Ask fans in the stands or a star athlete on the sidelines about the connection between philosophy and sports, and it’s a fair bet that many would find the question puzzling.
Philosophy, after all, is seen by many as a kind of ultimate pursuit of the mind, while sports is deemed an expression of the body. As the late Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss pointed out in his groundbreaking 1969 book, Sport: A Philosophical Inquiry, every human society watch and participate in sports, yet the world’s greatest philosophers barely brushed against the subject, considering it vulgar.
Alex Wolf-Root, a former collegiate track athlete pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, first got the idea to create a course melding philosophy and sports following a conversation with a co-worker about “Deflategate.” For non-sports fans, that was the media’s tag for a scandal in which the New England Patriots were found guilty of deliberating deflating footballs during the 2014-15 American Football Conference championship, allegedly to make it easier for star quarterback Tom Brady to throw the ball.
“Assuming the allegations were true, it raises some interesting philosophical questions,” says Wolf-Root, who is not a football fan.
That seed has now bloomed into a course, Philosophy and Sports (PHIL 2240), offered for the first time at CU Boulder for the fall 2018 semester. Most of Wolf-Root’s 32 students have never before taken a philosophy course, which is exactly what he was hoping for.
“I wanted to pull people into philosophy classes who would never otherwise do that, to practice the skills of philosophy and discuss interesting issues they otherwise wouldn’t discuss,” he says.
He deliberately dropped his students into the deep end during the first weeks of the course, examining such conceptual issues as the nature of sports, sportspersonship and cheating.
“The first unit is really about the metaphysics of sport,” he says, “though I never used the word ‘metaphysics.’”
From there, the class is designed to tackle four hot-button applied topics: doping, collegiate athletics, sex and gender, and sports and politics.
Wolf-Root has had strong feelings about doping in sport, though many of his views changed once he began to critically examine the issues. Regardless of his own views, he has sought to foster discussions that will help his students see shades of gray. For example, using caffeine isn’t considered doping, even though the drug has been shown to give endurance athletes a leg up. Likewise, many athletes use iron supplements to boost red-blood-cell counts and improve oxygen uptake.
“Talking about ‘unnatural’ enhancement is incredibly problematic,” he says. “What does it mean for something to be ‘natural’? Wearing clothes isn’t ‘natural.’”
Ultimately, it’s all about context, he argues, and what’s agreed upon within the sporting community.
The course examines two main questions pertaining to collegiate athletics: The connection, if any, between athletics and academics, and the exploitation of athletes in money-generating sports such as football and basketball.
Talking about ‘unnatural’ enhancement is incredibly problematic,” he says. “What does it mean for something to be ‘natural’? Wearing clothes isn’t ‘natural.’”
Wolf-Root is so troubled by some of those issues that he won’t watch big-time college athletics—men's basketball and football in the "Power Five" conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC). He sees big-time college athletes as “exploited free labor” and is dubious about the traditional arguments supporting athletic programs at colleges and universities.
“Supporters say (athletics) teaches values of teamwork, leadership and hard work,” he notes. “But not only is it not clear that big-time college athletics teaches that, there also are tons of other ways to learn those skills.”
Wolf-Root sees the value of connecting athletics with the modern university, but believes the current system is unjustifiable. That's not to say that he doesn't see a value of connecting athletics with the modern university, but rather that he sees the current system as unjustifiable.
Issues relating to gender in sports can be contentious. Sex and gender, he notes, are not the same thing, and neither is strictly binary; not even anatomical or chromosomal differences are always clear cut.
Binary approaches to athletics can lead to humiliating or invasive situations, as when South African runner Caster Semenya was forced to withdraw from competition until she underwent a “sex verification test.” She was later allowed to return to competition, though allegedly only after she underwent mandatory hormone therapy.
And determining what is an “unfair” advantage can get tricky, Wolf-Root says.
“People under six feet tall are more likely to be discriminated against in professional basketball, and most professional sprinters have an innate physical advantage because they have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers,” he notes. “That might be unfair, but is it necessarily problematic?”
He literally laughs at the idea that there has ever been a time when sports have been free from politics, noting that African-American baseball players were forced to play in separate leagues for decades and that the U.S. Department of Defense has spent millions of dollars to turn professional football games into a platform for its messaging.
When former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem to bring attention to racial injustice, many Americans accused him of disrespecting the military. Meanwhile, former college and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who is white, was widely hailed for kneeling in prayer after scoring touchdowns.
“Kneeling is one of the more accepted ways of non-violent protest. It shows respect,” Wolf-Root says. “But people hate Kaepernick because he’s using his platform to put a spotlight on how racist our society is.”
Whatever his own opinions, Wolf-Root hopes that such discussions will help his students “cultivate critical-reasoning skills.”
“Education is not just about getting a job. It’s about helping students learn the skills to flourish and engage in the world around them, be it in work, life or politics. Even more broadly, it's about helping students figure out what matters to them, and what makes their lives have meaning and value," he says.