Lecture 2 | What are sports?

  [Lecture audio transcript] [Lecture PowerPoint] [Today's sports poem]


Allen Guttman, (1981). "Running and Racing." Journal of American Culture 4(3): 86-92.
Walter C. Camp (1886) "The Game and Laws of American Football." Outing, 11(1): 68-76, November.

About the authors:

Allen Guttmann is an American historian at Amherst College, who has been writing about sports for over 30 years in a wide range of influential books. He is himself a runner (as you can tell from this essay), and this is an informal early piece that tries to see the differences and similarities in competitive and recreational running. A propos of today's topic, should we consider both running and racing to be sports?

Walter Camp, Yale student, Yale football player, and Yale football coach, did more than any other individual in the U.S. to create and promote this sport. He was a prolific writer for the popular press, and in this article, he is reviewing the early rule changes (most of which he himself devised and implemented).

Here are some notes about the issues that I will cover in Session 2.

This session's organizing question is, How should we define sports to separate them from other objects of study and inquiry? Ordinarily we don't think about defining sports—we know them when we see something or when we do something (see chart 1). Of course it's not always easy to tell if something is a sport or not (see chart 2).

A prefatory question: Is Bladderball a sport?

[No byline] (1954) "Pushing Elis: Yale Undergraduates, Grunting up and Down the Sacred Sod of Old Campus, Revive a Tradition of the '90s with 'First Annual Bladder-Ball Contest,'" Sports Illustrated, November 29. Volume 1, Issue 16, Pages 4-6.

Eli Muller (2001) "Bladderball: 30 Years of Zany Antics, Dangerous Fun." Yale Daily News, February 28.

Nathan Littlefield (2002) "Bladderball of the World, Inflate! (Again)." Yale Herald, January 18.

Marcus Schwarz (2009) "Bladderball Set to Challenge Ban." Yale Daily News, October 9. Pages 1, 6.

Esther Zuckerman and Sam Greenberg (2009) "A Yale Tradition Reborn, Redefined." Yale Daily News, October 12. Page 6.

Esther Zuckerman and Marcus Schwarz (2009) "The News Wins Bladderball: Many Campus Groups Claim Victory in First Game since 1982." Yale Daily News, October 12. Pages 1, 6.

I. A definition of sports: Allen Guttmann's four levels of distinction [See graph]

A. Sports are PLAY (v. work)

Note "ludic" (as in Homo Ludens or humans at play) and "autotelic" (its own purpose)

B. Sports are ORGANIZED (v. spontaneous) play

Note Guttmann's essay on running and racing (and his quote from Roger Bannister's autobiography)
But what is it that rules bring? An unsettling combination of imposed/impersonal order upon freely chosen activities. We agree to be regulated (unless we're Bode Miller)

C. Sports are COMPETITIVE (v. non-competitive) organized play

"Athlete" as originating in Greek notions of contest:
athlos = contest
athlon = prize
agon = a struggle

Who is competing against whom? Is mountain climbing a competition? Or rather, is it competition when your opponent is an element of nature--Mt. Everest, K-2, McKinley--or a river, if you're canoe tripping in northern Canada, or a cityscape, if you are a parkour runner?

Can you "compete" against yourself? Joggers try to better their "personal best"

Can professional wrestling be a sport, if the outcomes are decided in advance?

D. Sports are PHYSICAL (v. intellectual) competitive, organized play

Sidebar: How does the dictionary define sports? Check the Oxford English Dictionary (the "OED"), the world's most authoritative and exhaustive English-language. The online entry for "sport n."is here, and it's both fun and instructive to play with the buttons at the top of the entry. Turn on the buttons for etymology, quotations, date chart, and additions for the full experience.

II. Three distinctions among sports

A. power/performance sports versus pleasure/participation sports (Jay Coakley)

This is suggested by sociologist Jay Coakley's distinction between two ideal-type models of modern sports--what we might call "play to win" versus "play to enjoy." In his own words, they are:

1. The power and performance sports model

  • The use of strength, speed, and power to push human limits and aggressively dominate opponents in the quest for victories and championships
  • The idea that excellence is proved through competitive success and achieved through intense dedication and hard work, combined with making sacrifices, risking one’s personal well-being, and playing in pain
  • The importance of setting records, defining the body as a machine, and using technology to control and monitor the body
  • Selection systems based on physical skills and competitive success
  • Hierarchical authority structures, in which athletes are subordinate to coaches and coaches are subordinate to owners and administrators
  • Antagonism to the point that opponents are defined as enemies

2. The pleasure and participation sports model

  • Active participation revolving around a combination of types of connections-connections between people, between mind and body, and physical activity and the environment
  • An ethic of personal expression, enjoyment, growth, good health, and mutual concern and support for teammates and opponents
  • Empowerment (not power) created by experiencing the body as a source of pleasure and well-being
  • Inclusive participation based on an accommodation of differences in physical skills
  • Democratic decision-making structures characterized by cooperation, the sharing of power, and give-and-take relationships between coaches and athletes
  • Interpersonal support around the idea of competing with, not against, others; opponents are not enemies but those who test each other

Quoted from: Jay Coakley, Sports in Society, pp. 110-111 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 200

To which, I would add four points:

  • These are ideal-types, deliberately exaggerated for heuristic use. Our real experiences of sports are usually a combination of the two.
  • How do we handle this combination? Are they complementary or do we carry around a contradiction in our attitudes that we avoid facing up to?
  • I would agree with Coakley that these two models are not equal alternatives in the real world; the "power and performance" first has long been the dominant model and the "pleasure and participation" has been subordinate model.
  • What the Olympics and alternative sports share is that both have attempted to foreground "pleasure and participation" over "power and performance," although we must question their success in doing so.

B. "Center" sports versus "peripheral" sports (or major versus minor sports)

This leads to a distinction between two types of national sportscapes: uni-centric societies (those with one center sport and other secondary sports) and multi-centric societies (those with several center sports and a host of secondary sports).

C. Modern sports versus premodern sports (Allen Guttmann again)

III. A final formulation

How should we connect the overlapping activities of SPORT (= competition), EXERCISE (= fitness), and GAMES (= play)