Thoughts on Games, Sports, and Beauty

“Beauty,” according to David Foster Wallace, “is not the goal of competitive sports,” and it might seem odd, misguided, and sort of pointless to argue otherwise–but that is still exactly what I would like to do. He goes on: “but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. . . . Beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.” And yet later in the essay, when DFW is observing the technical and tactical intricacies of Roger Federer’s play, he is not transfixed solely by the gorgeous kineticism of the body but also by the perfection of tennis. What arouses DFW’s literary imagination is the sort of inverse mysticism of the body transcending the mind, the necessary neurological pre-consciousness of Federer’s responses, however tactically ingenious; but it is also the particular beauty of a particular game played at its highest competitive level.

If I want to show that this special kind of lusory beauty is central to the purpose of competitive sports—and, for some fucking reason, I do–it’s necessary to defend the classification of sports as games in the first place. I don’t mean the existence of an overlap between the two categories, which is pretty much incontestable, but the total inclusion of “sports” within “games,” which must not be, or the philosopher David Papineau couldn’t have recently mounted an attack on it. Papineau confronts this notion in the form of Canadian philosopher Bernard Suits, whose book The Grasshopper: Life, Games, and Utopia has become a philosophical cult classic. The Grasshopper, framed as a charming dialogue in which the ill-prepared Grasshopper who starves to death in Aesop’s fable (having somehow acquired the personality traits of Socrates and Jesus Christ), gives a definition of games; thoroughly defends the definition through many fanciful examples; and gives a more cursory defense of games’ value through their indispensable role in an ideal state of society.

Here, to get the topic of debate firmly before us, is Suits’s (or rather the Grasshopper’s) full definition of games :

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (Suits, 41)

“So far, so good,” writes Papineau,

But Suits goes wrong when he suggests that sports are a subspecies of games. In truth, while some sports are games—tennis, cricket, soccer—many others are not—running, rowing, skiing. And in assimilating sports to games, Suits misunderstands what makes them worthwhile. In Suits’ view, the value of games, and therefore of sports, lies in meeting the challenge of the arbitrary obstacles they impose. This seems to me to trivialize things. If something isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing even when it’s made difficult. If that was all there was to it, we may as well stick to snakes and ladders.

Papineau misplays here in three ways (setting aside the literary-critical misstep of conflating Suits and his Grasshopper, which is real but not strictly relevant here): First, he engages primarily with Suits’s “more portable version” of the definition, which is easier to invoke in a brief blog post but which clouds the rigor with which Suits suits his definition to everything Papineau would class as sports. Second, Papineau offers a competing definition of sports:”If you want a definition of sport, I would say that it is any activity whose primary purpose is the exercise of physical skills.” But to argue with Suits he needs a competing definition of games—after all, the Grasshopper spends many chapters demonstrating that his definition applies to this and that example, and saying the examples also fit a separate definition of sports doesn’t change whether they are games. It’s understandable, since the value of sports is what Papineau wants to talk about, but it still leaves Suits unscathed.

Here’s something of an edge case: competitive weightlifting. On its surface it might seem like just the sort of case where Papineau’s definition of a sport might obtain and Suits’s of a game might not. Lifting heavy objects is patently a physical skill and competitive weightlifting is all about exercising it. Meanwhile if the (prelusory) goal is to lift up very large weights, the permitted means of lifting them line up pretty well with the natural considerations of how to lift them without injuring oneself. But the limiting prohibitions, as Suits would analyze it, are against using any means other than ones body to lift the weights. This is relevant as competitive weightlifting at high levels deals in weights one might plausibly employ heavy machinery to move. Why do the participants submit to the restriction of using only the body to lift massive weights? Because it makes possible the activity of competitive weightlifting—the “lusory attitude” in Suits’s full definition. So even a case such as this is a game under Suits’s rubric, and it’s hard to see what wouldn’t be that is also a sport under Papineau’s. Suits would probably have to concede that mere strength training, when undertaken not for its own sake but to build muscle, is not a game (since the means adopted, of lifting heavy things with the body, are not arbitrary but simply the best way of achieving the end of muscle-building)—but would Papineau want to concede that it’s a sport?

