Hitchens on Sports

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While I am a professional philosopher, I am also an amateur athlete and, as such, found Hitchens’ recent article on sports to be rather…interesting.

Hitchens does make some reasonable and valid criticisms of international sports. To be specific, he does point out that international sporting events have led to serious conflicts and some rather reprehensible behavior. However, he does not stop there. He moves on to attack sportsmanship itself by pointing out bad behavior on the part of athletes and fans. He also attacks the overuse of sports metaphors in politics, complains about the coverage afforded sports, and takes the usual shots at the overemphasis of sports in major universities.

His criticism of sports does have some merit. After all, the incidents and behavior he points to are quite real. Like him, I find the excessive coverage of sports a bit tedious and I also have been critical of how sports is often handled at the university level. However, Hitchens sweeping attack has a rather serious flaw, namely that he is engaging in a relentless straw man attack.

His specific form of a straw man is one that I point out to my students in my critical thinking class: one way to make a straw man of something is to focus entirely on the negative aspects of the target, while conveniently ignoring or underplaying the positive aspects.  To fairly assess something, such as sports, it is important to consider the positive aspects as well. After all, focusing merely on the negatives will produce a rather distorted assessment  (as would focusing only on the positive). Naturally enough, such a balanced assessment can lead to the conclusion that something is rather negative. But, at least such a conclusion would be properly justified.

This tactic is standard for Hitchens and one he routinely employs against religion.  Perhaps he honestly sees the world this way and is psychologically incapable of  presenting a fair assessment. Perhaps he merely uses this tool because it works as a persuasive device (while failing as a logical method). However, his motivations are (obviously enough) irrelevant to assessing his case.

To begin with my reply, I am obligated to say once more that I am an athlete so as to allow people to be aware of this as a possible biasing factor in my views. I competed in high shool and college and still compete today. Of course, the merit of my case has no connection to my status as an athlete-to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem fallacy.

My main contention against his case is, as noted above, that he seems to simply ignore any positive evidence in favor of sports. While my view of sports is based on my own experiences, these still count as evidence for the positive aspects of sports.

First, my own experience as an athlete has made me a better person. My coaches always emphasized fairness, good sportsmanship and character and they took all this very seriously. Through their guidance and through the lessons of competition I learned the importance of competing fairly, of maintaining integrity and showing respect to my fellow athletes.  I can honestly say that sports helped shape my moral character and much of what is best about me has come through sports.  I am not claiming to be a saint or exceptionally good. But, I do know that my experience in sports has, as Aristotlewould say, has developed my virtues.

Second, my observations of my fellow athletes has shown that most of them have also benefited from sports. With some notable exceptions, the people I have competed with and against have shown good character. To see this for yourself, go to a local road race or even a large race and observe how people behave. To use just a few examples, runners will share water with their competitors, tell people they are racing against the right way to go, and even stop to help an injured competitor.  People also volunteer to work at such races, often getting up very early and sometimes enduring rather tough conditions. This is hardly a sign of bad character or poor behavior. Yes, there are some people who are jerks (I’ve taken a few needless elbows to the chest, for example). But, what I have observed has generally been rather positive in character. Lest I be accused of presenting a small sample or a biased one, I have competed in hundreds of races ranging from the Beach to Beacon 10K to the Columbus Marathon to high school meets to college meets and so on. As such, I have a fairly broad sample to work with.

Of course, I can still  be accused of presenting a biased sample. After all, my experience has been primarily with runners and often with runners I know. Perhaps running is different from other sports in significant ways. Also, there is the obvious concern about extending my experiences from this one sport to other sports. However, even if running is unusual it does serve as counterexample against Hitchens’ attacks on sports. Also, Hitchens can also be accused of using a biased sample: he focuses only on the negative while ignoring the positive.

To finish up, I do agree that Hitchens makes some points well worth considering. Sports can lead to rather bad behavior and serious problems. However, this is not a quality that seems to be inherent to sports. Rather, it is a problem with how people react to sports and how people behave. The fact that some athletes act badly and that some fans are true fanatics who engage in violence over sports merely serves to show their failings rather than the failings of sports. As noted above, my experiences with running have been very positive and shows that sports can be something very positive. Like everything else in life, sports is largely what we make of it. Those who bring vice to sports will find it there. Those who bring virtue will find that.

