] considerable time engaging various attempts to provide general accounts of the meaning of life." Obviously, subjects of this nature cannot be glossed over quickly, but the aspect of sport is given short shrift in this section. (In fact, his conclusion on "Sport and Meaning" is only a page long.) I was hoping for more, in the vein of the case study in Part Two, or the dialogue of Part One.

To return to Feezell's overall project, which includes "rais[ing] new questions for both scholars and generalists" about the world of sport, I think he succeeds. As a reader, I fit the bill as a generalist, a member of the larger audience with whom he wants to engage. Since finishing the book, I've had a rousing "purist versus partisan" discussion with fellow sports fans, and have begun (just in time for college football season) to view athletics' place in the academy from a fresh frame of reference. It's a thought-provoking book, and quite frankly, I had a lot of fun reading it. Sport, Philosophy, and Good Lives—its first two parts in particular—should definitely appeal to a wide audience. After all, as Feezell writes, "All of us, including sports geeks, are philosophers."

Randolph Feezell. Sport, Philosophy, and Good Lives. University of Nebraska Press. 2013. 288 pp. 978-0-8032-7153-1. $30.00.

Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Wilson Rothfuss

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