The third and most crucial misplay: Papineau misconstrues what Suits means when he writes “just because they make possible such activity”; he seems to take “such activity” to mean overcoming arbitrary obstacles, but “such activity” means the game in question. So golfers do not restrict themselves to propelling a ball with certain types of clubs for the sake of overcoming arbitrary restrictions, but they do do it for the sake of playing golf. This is a different thing from, as Papineau would contend, doing it for the sake of the physical skills exercised in golf—more on this later. This misreading leads to a serious misunderstanding of where games derive their value according to Suits’s Grasshopper. I’m not certain that Suits really makes any positive claims regarding where games get their value. His closing chapters, which cover the utopia part of “Life, Games, and Utopia,” do make the case that in a society with sufficiently abundant resources and sufficiently automated labor, games become the only form of human activity possible—or rather all forms of human activity collapse into Suits’s definition of games. This is to say the lusory attitude becomes the only avenue of approaching all human activities, but this is only a good thing inasfar as those activities have some value in themselves, for the sake of which they’re undertaken (as the definition of lusory attitude in fact implies.) These chapters are also where the identification of Suits and his fanciful Grasshopper becomes, to my mind, most vexed and ironic; but even setting that aside, Papineau’s reading of Suits seems like a willful misreading, perhaps motivated by his palpable distaste for Suits and his fans, whom he suspects of pasty, unathletic characteristics. Papineau gets jockishly squeamish about Suits’s personality, and so attributes to him an absurd position.

Many sports comprise actions that exist outside the defining rules of any sport—running, rowing, etc. But when these actions are considered as sports they must mean the actions when socially constructed as activities undertaken for their own sake. Running as mere exercise is not the sport of running; rowing as the best way to get to a remote island is not the sport of rowing; subsistence hunting in the Alaskan bush is not hunting for sport. It is precisely when the activity is voluntarily undertaken for its own sake—when it is a game à la Suits—that it becomes a sport. The American/Canadian usage of sports vs. the British sport may have an impact on Papineau’s analysis; perhaps framing things in British English makes it more tempting to grant all athletic activity, even when it is not clearly a sport, a general inclusion in a broad category of life called sport.

So perhaps I’ll grant this, in the end, on linguistic grounds. But when we talk about competitive sports (as in our DFW quote, above) we are always talking about a discrete sport as constructed and instituted, and this is invariably a Suitsian game. But how does the player relate to that game?

It is time to talk about Kobe Bryant, and the poem he used a few months ago to announce his retirement from competitive basketball. (Though I’ve watched every season of Friday Night Lights and am therefore clearly an expert on this topic, it still seems convenient to let a competitive athlete answer.) I’m not going to talk about its artistic quality, which the literary establishment (poor godless creature!) long since had its mean-spirited fun with. Rather I’m interested in why the whole poem, nominally framed as a letter, is built around the old-fashioned device of apostrophe. You won’t find many poems printed in modern literary journals that are sustained addresses to abstract entities, but from “Dear Basketball” onward, Bryant’s poem is exactly that. It turns out that addressing an abstraction is in fact the most sincere expression of the lived reality of being Kobe Bryant. “I knew one thing was real: / I fell in love with you.” One thing was real. Is the one real thing basketball or the love of basketball? It would be beyond my expertise to dabble in metaphysics and argue about what kind of real existence the abstract basketball has, but it’s clear that Bryant’s experience of relationship with this thing called basketball is real and rich and essential to his existence.

We can learn from this poem quite a bit about that relationship. We know, for instance, that he could encounter basketball—the selfsame basketball he would experience later on NBA courts—as a six-year-old taking shots into a garbage can. We know he sees not just continuity but complete identity between this basketball and the one he remained in relationship with as a professional player. So why does he play? “Not because challenge called me”; so, not to overcome arbitrary obstacles—so far Papineau is pleased— “But because YOU called me. / I did everything for YOU.” Oh. Well then. Do I need to say that this is not about “the exercise of physical skills”? There is something about the game of basketball that allows Bryant (if I may be Buberian) to encounter it as a You—as a YOU, even.

Doubtless Kobe Bryant cares about and values the exercise of his physical skills; perhaps he even recognizes and values the fact that he can manifest for others the particular “human” and “kinetic beauty” sung by DFW. But this is not the focus of the relationship his poem depicts. Allow me to quote Thomas Nagle’s essay on “Sexual Perversions”:

We approach the sexual attitude toward the person through the features that we find attractive, but these features are not the objects of that attitude.
This is very different from the case of an omelet. Various people may desire it for different reasons, one for its fluffiness, another for its mushrooms, another for its unique combination of aroma and visual aspect; yet we do not enshrine the transcendental omelet as the true common object of their affections. (Nagle, 43)

While I believe Nagle’s relationships with omelets have been significantly deficient, he still lays out the salient distinction between attraction to attributes vs. attraction to the thing itself through its attributes. My conviction, simply, is that when Bryant writes “because YOU called me” he is addressing a lover and not an omelet. When he encounters basketball, he does not care centrally about some of its features (such as exercising physical skills) but apprehends the beauty and comes under the total aesthetic presence of the game itself.