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  1. I think you’d be hard pressed to disassociate the sport and its athletes from the fans especially when the latter are helping to pay the big, big bucks the former make.
    I do have a big beef about the olympics. In particular the excessive nationalism, I assume it universal not just USA, they promote, if not amongst the athletes themselves then the fans.

  2. The concept of “sports” is rather broad: it covers everything from
    kids playing with a ball in the street to Mike running in a marathon to the big business of pro-sports to the way that many governments use sports as a way to promote national pride and keep the masses from noticing how bad
    and how corrupt their governments are.

  3. Mike, as we live in a society which continuously glorifies sport, couldn’t Hitchens’ piece be seen as a retort to that? Is he actually arguing against sport per se, or is he just demonstrating that there is a negative side to sport? Perhaps he doesn’t need to comment on the good of sport, because there already exists such a surfeit of un-reflective pro-sport viewpoints.

  4. Emily,
    While I do agree that sports does have many problematic elements, Hitchen’s pieces did not strike me as a retort to these negative aspects. Rather, it seemed to be an attack on sports across the board.
    While you do make a reasonable point that he does not need to comment on the good because others have done so, making a reasonable case that is not a straw man requires at least mentioning some of the good aspects. Naturally, if there are no good aspects to sports, then he would have nothing to mention-which is why I argued for such aspects.

  5. Ralph,

    I am actually inclined to agree with Hitchens to a degree when it comes to the Olympics and pro sports. While I like the idealized fantasy about the Olympics, the reality is often not very pretty.

  6. Usually problems within sport are also problems within society. Something that is associated with sport is the ‘competitive’ nature of the activity, but this is not unique to sports as, for example, ‘the city’ has a competitive nature, and within just about every relationship lies a competition of some sort. If ‘critical thinking’ is the attempt to present all the facts logically then judgement, it seems, requires a ‘tallying up the scores from each side’: more good points, or more bad points, and who determines what is good or bad? It is often wished that ‘politics’ should stay out of sports, but this is wishful thinking as sport is about competition and competition produces disagreements, and, therefore, I conclude that sport is a political activity.

    Enjoyed the blog.

  7. Mike, a thoughtful article. I think, however, the use of running undermines your retort to Hitchens’ attack. Large races and marathons are very often focused on personal achievement, or related to a charitable cause, and I would argue that few participants are in such races for competitive reasons.

    It is the negatives of competition in sports that I believe provides the most fodder for critics.

  8. Mike, do you think that sport creates more good or more bad overall? Or is that impossible to really answer?

  9. Mike, on second thoughts: is Hitchens’ article really a straw man? Perhaps he is misrepresenting sport, but a straw man argument is the misrepresentation of an argument, not just misrepresentation itself. And as sport is largely misrepresented in an overly positive manner, then his distortion in the negative does bring more balance to the overall picture. The assumption is that sport is good for us, so I think Hitchens’ piece should be treated as an expose more than an argument.

  10. Christopher Hitchens is a very smart man, but Christopher Hitchens is also a very short man. As is apparent in his attitude toward God/gods, e.g. “This tactic is standard for Hitchens and one he routinely employs against religion”, the man has an intrinsic inferiority complex. While this is quite possibly what drives his intellect, it also impacts his perceptions in regard to athletics. To ignore this aspect of Mr. Hitchens’ approach and attitude toward life is to ignore the elephant in the room. I like Hitchens in many respects, but let’s not fool ourselves.

  11. Methinks the professional philosopher has let amateur sports go to head. The Hitchens’ piece is a good and reasonable attack on the inanities and insanities of the Olympics. But the Olympics are a couple light years away from a weekend trot by a pack of aging agonizers. The show now going on in Vancouver deserves criticism; indeed it is marbled with phony nationalism and a willingness to give an edge to the home-team.

    By the way, our word ‘agony’ is from the Greek verb ‘to compete for a prize’. Is there a philosophical issue under the philosopher’s bruised feelings?

