Philosophy of Sport – new video interviews

Over at our video blog, we have a series of new video-interviews about the Philosophy of Sport. They involve interview with Dr Emily Ryall, and can be seen at

Topics include sport as morally educational, sport as art, and whether we should regard sporting greats as heroes or role models.

Dr Ryall also wrote one of the (according to our stats) most popular posts on this blog. Back in 2007 she looked at some of the basic issues that impact on the issues of defining what sport is. You can read the post at 


The Athlete in a Future of Sport and Technology

Gloucestershire Philosophical Society

Wednesday, 27th. October, 2010, 7.30.p.m.

FCH Room HC203.

Dr. Emily Ryall, of University of Gloucestershire, will give a talk on:

“Beyond Human: Conceptualising the Athlete in a Future of Sport and Technology“.

All welcome.

The Philosophy Society

Dr. Emily Ryall from Oxstalls Campus is giving a paper and opening a discussion for the reading group on Thursday, 3rd June. The abstract and reading links are posted below. Remember we are now meeting at the earlier time of 6pm, so meet outside the SU Bar at Park Campus at 5.55pm. The Gallery Room is now closed for the summer and I am still awaiting the booking for a seminar room. I am unable to come tomorrow evening but you will be under the excellent charge of Emily. Is anybody willing to collect the key from security? If somebody could volunteer for this small but important detail, please let me know.


Being-for-oneself and being-for-others in sport: An existentialist critique.

I have argued in a previous paper (Ryall 2008) that sport seems to provide an area whereby the nature of being is intensely illuminated; for we are always aware that it is something that is voluntarily engaged in and has no meaning beyond that which we give it. In addition to this, the nature of sport provides a stage upon which the free choices we make are wholly visible both to ourselves and to others, and the emotions of pride and shame, contempt and respect (of varying degrees) are common. Such emotions, according to Sartre, demonstrate the on-going battle between ourselves and others to be authentic and in good-faith, and not fall foul of self deception nor the reduction of oneself by another to a mere object. As such, this paper will attempt to apply some existentialist (mainly Sartrean)ideas regarding authenticity and good-faith to the world of sport, and will consider whether Sartre’s notion of ‘the look’ exposes the problem of these emotions and the way we view ourselves and others in sport.

For my previous, 2008, paper on the nature of being a substitute in sport see: HERE
For an earlier draft of the paper being presented see: HERE

Cheating and Sport?

I am not that interested in professional football; the cultural imperative for all men to attend with irrational gusto to the minutiae of its details leaves me cold, and feeling distanced from it. Nonetheless, I was struck by Guardian sport blog headline:

The night France’s philosopher king spat in the face of the common man

Now, the headline seems wholly over the top: but maybe there is something of interest here. I forced myself to read the entry. And, there was indeed something of interest there. The blog author (Paul Hayward) notes that the French coach sees the incident as failure of the referee – and not a matter of cheating. I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating says the French coach.

The blog author advances more evidence of the same attitude in sport – and this leads him to the view that as far as many players and others are concerned – they should be able to do anything and it is then the job of the match officials to spot and punish rule-breaking. Paul writes:

With each swan dive, handball and feigned injury we have shuffled to the moment where the modern player thinks it is his duty to cheat, and the responsibility of the state to stop him. To Henry and Domenech, this was a failure not of spirit, of fair play or values but of governance

This is interesting. The idea here is that you should do anything you can to win – and the game is to avoid detection. The rules, it implies, are to be enforced onto you, not something you seek to follow from an intrinsic respect for them. Is it fair to say that many feel the same about the law? If we think about a particular part of the law – motoring restrictions (against speeding, parking where we choose, etc) – I think there parallel is quite striking.

To return to sport though, does such a view not mean that cheating is impossible? If you get away with it – that is fine; if you are caught, you are punished and the rules are upheld. I wonder if I feel the same about lying, or stealing…


New Author – Emily Ryall

Hello everyone, and thanks to Dave for trusting that I’m not going to abuse my privileges as a site author.

For those of you that are unaware of the fact: believe it or not, the Sport, Health and Social Care students do have a philosophy strand to their courses (it’s not all running about on the astroturf!) – and that is where I come in. So let me introduce myself. Although my background was originally in Philosophy and Linguistics I am now lecturing over at Oxstalls mainly on the Sports & Exercise Science, and Sports Development degrees. This year I will be taking over the Sports Ethics modules (SV201 and SV302) which will hopefully be the forum for some very stimulating discussion surrounding the issues of violence, doping, and cheating in sport, as well as other aspects; for instance, the relationship between politics and ethics in sporting events. As both of these are on the RPE pathway I hope I would not offend my colleagues at FCH too much in encouraging the RPE students to take up the opportunity of one of these modules.

Additionally, I will be setting up a philosophy and ethics reading group in the University. It is anticipated that this will be a very informal session where we can attempt to comprehend and discuss issues in selected texts. More details will follow in the near future but I hope our first meeting to be around Week 2 of term. Again, I would encourage any interested parties to participate.

Other than that, you can find out more about me and my research interests on either my own website: or on the official faculty page (which also has a very cheesy photo of me!).

