Monday, June 14, 2010

A Taxonomy of Sports

Permit me to open with a few caveats and general statements. First, I do not regularly watch or follow sports. Second, I know people take the sports they follow and the teams the follow very seriously. Consider me then an impartial observer. My intent is to distinguish the appeal of various sports and to determine the significance or virtues of each. I will confine myself to the most popular sports. Also, I will not be quite as comprehensive as usual, my goal being more simply to encourage some deeper thinking about popular activities.

First we must begin with definitions. What is a sport? Sporting is a particularly vague word and today practically anything is considered a sport. I propose a finer distinction. I will start by saying what a sport is not. A sport is not simply a feat. A feat is simply a performance of something that is difficult to do, for example mountain-climbing, marksmanship, and weight-lifting are feats. Likewise a sport is more than simply a contest. The essence of a contest is what its name suggests, a mano-a-mano challenge like wrestling or fencing.

In contrast to a feat, which has no rules other than the natural limits that make the feat difficult, sports have man-made rules. These rules, though, should be sensible, complementary, and not arbitrary. They should not include deliberate handicaps or artificial constraints of time. While the feat has the harshness of necessity intrinsic to its nature the sport does not. Sports need not be as violent as natural contests are or seemingly impossible as feats. The rules ought to be appropriate to the central goal of the game, which ought to be simple in principle but difficult to master. They should not make the goal any harder than it is by nature. Whereas a feat has only the challenge imposed by nature and the contest has only the challenge imposed by the other player the sport ought to combine both in moderation, balancing the extremes. The player ought to be playing against an opponent to achieve the goal, not playing against the rules to achieve the goal. The rules create structure for the competition.

In contrast to the contest the sport is inherently social. It involves free men coming together of their own will to associate in sporting. The camaraderie of the team is integral to sporting, fostering both competition amongst the players as well as competition. As in life individuals use their unique skills to accomplish the task none of their teammates can, thus allowing a victory otherwise impossible.

Let us not forget an aspect of sporting integral to it though not unique: that of leisure. This can be inferred from the word itself, which derives from the word disport, which roughly means to carry away oneself from more serious matters. One takes up a sport in one's leisure time for the simple pleasure of it. It is an end in itself and the individual takes delight in it for that reason only. The object of sport is not like discovering or inventing something, or earning for practical remuneration, but a special and curious thing, desirable because it is pleasurable to do.

With these ideas in mind, let us consider a few sports of the major sports that seem to qualify (as many have been ruled out already.)

Basketball seems promising as it revolves around a simple concept difficult to master: get the ball in the opponent's net. There is likewise a team and it is not excessive in violence or challenge. But why must you effectively keep yourself and the ball in constant motion? And why is there a time limit? These are arbitrary rules that make the game proceed at an unnecessarily frenetic pace and for a duration of an arbitrary length. "But!" you may say, "if he can just run around with the ball you would have American football!" Indeed, but it is only by the distinction of this arbitrary rule then that the sport is to be unique?

Regarding American football, it seems promising too. It revolves around a simple concept difficult to master, requires much planning in the form of tactics and teamwork, and is challenging. Yet it is violent and most ungentlemanly. It also has arbitrary time constraints and rules about the passage of "game time." Also, the central challenge is practically non-existent. As with soccer/football, you essentially only play against the other team since the central challenge is so easy (anyone can, if he is unopposed, run across the field with a ball or kick a ball into a net.)

The issue that the game-play itself keeps stopping is of some but not great concern. While the carrying out of a play resembles a military maneuver the fact that the plays typically are so brief diminishes the similarity by resetting the situation. Yet while it adds excessive length, as we said earlier a sport ought to balance the extremes brought on by the necessities of feats. In battle, scoring is achieved through violence. (Here there is brutishness and mostly imitation-violence.) In American football, though, it is solved by getting to stop and start the situation anew. This is necessary as we said but the effect is that with the central feat being so easy, the players are mostly just running at each other and then stopping. The downs system remedies this in part by creating continuity from play to play. If American football is imperfect it is largely because its model is hard to adapt to civilized sporting.

Hockey is an unusual sport, essentially a modification of American football with the added challenge of being on ice, which also has implications for all of the equipment. None of these adjustments are virtues. They add challenge without any observable effect. It is likewise excessively violent and arbitrarily limited in duration.

Football/Soccer is perhaps the most curious of the major sports. It too is a modification of American football. Why can't you use your hands?! Likewise, why can you use your head? These are absurdly arbitrary rules and exist only to create a distinction between it and American football.

We see so far, though, that all of our sports are modifications of American football but that none are successful copies. We might add that both the football/soccer and hockey goalies add an additional and desirable mano-a-mano dynamic to the game, yet the constant interference of the other players diminishes this.

Baseball, however, is an altogether different sport. It revolves around teamwork and a simple concept difficult to master: throwing the ball past the batter or hitting the ball. In describing the central concept we immediately notice its uniqueness. The prime place of the pitcher and his unique role creates a completely different dynamic for the game. Baseball, in dividing the game between the contest between pitcher and batter and then batter and fielders balances both the need for teamwork and the classic mano-a-mano challenge. Unlike in football/soccer and hockey this one-on-one contest is free from interference because of a deliberate and not arbitrary rule.

It is the only sport we have looked at without an artificial time limit. It proceeds as long as the contest between the pitcher and batter takes. This may be long or short. Additionally to its credit, the central concept (throwing/hitting a ball) is difficult in itself but complicated by the skills of the other players. It also has unique and balancing elements of both stability and randomness: on the one hand players take the same positions on the field when fielding, but the positions of which players end up on base when trying to score are always random, since you cannot predict who will strike out or score.

It is competitive but not aggressively violent or confrontational, being non-contact. It requires health and stamina. It requires the player always keeps his mind in the game but does not require what other sports absurdly do, that the player be in constant motion. It does not require complicated equipment, the essences of the equipment being a stick and a ball. (A stick and a ball that fits in your hand are far more natural than the shapes of the equipment for other sports.) The glove/mitt is an essentially optional accessory. Early baseball was in fact played without gloves.

Baseball may seem more complicated than other sports, the pitcher-batter dynamic and the existence of having to run the bases being more complex than "get the ball in the net/goal." Yet unlike the adaptations of other sports these are for particular purposes. They enhance the dynamism of the game. By dynamism I mean both the range of potential outcomes and the motivating energy. Having men on base and outs and innings work with each other cumulatively to create a crescendo and decrescendo of dynamism. (Football comes closest to this with its system of "downs.") This is enhanced by the randomness of who ends up on which base when. In other sports it is simply, "X is winning, now Y is winning, now X is winning." Likewise regarding scoring, in some sports it is simply "x is about to score" over and over again at frenetic pace. These games appeal to individuals who cannot remain focused for a long time. Baseball achieves balance, (as does football to a good measure.) The tension builds slowly while at any moment a home run can shatter the status quo.

We see then that baseball and American football by far outshine their competitors and imitations by having rational and complementary rules, though baseball succeeds by a wider margin. Baseball's dynamism makes it the most entertaining to watch and the manner in which it achieves said dynamism makes it more gentlemanly to play.


  1. Please discuss your input and overall opinion of the the sport of lacrosse, which has become vastly popular over the past few decades.

    - A.

  2. Hello and thanks for writing! I think you're correct to want to include lacrosse and the sport seems to me to share in the virtue of football (tactical possibilities) and one of the lesser vices of hockey (a rather curious tool with which one plays.) I'm not really sure what is gained by using the lacrosse stick. What do you think?