Sport is more than just a game

  • Themes: Sport

Sport clearly reflects the grubby, greedy world that feeds on it, but it also stands apart, preserving a timeless spectacle of effort and emotion, mind and body, flesh and feeling.

Pieter Bruegels' 'Children's Games'.
Pieter Bruegels' 'Children's Games'. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

What is sport? ‘Just a game’? Or does sport have some special significance beyond mere exertion? Western philosophy is known for its metaphysics, ontology, theology, logic, empiricism, idealism, and political philosophy. There is another tradition, less prominent in the public understanding, of reflecting deeply on the meaning, purpose and value of sport in society. From the ancient Greeks onwards, philosophers, poets, sociologists and intellectuals of all stripes have pondered what sport is and why it matters.

That is the best place to begin, because sport matters – a lot. In 2023, total global recorded music revenues stood at $28.6bn, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Music Report 2024. Yet as the historian David Goldblatt puts it in The Ball is Round (2006): ‘football is first. First among sports themselves, first among the world’s popular cultural forms.’ By the crude metric of money, first division football in Europe alone was projected to exceed revenues of €26bn (nearly $28bn) in UEFA’s Club Finance and Investment Landscape Report 2024. To put that another way: just the top competitions of one sport in a single region are nearly as lucrative as the entire music recording industry.

As entertainment, sport’s popularity is unmatched. Super Bowl LVIII was the most-watched television event in American history. The World Cup Final in 2022 between Argentina and France was seen by 1.5 billion people, while 4.7 billion tuned in for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Leaving aside the data, we should still take sport seriously as the world’s pre-eminent cultural form because, despite its obscene revenues, institutional corruption, doping scandals, and advertising-sportwashing-industrial complexes, sport retains, at its core, a mode of individual and collective human experience exceptional in its visceral appeal and emotional intensity.

Humans have been thinking about sport for thousands of years, but academic studies began to flourish particularly after the Second World War, with a proliferation of research into the history, sociology, economics, and politics of sport; philosophical reflections in both the analytic and continental traditions; analyses of sport within education and pedagogical frameworks; the aesthetics of sport; and, more recently, sport’s central role as a lightning rod for wider social debates around sex, gender, race, and disability.

Here, I consider three broad traditions to illustrate something of this diversity of perspectives. The first strand, inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle and developed by Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Arnold, sees sport as a preparation for, model of, or complement to, a properly ethical life. For these thinkers, sport is a moral as well as physical endeavour: a key part of a rounded education, a tool of personal and social improvement, and a form of virtuous energy harnessed in pursuit of the good life.

In The Republic (c.380 BC), Plato writes that ‘physical education’ is conducted ‘with a view to arousing the spirited part’ of a person, recommended ‘principally for the benefit of the soul’ and combined with ‘musical and poetic education’ to benefit the individual and the city. In Greek thought, sports – including wrestling, gymnastics and athletics – encouraged and expressed aretē (virtuous excellence). The most famous occasion for demonstrating aretē was, of course, the Olympics. In his Nicomachean Ethics (c.350 BC), Plato’s pupil Aristotle saw in the victorious Olympian an allegory and example of the good life, in which virtue is neither inherited nor innate, but earned through action:

Activity in accordance with virtue is characteristic of virtue… As in the Olympic Games, it is not the most attractive and the strongest who are crowned, but those who compete (since it is from this group that winners come), so in life, it is those who act rightly who will attain what is noble and good.

Competitive sport for Aristotle is thus a measure of moral worth as much as prowess and skill, a cultivation of merit in mind, heart and body. Christian Europe largely carried over the Greek idea of sport as an exercise of virtue. Perhaps the discipline and focus of sport paralleled the rigour required of the monks who dominated the intellectual culture of the Middle Ages. After all, the word ‘ascetic’ comes from the Greek ἄσκησις (askēsis), meaning ‘exercise, practise, training’, a term with strong athletic connotations. Accordingly, the great 13th-century scholar Thomas Aquinas, who spent his childhood at a Benedictine monastery, keenly encouraged sport. In Summa Theologica (1225-74), Aquinas said there was a ‘virtue about games’ and sports, describing them as the ‘pause that refreshes’ body and brain for labour and study. Sport also had an intrinsic value for Aquinas as a lesson in ‘moderation, which is requisite in every virtue’, teaching us how to balance work with play and productivity with pleasure.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games (2011), Steven J. Overman argues that, after the Reformation, a ‘protestant ethic’ in Britain and Germany catalysed the ‘rationalisation’ of the folk-games and sports of medieval Europe, while retaining essentially the same Greek and scholastic pedagogical ends: ‘to preserve health and strength and make one fit for serving God’ and ensure ‘the moral upbringing of the person’.

