September 2019

On Being a Poor Sport

This week’s post is brought to you by Mark Brewin, OCH Fellow and Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. Mark works at the intersection of politics, media, and popular culture. His current project focuses on the political implications of modern sport. Dr. Brewin’s interest in sport dates back to a childhood on the Canadian Prairies. He was a hockey fan as a young boy, which was more or less a cultural requirement in that place, at that time, and his earliest sporting hero was Bernie Parent, the goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Imagine the following. We are at the Monaco Grand Prix, and a famous Brazilian race car driver is leading the pack with only a few laps to go. He is almost certain to win the race. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a small baby appears on the track (How did the baby get there, you ask? This is a thought experiment. Come up with something. Obviously extremely poor parenting is involved.)  The driver can veer off the track so that he doesn’t drive over the baby, but that is against the rules of the course, and so it will cost him the race. He takes the other option, which is to run over the baby. In making that decision, he wins the race.

Is the driver still playing a game?

Bernard Suits apparently thought so, since this is (more or less) the example he used, in his philosophical dialogue The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, to illustrate what he called the “lusory” attitude. Part of Suits’ definition of games concerns the need for the player to maintain that lusory attitude, by which he means sticking to the rules of the game in order to achieve the defined goal (which in a sport like car racing, is to win). We might think that the driver is a moral monster to make the decision that he did; Suits might agree and the driver himself might even concede the point. That is irrelevant. What is important is that he continues to operate within the rules of the game (there is no formal stricture in Grand Prix racing against running over babies, that I am aware of) and thus successfully completes his goal. He keeps playing the game.[1]

When I first came across Suits’ argument in the second week of the research seminar on play sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, I didn’t care for it. It wasn’t the graphic nature of the example (Suits is a philosopher. This is what they do, apparently): I just didn’t agree with the idea that the driver in this instance could still be said to be playing a game, since part of what it means to play a game is to not take the thing too seriously. If you cannot understand that, if you cannot understand that there are things outside the game—what we might call “real life”—that are more important than the game, then it seemed to me that you have made some sort of mistake.


My counter-claim was, I will admit, pretty fuzzy and inchoate, but it came into better focus for me the next week of the seminar, when I read a passage from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens about poor sports. Huizinga claims at one point that the poor sport is a bigger problem for the other players than the cheater, perhaps because the latter still respects the rules of the game enough to dissemble.

It seems to me that there are two types of poor sport. The first is one who, like Suits’ car driver, can’t understand that there are limits that we place on the game. There are geographical limits, temporal limits, and also a kind of moral limit. To play a game—in order for it to be play, and to be a game—is to implicitly recognize that there are some things outside the game that matter more than the game. This first kind of poor sport is exactly the sort of person who doesn’t seem to recognize this fact. Many of us, I suspect, have encountered these types of people: someone who is willing to sacrifice things like another’s health (mental or physical) or personal relationships, or an ethical principle, in order to win the game. For the poor sport, winning is so important that it triumphs over everything else: at the very dark end of the continuum the poor sport starts to seem mentally unbalanced. In a milder cast, the poor sport is the person who refuses to shake an opponent’s hand after a loss, storming off in a huff while everyone else looks around, slightly embarrassed. “Calm down,” we say to such people. “It’s only a game.”

But both Huizinga and Suits would argue that it is a mistake to contrast play, or the game, with seriousness, since very often we play games with a great deal of seriousness. In fact, Huizinga argues that the highest forms of play are those played with the utmost seriousness.. Those moments of play in my life that most stick in my memory were the ones where things seemed most serious, and everyone engaged in the event more or less agreed that what we were doing at that moment was of the utmost importance. What destroys those moments is the second kind of poor sport: the person who fails to engage, who is not serious enough. This is the player who doesn’t try, or who gives every indication that she thinks the whole thing is silly, and not worth her attention. When we get frustrated with her, she retorts, “what are you getting so upset about? It’s only a game..”

Roger Caillois lists as one of his elements of a game the aspect of the “make-believe.” I don’t know what the original term is in French: in English it doesn’t quite find the right tone. I would replace it with, “as-if.” In order to play a game we must act as if the games we play are important, as if the most important thing in the world is that the relief pitcher keep the opposing batter from driving in the run, or as if our high school math teacher, standing on the stage with a crown on his head, is Macbeth. But we also understand at the same time that this is not really how things are. No one really killed anyone else with a dagger, and no one will really suffer physical torments if Aaron Rogers hits the home run. This is what it means to play: to be able to keep in one’s head the contradictory understanding that what I am doing is absolutely the most important thing in the world, and that it is also utterly irrelevant. The skillful player, the good sport, is the one who can accomplish this most consistently and with the least amount of conscious effort.

