In the first installment of this blog series, I established a basic framework for how Christians ought to analyze the place of winning in sports. I argued, following St. Augustine’s claim that virtue is the right “ordering of our loves,” that winning in sport could be loved, as long as it wasn’t loved more than any of the more important goods above it.
Winning in Sports – “A Third Order Good”
On such an account each “order” of goods indicates its priority, or to use the Augustinian phrase, its “right ordering.” First Order goods, are, therefore, the highest priority goods, but that does not mean that they are the only goods to be found in sport. It also must be emphasized that the list I give here is not necessarily exhaustive. Rather it should be viewed as a teaching, learning and reflection device meant to clarify rather than eliminate or replace further analysis. Moreover, I will not have the time or space to fully defend it. Therefore, those friendly to argument should look to build on it, and a critic should keep in mind that they do not necessarily have to endorse every claim made regarding the ordering of goods proposed, to nevertheless endorse the basic gist of the framework. As long as the critic accepts the principle that goods can be prioritized, they should be open to the idea that evaluating goods in this manner could bear significant fruit.
This is because it allows for a way to think through how and why winning is good, but not the highest good. This moderate position does not ignore dangers, or even calls for serious reform, but it does avoid descending into a puritanical prohibition of competition and winning in sport. Rightly loved, the pursuit of victory can be a part of a faithful life. Therefore, if adopted, this conception of the place of winning in sports would help to moderate our culture’s lust for victory and allow for real criticism of the “win-at-all-cost” mentality, without obligating the critic to embrace an “athletic pacifism”, which sees the pursuit of victory as inherently problematic.
What then, on my account, are the First Order goods? Here is what I propose:
1. Sportsmanship – How you play the game, with your teammates, with your opponents, with fans and officials, is always more important than victory. Or, put more pithily, “how you win” is always more important than “that you win.” The obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself” can never be set aside in the pursuit of victory.
2. Play – Sport is meant to be an enjoyable experience pursued simply for its own sake. The pursuit of winning, rightly understood, heightens the spirt of play by creating dramatic tension, imparting meaning, and by “doubling your pleasure” by adding the element of the “contest” to the “test”1 Done well, there is nothing morally problematic about competition.
3. Technical and tactical skill development – The actual performance of a “give and go” in basketball or learning to use your “left hand” or perform a “crossover dribble” is what most fascinates us about sports. The beautiful execution of plays and skills is ultimately what makes all of us – win or lose – fall in love with sports. If that were not true, half of us would be constantly abandoning sports on a regular basis, as losing is, even for the best of athletes, ubiquitous.2
4. Safety – The banning of chop blocks, beanballs, and PEDs, as well as rule changes to improve long term health, such as concussion protocols, etc. are all done because player health is more important than the “most effective strategy,” or “always having the best players on the field.” The safety of the players themselves should always trump victory.
The Second Order goods I would propose would be the following:
1. Health Benefits– The idea here is that sport, being a form of exercise, has the potential for all kinds of physiological, psychological and even spiritual benefits. We shouldn’t simply play for such outcomes, but that doesn’t mean the benefits are not real and important. Moreover, it is clear that a win-at-all-costs mentality can interfere with health benefits, as in, overuse injuries or burnout. However, that only makes the point clearer. An inordinate lust for victory and achievement harms athletes. Yet, it is the athletes – body and soul – not the “Lombardi Trophy” or the “Stanley Cup” which are made in the “image and likeness of God”.
2. Community – Sport, given the mutual struggle involved “in the arena”, given the need for teamwork and common goals, and given the commitments and responsibilities created by being part of a team, has great potential to cement bonds of friendship and mutual obligation. In other words, when done well, sport brings the idea of the common good to life. Such solidarity, insofar as sport creates it, should not be taken lightly, especially in Western culture, where expressive individualism has run amok.3
3. Lifelong activity – Wins and losses come and go, but one’s love for a sport, such as soccer, is for a lifetime. Therefore, skill cultivation develops confident, competent, and passionate lovers of sport and is a more durable and therefore higher order good than winning, which is, in its very nature, fragile and ephemeral. There is no necessary contradiction here, but if and when these two goods come into conflict, the enduring value of lifelong activity should always prevail.4
Why is winning a Third Order Good?