In Of Education (1644), for instance, John Milton outlined his plan to reform the medieval curriculum of ‘pure trifling at Grammar and Sophistry’ with ‘the right path of a vertuous and noble Education’. Among the prescribed study of classics, languages and scripture, Milton recommended that ‘an hour and a half ere they eat at Noon should be allow’d [students] for exercise and due rest afterwards’, an ‘interim of unsweating themselves regularly’ to include exercise, horsemanship and ‘the Locks and Gripes of Wrastling’. Sport for Milton was a vital means to ‘fit a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War’, helping us ‘to know God aright’ and ‘possessing our souls of true vertue’.

Like Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Considerations on the Government of Poland (completed in 1772, published posthumously in 1782), urged: ‘In all Schools a gymnasium or place for bodily exercises must be established for the children… not just in order to form robust, healthy temperaments, but still more for its moral purpose’. In Rousseau’s vision, a sporting education would ‘accustom them early on to rules, equality, fraternity and competitions; to live beneath the gaze of their fellow citizens and desire public approbation’. As Ourida Mostefai points out, sport became a ‘fundamental principle of Rousseau’s political theory’, which framed ‘the body as the solution to the problem of political liberty’. After 1789, Rousseau’s suggestions for physical education and public sports competitions were incorporated in French revolutionaries’ plans for the First Republic. Sport, then, was an essential tool of instruction in the new ideals of Liberté, égalité and fraternité.

In Victorian England, sport was put to rather different uses. The educational reforms of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841, were supremely influential in the development of philosophies of sport and the organisation of modern sport itself. In an 1830 sermon, Arnold preached that Rugby and other Victorian public schools ‘reversed’ the conventional ‘scale of excellence’ in which ‘moral perfection is most highly valued’, followed by excellence of understanding, and, ‘last of all, strength and activity of body’. Thanks to Arnold, sport became central to curricula at all the English public schools, with football (in its many codes and variations) an especially important component of the physical and ideological development of elite British boys.

These students took the game with them as they went on to staff the British Empire as colonial administrators or returned home to become captains of industry in the north and midlands. Arnold’s reforms anticipated the Victorian ideology of ‘muscular Christianity’, in which physical and intellectual education combined to form an instrument of imperial domination and religious chauvinism – but he essentially returns us to the Hellenic ideal of sport as an ideal preparation for life, however it might be lived.

If the message of this first tradition is essentially that sport is good, sport is virtuous, and sport will set you free – physically, morally, politically, militarily – then diametrically opposed to this is the ‘critical’ theory of sport, originating with the Roman poet Juvenal. In his Satires (c.100-127 AD), Juvenal condemned panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’), including mass spectator ludi (‘games’ or ‘sports’), such as chariot racing and gladiatorial contests, as popular distractions and crude social engineering.

In this line of thinking, sport is a sop or bribe used by cynical elites to placate and manipulate the lower orders, with malevolent effects on sportspeople, spectators and society. There were scattered criticisms of sport in the medieval and early modern periods. Bishop Thomas Brinton of Rochester, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, said ‘the tournament of the rich is the torment of the poor’. In post-Reformation England, Puritans railed against the playing of sports on Sunday, and Charles I’s re-imposition of his father James I’s Declaration to His Subiects, Concerning Lawfull Sports to Bee Used (1617, 1618, 1633) became a key ideological battleground in the Civil War. The critique of sport fully developed, however, after the Industrial Revolution, when thinkers such as Oswald Spengler, Johan Huizinga, Lewis Mumford, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Jean-Marie Brohm examined the popularity of mass spectator sports in the wake of urbanisation and the rise of wage labour.

Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918, translated 1926) saw in Europe’s class conflicts ‘the reappearance of panem et circenses in the form of wage-disputes and football-grounds’. Like Spengler, the influential Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga condemned the sports of the industrial era as corruptions of the human instinct for play. In Homo Ludens (1938), Huizinga offered ‘Man the player’ as a counterpoint to homo sapiens (‘Man the thinker’) and homo faber (‘Man the maker’), arguing that civilisation ‘arises and unfolds in and as play’ and ‘play is older than culture, for culture… always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing’. However, ‘with the increasing systematisation and regimentation of sport something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost’, Huizinga said, for ‘the spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit’.