One of the many reasons that I suspect Suits would have a problem with my argument here is that it does not provide a clear set of criteria for how we know when someone is playing a game and when they are not. Suits seems to be a fellow who likes to define things clearly, but there is an element of play that escapes such rigorous intellectual analysis, I think, and this may be largely because play is something we do, not something we think. It rewards embodied or implicit rather than explicit knowledge, a “feel for the game,” which is granted only to the very skillful.  Playing a game, or playing anything else, is not something that can ever be fully translated from text to act. This is what true skill (something that I, alas, have never achieved) knows.


As I was writing the above, I was in the midst of gathering up lecture notes for a class I am teaching this semester on media and sport. The text I was using for the class was Pierre Bourdieu’s Sport and Social Class. One of the points that Bourdieu makes in that essay—it is not unique to him—is that sport was an invention of the modern world, and more specifically, that it was the invention of the modern ruling class in England. Sport was a way to imbue the younger, male members of that class with the attitudes, and the mental and physical skills, they  would need to wield the levers of social control. In Bourdieu’s terminology, sport promoted a certain kind of habitus, a way of being in the world. What the young men playing these school sports needed to learn, Bourdieu argues, was precisely a studied disinterest in the game, the attitude of the amateur, not the professional or the fanatic. It was this stance toward the outcome of a match that defined the “good sport”: the term itself probably comes out of that English schoolboy culture of the 19th century. And there was a reason, of course, why that attitude was associated with that group of people. Wealthy young men could play as if the game wasn’t really all that important, because for them it wasn’t. Their futures would be decided elsewhere: on the floors of Parliament, or in the offices of important banks or international corporations. The players who took the game too seriously, who turned sports like soccer or, in this country, baseball, into professional and very serious affairs and who destroyed the ethos of amateurism in those sports, were more likely than not young men who came from much less privileged backgrounds. There was less distinction for such athletes between the game and the realities that would determine their futures.

I live an extraordinarily privileged existence: not the one of elite dominance provided by the English public schools of the Victorian era, to be sure, but one that affords me the luxury of cultivating a kind of abstract, contradictory stance toward play. I get to sit in on a weekly seminar and play with all sorts of interesting notions about play, with other interesting people. It is important for people like me to keep that privilege in mind when we develop our theories about what play is and why it matters.

[1] Of course, we would not say, in English, that the driver was “playing” in any case, since car racing is one of those sports—like rowing, or athletics—that one does not play, in contrast to sports like basketball or football. For the purpose of my argument we can bracket that linguistic issue, as my argument (like Suits’) is meant to apply broadly to participation in any game or sport, although perhaps not to play outside those realms.

Play, Talk, and Friendships

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to begin its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2019-20 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of play– a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Lars Engle, a Chapman Professor of English and chair of the English Department at TU. Lars likes most games but is not a gamer.  He regards himself as a playful person and appreciates playfulness in others.


Play, Talk, and Friendships:

Video and computer gaming lie largely outside my experience. I play tennis regularly, but I now rarely play board games or card games. I limit myself to the NYT mini-crossword each morning because the full crossword takes way too long, and lately I’ve also been playing the online NYT’s new Tiles game while my coffee gets to work but find myself getting a little bored with it. I think of myself, nonetheless, as a playful person. So where does playfulness lie for people like me?

Let’s go back to the beginnings of play in each life: how do people learn to play, and what are they learning?  My guru in this matter is D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971), the pediatrician, psychotherapist, and psychoanalyst who wrote Playing and Reality and reassured anxious parents with the term “the good-enough mother.” Winnicott found the origins of creative living in the infant’s use of what he named “transitional objects,” objects central in the transition an infant makes from living in a world existing only of itself and the breast or bottle that appears as needed to gratify its desires, to living in a world that mostly consists of “external reality,” that is, people and things largely indifferent to its needs.  The blankets and teddy-bears to which infants attach themselves in the absence of the care-giver, Winnicott believes, lie neither outside the child in “reality” nor inside the child’s psyche.  Rather they are transitional between total self-immersion and the acceptance of a frustrating world one must put up with.  For Winnicott, the intermediate space, neither psychic nor objectively real, that transitional objects inhabit remains with healthy people as a component of adult life.  Playfulness and creativity in adults as well as children requires comfort there:

The important part of this concept is that whereas inner psychic reality has a kind of location in the mind or in the belly or in the head or somewhere within the bounds of the individual’s personality, and whereas what is called external reality is located outside those bounds, playing and cultural experience can be given a location if one uses the concept of the potential space between the mother and the baby (Playing and Reality 71-2).

