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Philosophy, Sports, and the Public Sphere

April 26, 2017

Professor McNulty of the philosophy department

Professor McNulty of the philosophy department
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

If there is anything at all that philosophy has nothing to say about, one is tempted to think it might be sports. But in Spring 2017, philosophy professor Bennett McNulty showed otherwise, teaching a freshman seminar on the philosophy of sports entitled Sports, Reason, and Society. “Sports have existed in human cultures for thousands of years,” says McNulty, “and continue to be a prominent fixture of contemporary society. We not only have personal experience participating in athletic competitions, but we have also engaged in or witnessed arguments about topics in sports.” Like other human social activities, McNulty points out, sports give rise to their own philosophical problems.  Contrary to appearances, then, philosophy has much to say when it comes to sports.

Among the questions posed and taken up in the course, some were conceptual or theoretical: What is a sport anyway? How does it differ from a game? What does it mean to know how to play a game? But much of the semester was spent focusing on practical questions about the place of sports in contemporary society, the social, economic, and political issues arising therefrom,  and how we ought to go about addressing them. Though we often think of sports as mere harmless entertainment, McNulty emphasizes that sports have ethical implications; the philosophy of sports goes beyond ontology and epistemology. As an example, McNulty points to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the preparations for which have been characterized by rampant corruption and the use of slave labor in the construction of stadia. In light of these facts, McNulty believes that it is not clear that supporting FIFA—by, say, watching the World Cup — is morally permissible. Indeed, we may even have a moral imperative to take action in response, such as boycotting the game. Thus, those of us who enjoy or participate in sports—most of us—face moral dilemmas, dilemmas of which we may not be immediately aware or to which the answers may be unclear. “As consumers of sports, we have ethical obligations,” says McNulty. And deciphering such obligations is a task to which the toolkit of the philosopher can be most helpful.  

Unfortunately, as with many pressing ethical issues, those arising in professional sports are so often easily discounted and ignored. Even many of those who are aware of, say, the fact that a sports stadium is being erected by slaves find themselves able to cast such a concern aside, absolving themselves of any sense of their own moral responsibility. “These ethical issues are often easy to discount,” says McNulty, “because they’re often so far away from us.” Insofar as philosophy provides us with the means to overcome such moral provincialism, thereby recognizing our ethical obligations, McNulty believes that the discipline has much to offer in confronting the morally and socially problematic aspects of professional sports.

Though professional sports certainly have their share of ethical problems, McNulty does not believe that sports are unique in this regard. On the contrary, he is quick to point out that morality is ubiquitous in human affairs, and consequently that philosophy, in providing the tools to consider moral dilemmas, is especially suited to foster a sense of social, civic, and ethical engagement. It is partially for this reason that, in collaboration with his colleague Professor Jessica Gordon-Roth, McNulty is currently designing a course on critical reasoning, expected to have its first run in Spring 2018.

Intended to provide students with toolkit for thinking critically, McNulty hopes that the course will encourage the application of philosophy to social problems. He believes that the kind of critical reasoning skills that will be taught in the course—evaluating arguments, identifying fallacies, recognizing media manipulation, and navigating the disorienting terrain of digital media—is much needed: “The public sphere is lacking, in a way, in certain skills of critical thinking,” he says, “especially in politics. And philosophy is uniquely situated to address this.” Much like sports, politics and the public sphere are not only relevant, even central, to most of our lives but also rife with their share of ethical issues, to which philosophy can prove most illuminating. The kinds of critical thinking skills to be taught in the course are, then, not only of interest to budding philosophers but to the entire student body; they are, as McNulty puts it, “skills not just useful for philosophers but necessary for being a citizen.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.