What do soccer and philosophy have in common? Or, to put it another way — what interest do they share? It is probably safe to say that these interests are, first and foremost, moral and aesthetic. Was it Camus who said that everything he had learned about morality — or was it life — was learned on the soccer field? And small wonder: the current staging of the World Cup in South Africa has already provided many instances of players and referees acting and reacting in certain situations in ways that are subject to moral judgment, the recent event of Uruguay’s Suarez handling a ball, thus preventing a likely goal for Ghana, being a case in point.
Football is not the only sport that is fraught with situations where actions lend themselves to moral judgment, however. This is true of all sport, which is why one often hears the claim that sport builds character. My own experience, in the sports in which I have participated, confirms this.
At one point, while I was playing squash league, and eager to improve my game, I played regularly with several partners, one of whom — a particularly gifted, first-league player — went on to become a lawyer. Judging by his behaviour on court, I would not ever recommend his legal services to anyone — he used whatever means he could to win (subtly obstructing his opponent by moving out of the way just that half a second too slowly, and so on), and never showed any generosity of spirit. He practised gamesmanship instead of sportsmanship. The strange thing was that he did not need to — he was a good player who could easily have relied only on his squash prowess to win. But the competitive situation revealed his (dubious) moral character in no uncertain terms. I would bet that he practises law in a similar way.
Sport also, obviously, has aesthetic appeal; soccer is not called the “beautiful game” for nothing, and one can easily think of sports that are even more conspicuously aesthetically pleasing, such as figure skating on ice, or gymnastics. But that is not what I want to concentrate on here. I would like to reflect at some length on soccer (and by implication all sports) as an instance of play.
One can approach this from the perspective of Homo and Gyna ludens — playing man and woman, as the well-known scholar Johan Huizinga, or the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller (whose work was Huizinga’s point of departure) did. In his “Letters on the aesthetic education of [hu]mankind”, Schiller famously distinguished among three “drives” that underlie distinct human activities — the form(al) drive, the sense or material drive and the play-drive, where the latter is said to mediate between the former two, and to be the basis of art.
Schiller (and Huizinga following him) thus understood play primarily as a human activity. But one could avoid this “subjective” angle and highlight the structural features of play, and sport as a kind of play, instead. I prefer the latter approach, and my favourite thinker in this regard is the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer whose phenomenological hermeneutics of play forms part of his magnum opus, “Truth and method”. Gadamer uses play as a model for the understanding of the mode of being of art, which, in turn, he employs to come to grips with the “play” or movement of language in relation to tradition.
The purest form of play, Gadamer asserts, is encountered on the part of young children who have not as yet learned the formal rules that govern games like checkers, chess or soccer. What is characteristic of this playing is what he terms a “to and fro” movement, in so far as the actions on the part of the players appear to be governed by a non-prescriptive structure which exceeds their deliberate intentions, and in relation to which the “success” of the playing or informal “game” is judged.
Anyone who has ever played games like “cops and robbers” will know what Gadamer means. Even in the absence of formal rules, the players all know implicitly when they have transgressed the tacitly assumed rules of the game. To be sure, sometimes the participants may argue vehemently when someone is accused of transgressing the rules, and they may even decide to modify certain previously un-discussed principles, but it is always apparent that even games of “free play” — as opposed to sport, which is formalised play — are tacitly governed by a rule structure of some kind.
This is why Gadamer says, in opposition to the subjectivist notion of play on the part of someone like Schiller (who discerns the foundation of play in the human subject), that it is more a case of the players being played by the game than the other way around. The structure of the game — whatever it is — makes certain demands on the players, and if they overstep these demands or ignore them, the game stagnates. On the other hand, within the limits of the game in question players have an indefinite (if not infinite) number of potential “moves” available to them. It is truly a case of “freedom within limits” — which makes of play, or sport as formalised play, virtually an extended metaphor for life.
Phenomenologically speaking, therefore, any instance of playing — whether it is the non-formal “free play” of children (or, to extend the meaning of play, of light on the surface of a lake) or the formalised playing of a game like chess, or of a sport like soccer — witnesses to the inexhaustibility of play “itself”. The “source” of any actual playing always exceeds concrete instances of play, so that it is characterised by irrepressible self-renewal, as Gadamer points out. We are therefore faced with the paradox that play is at once represented and yet not (“fully”) represented in any individual actualisation of its “essence” — something that resonates with what is known as the “sublime” in philosophy. Play, not the player, is inexhaustible.
There is another tension at the heart of play, however — and this explains, I believe, why it affords one the space in which moral character is built — it is “merely” play, and as such distinct from the seriousness of the world of work, and yet (as Gadamer intimates), in a sense one has to play seriously, too. Anyone who does not approach the game in this way, does not qualify as a worthy opponent.
No matter how hard, or how well, one plays, therefore, one’s serious commitment to the spirit of play, and therefore to the rules governing its performance — whether these are implicit or explicit — requires that players are also worthy players. Few sights are as disappointing as when a player (especially a “good” one) shows bad sportsmanship (“sportswomanship”?) by refusing to accept a referee’s decision, or an opponent’s victory. To be sure, it makes a difference whether a team or player deserves a victory or not, but if the game demands acceptance of a referee’s decision, one has to abide by it, even if one disagrees.
If I may single out a factor that impinges negatively on this spirit of play, it would be the professionalisation of sport. In all the years that I have played squash, I have not witnessed more acrimonious exchanges between players, and between players and referees/markers, than those that occurred during professional matches which involved prize money (which, ironically, in squash is comparatively low). It is as if the introduction of money has robbed sport of the “play” element by introducing the world of “work” into its domain. I believe that the phenomenon of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, from cycling and swimming to athletics, may also be linked to this potential for financial gain.
I am glad to be able to say that, although I have not watched many matches in the course of this World Cup, it appears that the players are less likely to be motivated by potential financial gain than when they are participating in the usual professional sporting fixtures of the annual soccer club calendar here and abroad, and that what concerns them here is largely national pride. Not that money has been absent from the performance of the different teams — the sheer magnitude of the salaries that have been paid to national coaches (including Parreira) is mind-boggling, let alone the financial carrots dangled before the noses of players to spur them on to winning.
The moral and aesthetic significance of a sport like soccer is inescapably situated within this context of its play-structure, and of the corruption of this play-structure by “internal” phenomena like cheating and gamesmanship, as well as by motives exceeding the internal purpose of the game, like winning at all costs for financial reasons. It should therefore surprise no one that sport constitutes an ethical microcosm. It presents players with ongoing opportunities to prove themselves worthy or unworthy as players as well as human beings, depending on whether they honour the ethical spirit of play.
In addition, sport provides the virtual matrix for flashes of kinetic beauty — an extended, thrilling exchange between tennis players that leaves spectators gasping, a breathtaking gymnastic routine, impeccably performed, a mesmerising combination of running passes between soccer players, culminating in a deftly executed goal. In so doing, it condenses some of the most aesthetically valuable moments in life into a relatively short time — moments which one revisits again and again in subsequent years, whether this is in memory, or aided by video technology.
Anyone interested in the subject of Gadamer and play in relation to art, can read my paper, “Gadamer, Heidegger, play, art and the appropriation of tradition”. Commemorative edition of SA Journal of Philosophy on H-G Gadamer, Vol 21 (4), 2002, pp.242-257.