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Philosophy of Sport

Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory

Heather L. Reid
Morningside College

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ABSTRACT: Sport was included in ancient educational systems because it was thought to promote aretê or human excellence which could be applied to almost any endeavor in life. The goal of most modern scholastic athletic programs might be better summed up in a word: winning. Is this a sign that we have lost touch with the age-old rationale for including sport in education? I argue that it need not be by showing that we value winning precisely for the virtues associated with it. I then take Plato's traditional parts of aretê: piety, sophrosunê, courage and justice and show how they are manifest in modern athletic ideals of self-knowledge, discipline, courage and justice. To the extent that scholastic athletic programs develop these virtues, I conclude, their pursuit of winning is not at odds with the institutional mission of educating students. If an athletic program's pursuit of victory allows such character-building to fall by the wayside, however, it deserves no place in our high schools, colleges or universities.

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As in the world of the Ancient Greeks, sport plays an important role in the educational institutions of 20th century America. The reasoning for this in ancient times, as now, is a belief that sport helps to make better people — that it promotes excellence (what the Greeks called aretê) in individuals, excellence which can be applied to almost any endeavor in life. That said, it must be acknowledged that most athletes, coaches, and school administrations identify the goal of their athletic programs in one word: winning. Is this a sign that we've lost touch with the age-old rationale for including sport in education? Is the philosophy that "winning is everything," or "the only thing," (1) or maybe the Platonic ideal of the Good as manifested in sport at odds with the fundamental objectives of education? The best way to tell is to ask a simple yet crucial question in the style of Socrates: What is Winning?

One reason this question is seldom asked may be that, on the face of it, the answer is absurdly obvious. Sports, after all, are essentially sets of rules constructed by human beings, and winning is clearly defined within each of these sets of rules. Analytically, a winner is simply the athlete or team who accumulates the most points, crosses the finish line first, jumps the highest, throws the farthest, or whatever superlative the sport designates. The definition of winning in sport is clear and quantitatively measurable — unlike "winning" in other areas of life, such as love or happiness, where success is not so easily measured. Perhaps this precision is one of the reasons we value an athletic victor so much, but certainly there is more to it. Ben Johnson crossed the finish line first in the 100 meter dash at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, but few consider him the winner of the race. Even victors who win "fair and square" sometimes see the "moral victory" and the lion's share of admiration awarded to a losing competitor. Our conception of a winner runs much deeper than the ability to fulfill the analytic definition of victory in sport.

In Homer's Iliad (XXIII, 823-880), there is an account of a foot race at Patroclus' funeral games in which the goddess Athena chooses her favorite Odysseus as the winner of the race and ensures his victory by having his younger opponent Ajax slip and fall in some cow dung while leading the race. The idea that winners are loved by god is reflected today as in ancient times in the adulation bestowed upon them by the masses. Consider the phenomenon that even in arenas where the Chicago Bulls are despised by the local fans, their star player, Michael Jordan, is cheered and adored by the crowd. Furthermore, winners from Odysseus to Jordan are often showered with riches, consulted for advice, even admired as role-models for children. But why? Why do we love and admire winning athletes so much? Business tycoons and real estate managers are often as rich and successful as star athletes, yet rarely revered to the same degree. What's the difference?

When Athena chose Odysseus to be an athletic victor, she did so because she loved his character — he had aretê (virtue), and so deserved to win the race. We still frequently associate athletic victory with traditional virtues. This explains why we push our children to admire and even emulate athletic heroes like Michael Jordan. It also explains why a national uproar is created when a player spits on an umpire or is convicted of drunk driving — offenses that would be all but overlooked if committed by unknown businessmen. But more fundamentally, the association of virtue and victory explains why we should view sport as a proper part of education.

The very concepts of moral victory, personal victory, and even being "robbed of victory" show that we view winning as much more than scoring the most points or crossing the line first. We view winning as the manifestation of certain virtues inherent in the athlete in a given performance. This is confirmed by the fact that when those virtues are manifested by an athlete or team in an analytic loss, we describe the performance in terms of victory nonetheless; it is a moral victory, a personal victory, or some such qualified win. Likewise, when an analytic win is achieved without the accompanying manifestation of virtue, we try to disassociate the performance with victory by calling it a "tainted win" or a "win-on-paper."

If the essence of winning and the role of sport in education both depend for their justification on the virtues associated with them, it is important to articulate what those virtues are. In his Socratic dialogues, Plato identified the particular virtues associated with aretê to be piety, temperance, courage, and justice. (2) Although it is no longer believed that divine beings interfere directly in sporting contests, as the Iliad's story of Athena and Odysseus, contemporary athletes routinely pray and make religious signs before and during contests. (3) There is good reason to believe that the religious rituals associated with sport derive from its origin in religious sacrifices, (4) but Plato's notion of piety endures in our notion of an athlete's virtue on another less explicitly religious level as self-knowledge.

Near the entrance to the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi were two famous inscriptions: "know thyself," and "nothing in excess." These inscriptions were intentionally open to interpretation, but knowing oneself was widely recognized as an important part of piety in the sense that a pious person recognizes his or her imperfection in contrast to the divine. Socrates, for example, interpreted the declaration that no man was wiser than he — received from the oracle that dwelt in the same temple at Delphi — as an acknowledgment of his wisdom in understanding that, in comparison to the gods, he knew nothing. (5) Similarly the winning athlete must recognize and confront his or her weaknesses in order to work on them directly (as Socrates did with his pursuit of wisdom) and to achieve excellence by approaching the ideal.