The idea that sport has some kind of special relationship to modern life became a key theme of 20th- and 21st-century criticism. Does sport express – or worse, actively perpetuate – the ideologies and injustices of industrial society? Or does sport imagine a different world, providing a platform for resisting the profit-motive – a remnant of human possibility standing against the brutality of capitalist production? In 1924, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset argued that ‘Sportive activity’ was ‘the foremost and creative, the most exalted, serious and important part of life’, in contrast with the ‘derivative’ of ‘labour’. Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934), however, argued that sport had ‘become one of the mass duties of the machine age’. In Man, Play and Games (1958), the French critic Roger Caillois argued that human civilisation itself emerged from the ‘socialised form’ of agōn (competition) in early sporting cultures.

Perhaps the most famous critique of sport in the continental tradition comes from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the ‘inescapable functionality’ and ‘rationalis[ation]’ of ‘bourgeois existence’ are expressed in ‘the precisely coordinated modern sporting squad, in which no member is in doubt over his role and a replacement is held ready for each’. For Adorno, sport was a long and suffocating tentacle of the culture industry: ‘Sport itself is not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection’. ‘They parody freedom in their readiness for service’, he said: ‘The passion for sport, in which the masters of mass culture sense the real mass basis of their dictatorial power, is grounded in this fact.’ Adorno singled out football as a delusion of ‘free time’ that ‘is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour’, by which ‘people are unwittingly trained into modes of behaviour which, sublimated to a greater or lesser degree, are required of them by the work process’.

The French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Jean-Marie Brohm has taken up Adorno’s mantle, critiquingLa tyrannie sportive’ as ‘un opium du peuple’. Brohm attacks modern sport’s ‘quantophrenia’, that is, its obsession with record-keeping, data analysis, statistical information, and attempts at exact precision – among which we might list the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football. Like Adorno, Brohm thinks sport’s ‘prison of measured time’ reveals an affinity with ‘the administrative formalism of lists, questionnaires, accounts, balances, and relations in totalitarian systems’. In this line of thought, sport will certainly not set you free. On the contrary, Brohm says, ‘the sports system is an integral part of the capitalist mode of production’ and ‘Sport must be smashed, like the state machine’.

Then there is a third tradition, focussing on the aesthetic, phenomenological and experiential dimensions of sport, which includes thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Simon Critchley and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. These writers aim at a poetics of sport, celebrating its form, spatial-temporal relationships, and affective and emotional force.

In The Structure of Behaviour (1942), Merleau-Ponty wrote that:

For the player in action the football field… is pervaded with lines of force (the ‘yard lines’; those which demarcate the ‘penalty area’) and articulated in sectors (for example, the ‘openings’ between the adversaries) which call for a certain mode of action and which initiate and guide the action as if the player were unaware of it. The field itself is not given to him, but present as the immanent term of his practical intentions; the player becomes one with it and feels the direction of the ‘goal’, for example, just as immediately as the vertical and the horizontal planes of his own body.

Merleau-Ponty locates aesthetic joy in the interplay of bodies, spaces, movements and intentions in the ‘phenomenal field’ sport creates for both players and spectators. Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on immanence was extended by Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty (2006). Rejecting the Adornian critique of sport, he says: ‘we desperately want athletes’ bodies to be “but” the signifiers of something spiritual, or at least psychological or mental, or at the very least sociopolitical – a class conspiracy or that sort of thing’. Instead, Gumbrecht is ‘focused on athletes’ bodies, instead of abandoning the topic of sports by “reading” these phenomena as a “function” or an “expression” of something else’, to ‘praise… exquisite movements without having to transform these movements into something meaningful’.

Gumbrecht zeroes in on sport’s ‘presence dimension’. ‘The Latin word prae-esse’, he reminds us, ‘literally means “to be in front of”… something present is something within reach, something that we can touch, and of which we have immediate sensual perceptions’. The true aesthetic appeal of sport, for Gumbrecht, lies in the ‘epiphany of form’, produced by the ‘beautiful play’ that happens ‘in real presence and in real time’.