    There’s little in common between English ‘virtues’ and Greek ‘arête’; the one has commonplace usage as we expect the average Joe to be virtuous, and the latter has special use to mention a man whose excellence puts him a step above the average hoi polloi.

    There’s a curious symbiosis between winning and losing. A willingness to lose is a pre-condition of someone becoming a winner. An economist might want to say that the value of winning exceeds the sum of the shame that will be suffered by all the losers. But what compels the athlete to compete in race which most likely will make him a loser?

  12. “The Hitchens’ piece is a good and reasonable attack on the inanities and insanities of the Olympics”.
    “A willingness to lose is a pre-condition of someone becoming a winner”
    “But what compels the athlete to compete in race which most likely will make him a loser?”

    Oh, please. I think Kevin MC says it best above that the problems described are simply the problems of society. To blame sport is philosophically cowardly. One might even argue that human conflict in any domain is simply a manifestation of the failure of philosophy. By the standards here, I’ll admit I don’t know much about philosophy but I do know what compels a person to take on a challenge which he is likely to be defeated, and that is hope. Yes, it is philosophically illogical but without it we’d probably all still be living in the trees afraid to cross that savanna to greener lands because the lions wait.

  13. As as philosopher you make a great athlete. How about a philosophical examination instead of an opinion/editorial piece?

    Quoting from your piece:

    “…one way to make a straw man of something is to focus entirely on the negative aspects of the target, while conveniently ignoring or underplaying the positive aspects…”

    “To finish up, I do agree that Hitchens makes some points well worth considering. Sports can lead to rather bad behavior and serious problems.”

    I count one single sentence vaguely allowing Hitchens validity. Versus the entiry rest of your piece. So which are you the pot or the kettle?

    Perhaps this belongs in a letter to Sports Illustrated, or maybe, idunno, Newsweek?

  14. Indeed! Hitchens is a highly intelligent snd talented author, however that nasty;paunchy ego of his, is a boundless transgression against the Universe.

  15. Sport is sport and nothing more. The participants may be worthy of admiration but for the most part it is for physical prowess and not moral or intellectual superiority. Both physical and mental superiority is rare to find in any human being. I don’t enjoy watching others have fun. I would rather do it than watch it. Yes, the ego’s of winners can be terrible and based upon nothing more than a thing that will certainly pass with age. Apply that drive to something that matter and will last through the ages. There is a real challenge that few can ever meet. Fun is fun and without it life is dull. Sport, in the end, is pointless but pleasurable.

  16. Hitchens makes a living from being “a bit controversial”, so he was hardly likely to offer a balanced assessment. If he wanted to, he might point out that the degree of divergence of his idea of sportsmanship from ML’s more traditional one is a function of the professionalisation and/or nationalism affecting the sport. Simple and obvious, I would have thought.

    He writes for an American audience; were he to spend more time in the UK he would slit his wrists to see the huge coverage given to football, the hyperbolic language and imagery used to report and market it, the apocalyptic importance attached to it, and the embarrassingly abject fascination of the mainstream media with the trivia of its heroes’ private lives. He would point out that football stars are worshipped beyond all reason, are paid unimaginable sums for mostly mediocre performance, get away with the most egregious behaviour (including criminal assault) either scot-free or with the lightest of slaps on the wrist, and that an enormous fraction (or faction) of British manhood are hopelessly captivated by the fortunes of their mostly imported heroes, who generally have no geographical or cultural connection with them, and transfer their services from club to club with no loyalty to their slavish fans. All of which would be tolerable if the ethos of professional football were not infecting the outlook and behaviour of children. Schoolboys spit, dive and dispute decisions. Parents verbally abuse and even assault referees, and buy for their kids expensive replica shirts with advertising on them that turns them into human billboards, and lifelong football consumers. They learn and repeat the obscene and moronic chants that provide the soundtrack to Premier League matches. Empty-headed WAGS (wives and girlfriends) of footballers become national icons, and girls aspire to be like them. I feel like hurting myself just thinking about it.

    But sport, even football, is far from all bad. One only has to remember great moments from (not so recent) World Cup tournaments, e.g. 1970, 1982, 1990; or read the musings of eloquent commentators such as Hugh McIlvanney or Patrick Barclay to be reminded of the meaning and significance of sport. It can be genuinely thrilling and life-enhancing.