Defining Sport


As promised: a longer consideration of the nature of ‘Sport’. This is by my colleague, Dr Emily Ryall, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy over at the Faculty of Sport, Health and Social Care at Oxstalls Campus (University of Gloucestershire).

In the piece below she considers: what is a sport?

Defining Sport

In philosophy we are encouraged to define our concepts with relation to necessary and sufficient conditions. In the case of sport, the Analytical approach has attempted to do this. A fairly accessible definition of sport is given by Coakley:

Sports are institutionalized competitive activities that involve rigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by participants motivated by personal enjoyment and external rewards. (Coakley, 2001; p.20)

However, a more thorough place to start is with Bernard Suits’ exploration of this issue. In particular, Suits considers, what seems to be, the significant relationship between games and sport. His seminal work, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, spends considerable time dissecting what it is for something to be a game. He concludes that the four essential elements are the goal, rules, means and lusory attitude.

The (Pre-lusory) Goal

Suits dismisses the goals of participating and winning to maintain that the goal of a game is “a specific achievable state of affairs… that can be described before, or independently of, any game of which it may be or become a part.” (1978; p36-37) Examples of this are, gaining three noughts or crosses in a row in the case of noughts and crosses, scoring more goals than your opponent in the case of football or hockey, or completing an approved set of actions to a particular standard in the case of high board diving.

The (Lusory) Means

Game playing is the selection of inefficient means. That is, to make a particular goal harder to achieve than is necessary. It would be easy to win at Monopoly if one had unlimited money and could continue to roll the dice until one achieved the number desired. Likewise, one could achieve the specific state of affairs in golf by walking to the hole and placing the ball in the cup. This aspect of selecting inefficient means is what distinguishes games from work.

The Rules

(Arbitrary) rules (that are the selection of inefficient means) are accepted for the sake of the activity. In this sense then, the rules and ends are inseparable in games as the achievement of the goal is limited by the rules prescribing the means of achieving it. If a player were to have limitless money and roll the dice until they rolled the number they wished they would not be playing the game of Monopoly at all. Conversely, the player that places by hand her ball in the cup is not playing the game of golf.

The Lusory Attitude

This is the attitude held by players that they knowingly accept the rules to allow the game to be played. As Suits says, “in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do, whereas in games it appears to be an absolutely essential thing to do.” (1995; p.10)

So what does Suits say about sport? On this he changes position. He first said that sports are a special class of games but with added elements, namely: they must be games of skill, the skill must be physical, they must have a wide following, and achieve a certain level of stability. This would rule out games of chance, such as roulette, and games of mental skill such as poker. However, Suits later changes his claim that all sports are games as it doesn’t account for performance sports, such as gymnastics, which would not be classified as games.

As to whether darts is a sport, to a certain degree it fulfils both Suits’ and Coakley’s criteria. It is a game of skill to throw a dart at a target; it undoubtedly has a large following and has achieved a level of stability. The most problematic criteria seems to be the one requiring the skill to be physical. One could argue that it is physically demanding to be standing for long periods of time throwing darts at a board but this is not the same kind of physical skill that is involved in playing rugby or even in archery. Even if we focus upon Coakley’s requirement that it is necessary to be at least a relatively complex physical skill, though perhaps not rigorous, we might be able to argue that there are other activities that fulfil this criteria but that which we would not want to call a sport. The games of ‘snap’ or ‘scissors, paper, stone’ for instance, are probably more physically demanding than darts and fulfil the other criteria, yet we would probably not want to label these as sports. For this reason, it seems that the analytical approach is useful but inadequate as there may be some instances which fulfil the necessary and sufficient conditions but which we would not want to label as sport, and others that don’t fulfil these conditions that we do want to call sport.

The other approach that is taken towards a definition of sport is one that specifies that sport can only be defined in context. Any definition is grounded in society, culture and history and is dependent on who is being asked and to what instance is being referred. One might argue that an unequivocal example of sport is football and point to an officiated match played according to FIFA rules. However, would a five-a-side friendly in a local sports hall still be the same sport, or even an impromptu kick around in the park that consisted of three players using their jumpers as goal posts? If the rules of this kick around were changed to such an extent that players could only score if they volleyed the ball in, or headed the ball in, or had made six consecutive passes would it be football at all? In such an instance, we might argue that they are not playing the sport of football at all nor even the game of football but simply another game that resembles the sport of football. It is perhaps here that we can turn to Wittgenstein. First, his notion of family resemblance acknowledges the fact that we are able to trace common links between various instances of things we would call sport though there may not be any resemblance between one particular instance and another. Second and ultimately, that which we call sport and that which we dismiss as a game or other activity, is dependent on agreement in language. This, in itself, he calls a ‘language-game’ (…or is it a sport?!).


Coakley, J. (2001). Sport in Society: issues and controversies. New York: McGraw Hill.

Suits, B. (1978). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. London: University of Toronto Press.

Suits, B. (1995). ‘The elements of sport’ in Morgan, W. P. & Meier, K. V. (eds.) Philosophic Inquiry in Sport, Leeds: Human Kinetics, pp.8-15.

Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical Investigations. (Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe) Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dr Emily Ryall
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Faculty of Sport, Health & Social Care
University of Gloucestershire, UK