The English philosopher Simon Critchley takes a similar approach: ‘when we’re watching a game live’, he says, ‘we are caught, completely caught, in a suspenseful present’. At ‘such moments’, Critchley continues in What We Think About When We Think About Football (2017), we are ‘elevated’ in ‘an experience of enchantment, where we are lifted out of the everyday into something ecstatic, evanescent and shared, a subtly transfigured sensorium’. ‘Sensate ecstasy’ is the name Critchley uses to describe the intensely immediate, immanent experience of sport. ‘Presence’, though, is not just a privileged mode of experience but a critical tool for these philosophers. Gumbrecht aims to get ‘closer’ to sport by describing and praising a phenomenon that manages to paralyse the eyes’ and refuses the ‘obsession’ of ‘Western metaphysics… to look “beyond” what it considers to be the merely material (or merely corporal) aspects of our existence’. Critchley’s phenomenological reading likewise ‘attempts… to get close, as close as possible, to the grain, texture and existential matrix of experience as it is given’. For both, sport is not – as Adorno and Brohm describe it – a prison and a theatre of subjection, but a liberation from contemporary life altogether.

Other writers have attempted to capture the sublime beauty of sport in literary terms. Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s pamphlet ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’ (2007, translated by Shaun Whiteside and reprinted in the essay collection Soccer in 2019) lyrically examines the affective aftermath of the infamous moment in the 2006 World Cup final when the France captain Zinedine Zidane headbutted the Italian centre-back Marco Materazzi. ‘A few dizzying seconds of ambivalence’, Toussaint called it, ‘in which beauty and blackness, violence and passion come into contact and create a short circuit with an original gesture.’ He described the headbutt (‘fed on an excess of black bile and Saturnine influences’) as emerging from Zidane’s subconscious realisation that the end of his career was upon him. ‘Zidane had been captured by the hostile gods of melancholy’, and, for Tousaint as for millions of French fans, ‘Zidane’s melancholy is my melancholy.’

Athletes and professionals have commented on the threats posed to the aesthetic pleasure of sport’s ‘presence dimension’ with the introduction of new technologies that re-present, re-play, and reverse time. In October 2019, following the introduction of VAR to the Premier League, the then Liverpool midfielder James Milner said:

The atmosphere is being ruined. You score, there’s an explosion of noise and then it’s VAR. You wait. Is it a goal?… I think there’s use for it – if we can improve it. But football is a game of human error on the field and in officiating as well. They have a very tough job and I’m all for making their lives easier – but not at the expense of the flow of the game.

José Mourinho, one of the most successful managers in modern history, also said VAR ‘bring[s] truth to the football result’, but ‘breaks the dynamic of the game’ and ‘kills a little bit of the emotion’. Mourinho and Milner hint at a descriptive phenomenology of sport, elegising the immanent sensory and affective dimensions of the ‘atmosphere’, with its ‘explosion of noise’, intense ‘emotion’, the agony of ‘human error’ and the ‘flow of the game’ that make sport distinctive.

Indeed, Milner’s suggestion that there is something fundamentally ‘human’ about sport has also preoccupied philosophers. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837), Georg Hegel called sport a ‘higher seriousness’, above and beyond ‘labour’ and ‘business’, in which ‘Nature is wrought into Spirit’ and expresses the fundamental ‘freedom’ of humanity. In his 2011 book A Philosophy of Sport, Steven Connor followed Hegel in figuring sport as a ‘weirdly coherent parallel universe, which is not so much a mirror as an anagram of human life in general, and yet is becoming ever more definitional of what it means to be a human being’.

Sport is ancient. Those shadowy images at the Lascaux Caves, perhaps 17,000 years old, suggest even Palaeolithic people played sports. The philosophy of sport, though, has been relatively peripheral in mainstream Western thought. We don’t usually associate John Milton with ‘unsweating… regularly’ or Hegel with James Milner. Rightly so, perhaps. But sport presents serious philosophical questions owing to its peculiar form as a cultural activity and its near-universal popularity. Sport clearly reflects the grubby, greedy world that feeds on it, but it also stands apart to some degree, preserving a spectacle of effort and emotion, mind and body, flesh and feeling – standing up, perhaps, to the dehumanising forces of capital and corruption, corrosive as they undoubtedly are to the integrity of – well, everything on earth. Whether you think sport is a good thing for people and society, a measure of gullibility, oppression and economic excess, an incomparable aesthetic pursuit, or something else entirely, sport’s unique place in human culture cannot be denied.


Josh Mcloughlin