    But not often. And I still don’t understand why people follow a team. When Eric Cantona played for Leeds United, he made a pop record for the fans entitled “I don’t know why I love you, but I do”. A week after its release, he moved to Manchester United (Leeds’ most hated – yes, hated – rivals) for a bargain fee.

  17. Sports is actually nothing more than another expression of competition in a world of scarcity and deprivation. There are in all sports winners and losers, the losers being always in the majority. The competitive nature of the world’s economic structure is found in not only sports but in the structure of the dominant values of human philosophy. It is lost in the world of science and the philosophy of science. Human perception of the rest of the plant and animal species of life is obviously erroneous but does give support for it’s own type of so-called competition and aggression. All sports is an expression of that perception. The fairness good character and good sportsmanship expressed above is based on nothing more than guilt and can have in the end no redeeming qualities. Losers do not “feel good” about losing and winners feel accomplished in their winning even if their winning is based upon qualities outside of their so-called talents such as their physical biology. The nonsense of sports is part and parcel of this economic structure called the price system and has no redeeming value other than personal greed, accomplishment and the reverence for “winning” even if it is temporary and superficial.

  18. Joemailman,

    While there are sports that are as you describe (some, obviously enough, are explicitly economic in character), I contend that your claims do not apply to all sports.

    In making my case, I’ll stick with what I know, namely running. While races do have awards and places, it is actually true that everyone wins in a very real way. There is the gain in fitness, the participation in the event, and so on. Of course, running is a bit different from other sports.

    In my own case, I know that my good sportsmanship is not based in guilt. I know what guilt feels like and I am not feeling that in the context of running. In my own experience, sports can and does develop good character traits. For example, running has helped teach me personal discipline and has developed my strength of will. Being on teams taught me teamwork, loyalty and sacrifice for the greater good. Competing taught me sportsmanship, respect, magnanimity, and integrity. There are, as I noted, exceptions to this.

    For me, and many athletes I know, winning is not a matter of beating other people. It is a matter of being better. Or, as Aristotle might put it, developing excellence.

  19. Mike,
    I’m not sure what you mean by sports being “economic in character” unless you are referring to the gobs of money spent on it. Surely not in the winner/loser sense implied by JMM. Economic transactions, excluding the few inacted by force, are win-win (or at worst, an even-tie) for the parties involved or else those parties would not be making them. The word “sports” implies a win/lose, otherwise we’re just talking about exercise.

  20. WTP,

    To clarify a bit, my point was that some sports are essentially businesses. To use a specific example, a pro football team (American or European) has employees, makes (or loses) money, and so on. As such, seeing these sports as economic seems dead on.

    Sports can be win/lose, but so can economic transactions. For example, if my business grows and takes away business from another, I win and they lose. Likewise, if my employer is underpaying me an making a profit, then they are winning and I am losing.

    Sports can also be a win/win. For example, even if I don’t win a race, I can win by having fun and by having a good run.

  21. Mike,
    We will be talking past each if we broaden our meanings of win/lose. If you have fun and a good run without winning the race, one could argue with similar logic that the customers of the failed business are getting better product/service/value with the new business, so those factors would need to be measured in. I don’t want to belabor this point in regard to sports, specifically, but I think it is very important, especially in these times, that a very common misunderstanding of economics not be casually perpetuated. A steady-state win/lose perspective of economics is terribly inaccurate and one that I see as causing a considerable amount of unnecessary social and political friction. I see it as a very deadly meme.

    I realize this is way off this topic of sports and sportsmanship, though there are significant parallels.

  22. We over-glamorize sports figures and they often get away with things most of us wouldn’t get away with. Not much different from rock stars or Hollywood, many of whom are paid at levels that would make the average athlete look like a minimum wage part time employee. Tell the truth about John Lennon that he hit a woman and see what response is among those who hold a romantocized view of him.

  23. We over-glamorize sports figures and they often get away with things most of us wouldn’t get away with. Not much different from rock stars or Hollywood, many of whom are paid at levels that would make the average athlete look like a minimum wage part time employee. Tell the truth about John Lennon that he hit a woman and see what response is among those who hold a romanticized view of him.

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