1. Winning does not last – Scores, even at the highest levels, are quickly forgotten (hence the need for record books). The thrill of victory – though real and powerful – quickly wears off (hence the desire to play again tomorrow). Winning is a real good. Victory is a legitimate goal. There is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing it. It creates drama, spurs play, illuminates our limitations,5 bonds athletes together, and gives meaning to athletic suffering and self-sacrifice. It is a real good, but it is fleeting. It is a real good, but it is not the highest good in sport or in life.
2. The Inordinate desire for victory harms higher goods. In educational (and sometimes other contexts) overvaluing winning interferes with sportsmanship, play, safety, learning, skill development and cultivating a lifelong love for the game.6Yet, it is the game, the pursuit of victory in the course of play, not winning as such, which is so magical about sports. The process (playing the game) not just the product (winning) matters.7 For lovers of sport, a well-played, tightly contested, dramatic loss is always more satisfying than a forfeited win. That is, the competitive back and forth of the game, the waxing and waning of fortune, the moves and counter moves of innings, volleys, sets, and possessions, the execution of skills and strategies, the “touch of the ball,” the “feel of the mitt,” the “smell of the grass,” are what lovers of sport want, rather than a mere naked victory. Yet, that process – the pursuit of victory via the playing of the game – constantly relies on higher order goods such as community, safety, sportsmanship. Absent such pursuit and such higher goods, victories are hollow. Victory is meaningful, only if understood within this larger context.
3. Winning is external to the “central excellences” or “internal goods”8of the game. For instance, the internal goods of soccer, such as, “Diving headers,” “crosses,” “upper 90 shots,” “diving saves,” etc. can only be found in the practice of soccer . They cannot be found anywhere else, just as the “home run” can only be found in baseball. Therefore, such excellence are internal goods because they are internal to the sporting practices themselves. The specific sporting practice makes the achievement of these internal goods possible. “Winning,” by contrast, can be found lots of places; sport places, lottery places, stock-market places, spelling bee places, job search places and so forth. For lovers of sport, cultivating, defending, and prioritizing the particular internal goods of the sports they love will always be more important than winning, for “victory is not an internal good”9 of the games we play.
This insight has implications for many if not all of the other higher order goods listed above. Consider, for example, the internal good in soccer of a “diving header”. That good does not spontaneously generate. Instead, it relies on community (nobody teaches themselves how to do it), skill (diving headers are an advanced skill of the game), play (only a cultivated love of soccer can generate the desire to develop such high-level skill), and so forth. Since winning is an external good and since community, skill, and play all make internal goods possible, and because internal goods necessarily trump external goods, it follows that community, skill, and play are all higher order goods in sport than winning. Given all these reasons, it follows that winning is always a real but Third Order good. (To be concluded…)
- R. Scott Kretchmar, “From Test to Contest: An Analysis of Two kinds of Counterpoint in Sport,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2, (1975), 23-30.
- It must be emphasized that the most beautiful executions of such skills are almost always made manifest in a competitive context. A give and go is most beautiful when it works against someone trying to stop it and one who knows how to stop it.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sulivan, Ann Swidler, and Stephen M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985).
- One place where these two goods are increasingly coming into conflict is in youth sports, where kids are sifted and categorized as wheat or chaff at earlier and earlier ages. Given an inordinate desire to be “the best by finding the best,” most kids will, by definition, be left behind. After all, Lake Wobegon is a fiction, all kids are not above average. For more information on this phenomenon see: Tom Farrey, Game On: How the Pressure to Win at All Costs Endangers Youth Sports, and What Parents Can Do About It (New York: ESPN Books, 2008).
- Anthony Skillen, “Sport is for Losers”, In Ethics and Sport, by M.J. McNamee and S.J. Parry (New York: Routledge, 1998).
- Farrey, Game On.
- Gregg Twietmeyer, Fundamentals of Sports Ethics, 2nd Ed. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2020).
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd Ed. (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)
- Twietmeyer, Fundamentals, 14.