To be successful, Winnicott asserts, his own work of psychotherapy must be playful:

 Psychotherapy is done in the overlap of two play areas, that of the patient and that of the therapist. If the therapist cannot play, then he is not suitable for the work.  If the patient cannot play, then something needs to be done to enable the patient to become able to play, after which psychotherapy may begin.  The reason why playing is essential is that it is in playing that the patient is being creative (Playing and Reality 72, italics Winnicott’s).

One of Winnicott’s favorite forms of play with child patients was the Squiggle Game, where he would draw a random line, and the child would add to it, and he would add another, and the child yet another, creating drawings like this:


The playfulness needed for therapy also has its place in teaching, and in administration, indeed in any form of work where a hierarchy exists but exists to pass authority along to another generation.  But more fundamentally, I think, it has its place in friendship.  The playfulness that facilitates friendship is an attitude toward shared activities (in my case preeminently conversation, but also games like tennis and work-tasks like committee membership) that recognizes the activity as partaking both in external reality and in the idiosyncratic psychic lives of each participant.  Playfulness for me is a gravitation toward active pleasure in exploring this space.

I love to talk.  And to listen.  Parties, for instance, make me nervous until I find someone who actually wants to talk about something that feels real for both of us.  Sometimes I’m talking with someone whose life is very different from my own, sometimes talking with people who share my general intellectual formation, even with fellow English professors of my generation who have read the same books and teared up over the same poems.  In the first kind of conversation, there’s pleasure in discovery, sometimes also pleasure in a kind of bouncing our differences back and forth to see whether they hold up as differences or morph into similarities.  Playful, in that if we are well-intentioned people conversation makes a kind of safe zone for pleasurable rather than reproachful or angry exploration of difference.

In the second kind of conversation, talking with people I share a lot of particular experiences with – like other people who love Shakespeare, or other people who grew up reading J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin – the talk often involves allusion or quotation: it attempts form and aspires to wit.  Snobbish?  Well certainly full of snobbish potential, if what I say happens to enforce an “I know something you don’t know” difference, that is, if I am showing off in order to make someone else feel bad.  My younger sisters say I showed off in this way as a young teen, and I believe them.  But now?  I think of a conversation that pushes me and my interlocutors to move quickly around and within a set of intellectual issues as joyous, mutually enlarging, but only marginally competitive.   If it pushes one or both or all of us to self-disclosure and thus potential self-discovery, well, better yet.

The ephemerality of playful conversation resembles the inconsequence or impracticality of games and other forms of play, but it perhaps exceeds other forms of play in its spontaneity and the informality of its beginnings and endings: it does not have particularly sharp boundaries.  We know someone we like to talk to about things, someone who can make us laugh or surprise us into seeing something in a different way: talking with such a person is playful and potentially serious at the same time.  For Winnicott, we are allowing the overlap of inner experience with outer reality by entering a play-zone where neither has sovereignty.

For me, then, play essentially involves an openness to friendship, and while games may well open one in this way, they aren’t the dominant form of play, nor do they invariably serve its most important social function.

Big Ideas at TU: Killers of the Flower Moon


As one of our annual Big Ideas at TU events, the Oklahoma Center for Humanities will distribute 50 free copies of David Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon.

In advance of Grann’s Presidential Lecture on Oct. 22, we will host a public discussion forum on Oct. 17 at the Helmerich Center for American Research. A panel of native activists and artists will speak to the book, the upcoming film adaptation, and native representation.

We ask that as participants read Killers of the Flower Moon, they consider the following discussion questions:

  1. What do you think was the main motive for the murders?
  2. What reactions do you have to the race-based federal laws regarding Osage guardianship?
  3. If this book was told from an Osage perspective, how would the story would be different?
  4. How could Martin Scorsese weave Osage narrative – not FBI or local non-Native narrative – into his film?

Wilson Pipestem will moderate, and audience members will have an opportunity to discuss questions with the panelists.

The event is free and open to the public.

Free copies of the book can be picked up in Tyrrell Hall on the University of Tulsa campus, Mon-Fri from 9-5 p.m.

To learn more, visit the event page here.