Sport Is Edging Its Way Into Philosophy
Spencer Wertz is chairman of the philosophy deparment at Texas Christian University, so how come he teaches a class about sports? Does he know a forearm shiver from a backhand court? Can he distinguish between a fly ball, a fly pattern or a fly on the wall?
What can Wertz tell us about sports that we experts don’t know? The answer is that Wertz can tell us about ourselves. About our perceptions of the games we play or watch. The professor finds such fascinating material that he instructs a three-hour course on the philosophy of sport. Why?
“The 20th century sometimes has been characterized as the age of sports,” he said. “Sport finally has emerged as the dominating institution of societies in the world. So it’s not uncommon that philosophy no longer neglects the intellectual scrutiny of the sports world. If sport is so important to culture, it’s high time philosophy analyzed and examined what makes sports the kind of world it is.”
Wertz made another point. Wherever culture has appeared in the course of history, so has sport in some form. The Mayan civilization in Central America had its games. Before the Mayans, Romans built their Coliseum. Before the Romans, Asians perfected martial arts and sword fighting.
“Sports mirrors or reflects society,” Wertz said. “It’s rather easy to see how sport is a form of self-expression for many people. It is a way to shape their lives, to give it goals and aims and direction. To make it an enterprise. To be tested--that seems important to society.
“In the modern society, instead of things given over to the family and tradition and dynasties, we compete for the goods. That’s true at all levels of society. What sport does is magnify and dramatize it. It lets us focus on the competitive spirit and drive that runs through ourselves and society.”
Wertz lists traits we find noble in sports: commitment to work, sacrifice, a willingness to risk failure and defeat. We admire the striving for perfection, the setting of records or personal bests.
What drew my attention to Wertz was his observation of how professional wrestling is a microcosm of society. Hero identification plays its part. Good battles evil and triumphs. The roles are clearly defined. It is a fantasy trip for fans.
If this is true of wrestling, what of football?
“It reflects the corporate structure,” Wertz replied. “It’s not incidental that IBM and life insurance companies are major advertisers of football games. The kind of things that make the corporate structure work--teamwork, the individual subordinate to the team--is clearly exhibited in football.”
Others have equated football to man’s oldest pursuits--warfare and the conquest of territory. Wertz doesn’t deny that notion, but he thinks our vision of the game expands beyond that concept.
“There is an ugly side of aggression and violence. That’s part of the appeal, living on the fine edge. Football is still orderly and civilized, but so emotional that the game can be interrupted at any moment.
“Beauty is there, too. We can see fine patterns and controls. A lot of thought and thinking. That delights the mind and imagination. We appreciated it. Many people think of sports as the popular art form. They talk about it very much like someone might talk about a Van Gogh painting. They will talk about a particular game for days.”
What are out perceptions of baseball?
“There is the elment of individualism. You have an individual batter confronting an individual pitcher. Even though baseball is a team game, it can be won or lost by an individual.
“The Batter can hit a home run. The pitcher can strike him out. That kind of individual effort is possible. Individual confrontation, rather than team confrontation, is part of the lure of baseball.
And basketball? It’s musical, Wertz said. Its rhythms correspond to jazz.
“Basketball is spontaneous. Natural. Always moving. Almost chance-like elements are present. There is teamwork, but it is hard to predict the moves of basketball players. If they become predictable, they’re in trouble. Basketball is like jazz. It’s a game of natural movement and unpredictable movement.” Tennis is Wertz’s sport. He is 43, and has been state-ranked in seniors singles and doubles. What does he serve up here?
“Tennis is interesting because it’s been transformed from a gentleman’s game to a game of the masses. Many things that governed the game when tennis emerged in this country and in England no longer apply. The type of clothing worn. Colors that are permitted.
“You also have the whole referee system thrown under question by people like McEnroe and Connors. that’s kind of the Americanization of sport--where authority is questioned.”
Wertz says athletics clarify the definition of a winner. Life often muddles the conclusion. Is a winner measured by education, wealth or prestige? Sport simplifies the answer with a scoreboard. The professor has many more theories on the subject, but this is the best and Wertz of it for now.