April 16, 2003

Philosophy of Sport

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This is the fourth article in a series on interesting courses at Cornell.

Philosophy of Sport? To win or not to win — is that the question? Or is it how you play the game?

These are some of the issues addressed in Philosophy 151: Philosophy of Sport.

This is the first year that the course has been offered at Cornell. Prof. T. J. Berry expected approximately 20 to 30 students to enroll, and was overwhelmed by the nearly 150 students who registered. He hopes the class will shrink to seminar size in subsequent years.

The impetus for the class was a recently published book, The Game of Life, by James C. Shulman and William G. Bowen. “The thesis of this book is that athletic programs are harmful to institutions of learning because recruited students are less qualified and tend to under-perform academically in comparison to students with similar backgrounds,” Berry said. He started the class to initiate an academic debate of this thesis.

The field of sport-philosophy is relatively new. It began to emerge in the early 1970s as an offshoot of value theory. Berry’s general interest is in the larger field of value theory, which he describes as “the study of what is good, of what we ought to value,” and so he thought this class “might be fun [to teach].”

Berry, who earned his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998, is an avid runner and an NBA fan. He suggested that most students enrolled in the class are student athletes or at the very minimum enjoy watching sports. Prior competitive experience is more common in this class than a philosophical background. There are no prerequisites for the class, and it does not satisfy any of the requirements for the philosophy major; it is a pure elective.

According to Berry, there are only “a handful of philosophy students” in the class. “For many of the students, this is their first philosophy class,” he said.

In order to acquaint students with philosophical terminology, Berry began the class with discussions of two important ethical theories: Rule Utilitarianism and Kantian Moral Theory.

Rule Utilitarianism is a derivative of Utilitarianism — greater good for the greater many — that is founded upon pre-established rules. According to Berry, “Kantian Moral Theory emphasizes the rights and duties we have to each other.”

Once these two basic philosophical theories were established, the class entered into what many feel are the more interesting topics of the class. The discussion topics include Title IX, whether student athletes are exploited, relationships between fans and their support of teams, performance-enhancing drugs and the various defenses people create for cheating, fanaticism about sports and the commercialization of sport.

Provocative ideas arise during discussion. Students suggested that if student athletes are exploited, then they should be paid. In the question of fanaticism, the students discussed who has the legitimate claim to Barry Bonds’s 73rd home run ball.

One of the most inflammatory discussions in the class surrounded an assigned article that according to Berry claimed “football is the most popular sport in America, because it provides a great outlet for homoeroticism.”

Berry was quick to point out that “no one believes the thesis,” but he felt it was “still interesting to show how it is wrong.”

In the class, students have seven quizzes, two essays and a final. Students are not asked to write philosophical treatises, but they are asked to ground their own opinions in educated thought.

Student reception of the class has been fairly good, considering that the class is in its first year and lectures are given at the farthest reaches of the campus in Riley-Robb Hall.

“It gives sports fans a new perspective on sports. You think about issues in sports that you never really thought too deeply about before,” said Jesse Siegal ’05.

Archived article by Michael Margolis