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.