The second inscription, "nothing in excess" relates directly to the Platonic virtue of sophrosunê. Often translated as 'temperance' or 'self-control,' sophrosunê corresponds well to the athletic ideal of discipline. Winning would be simple if it was just a matter of training volume, the runner who trained the most hours would automatically win. We know it doesn't work that way, though, and indeed it is a delicate art for athletes to find ways of maximizing improvement without exceeding mental, physical, and emotional limits. In the athletic arena, as in the rest of the world, we suffer from excesses and deficiencies. From simple cases of over training and overuse injuries to serious diseases such as anorexia nervosa, a winning athlete's ability to push the envelope of achievement without bursting it open is integral to his or her success.

So the ancient virtues of piety and sophrosunê, reflected in the Delphic exhortations to "know thyself" and take "nothing in excess" are manifest in the modern athletic virtues of self-knowledge and discipline. One good reason to love a winner is the recognition that victory requires a knowledge of oneself that is rare and difficult to achieve as well as the discipline to maximize individual potential without stopping short of or overstepping one's limits. The recognition of ones' limitations must be tempered by a realistic yet ambitious drive toward maximum performance, this is a balancing act central to all forms of human excellence that can be learned through sport.

In his dialogue Laches, Plato identifies courage as a virtue to be cultivated by education. In his discussion with military leaders and the fathers of adolescents, Socrates shows that courage is much more than simple bravery in battle. It is the ability stick to a goal and persevere in the face of a desire to give up combined with the knowledge of when and how to revise ones goals for the better. Such intelligent endurance is illustrated by Socrates' action in a crucial battle at Delium, where by retreating he saved himself and many others from certain death. (6) Standing one's ground in the face of certain defeat isn't courage, but foolhardiness. The dedication and perseverance demanded by countless coaches are forms of the ancient virtue of courage. Winning athletes must be more than tough, they must overcome their fears and desires to quit but they must also realize when more will be lost than gained by staying the course. We should admire athletes who have heart, not those who are simply bold, brazen, brutal . . . heartless. Victors should be revered for combining strength and endurance with the wisdom necessary to use those tools effectively.

That the virtue of courage requires intelligence as well as toughness is illustrated by the nature of a true sporting challenge. The essence of sport is challenge. The greater the challenge the greater the victory. An easy win against a low-ranked opponent is nowhere near as satisfying as a narrow victory over a formidable challenger. Likewise, an excellent performance against a much more accomplished opponent is often considered to be a kind of personal or moral victory despite being a "paper loss." This is because we associate winning with facing a challenge, and therefore with the virtue of courage. Challenges, by definition, are not overcome effortlessly; they require hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Winning is sweeter and winners are more admired when the challenges overcome are greater. Hence the almost universal plot of sports stories and movies: athlete begins by losing miserably or suffering a terrible setback; athlete pledges his allegiance to the goal of victory nonetheless, athlete trains tirelessly in pursuit of that goal; athlete achieves victory. The athlete's victory is a reward for and a sign of not simply toughness and endurance but the intelligent pursuit of excellence Plato described as courage.

Plato's most famous work, the Republic explores the virtue of dikaiosune, often translated justice. Sports in general and victory in particular are associated with justice. It is central to our perception of sport — and of justice — that the outcome of a contest is not inevitable. When athletes take to a starting line, or during the opening kick-off, tip-off, or face-off of a game it is important that those athletes, their spectators, and the live television audience believe the outcome to be undetermined. The belief that an athlete can win is just as important as the knowledge that he or she might lose, because if the outcome were predetermined by anything other than a purely just god (as in the case of Odysseus), the purpose of the game (not to mention its entertainment value) would be null and void. Accordingly, when this essential indetermination of victory is thwarted by a boxer who throws a fight or the external manipulation of a corrupt judge, we immediately recognize the injustice of the contest and we withdraw our admiration for its winner.

Fortunately, such obstacles to fair play are difficult to find in sport since the public nature of the performance tends to force an honest contest. Michael Johnson may be able to convince the masses through rhetoric or form a perfect argument and give scientific evidence in support of the thesis that he could beat Donovan Bailey in a 150 meter sprint. But such a claim could never be justified in sport unless he actually does it in a public arena where there is nowhere to hide. Justice is honest and blind, it doesn't matter who you are, what you say about yourself, or even what you have done in the past. From sport we learn to be honest, with ourselves and with others, about what is possible, what is inevitable, and what can be achieved. We also learn to accept the truth; we learn to be just.

Plato's concept of dikaiosune is also strikingly parallel to the athletic ideal of teamwork. In book IV of the Republic, he explicitly associates dikaiosune with the proper management of a community in which every individual recognizes his particular worth and performs his proper task as part of an optimally functioning community. (7) Correspondingly, a basketball team functions best when its quick conniving members play guard and the taller slower members play center. Plato believed that the a group of naturally diverse talents who cooperatively perform their own proper tasks would achieve the harmony of function characteristic of justice, and thereby manifest excellence or arete.

Self-knowledge, discipline, courage, and justice are four forms of human excellence explicitly associated with sport and implicitly associated with winning. The cultivation of these virtues is a legitimate and laudable objective in education. Therefore the role of sport — and winning — in education can be justified with reference to them. A key corollary to this thesis, however, is that winning in sports is only legitimately pursued in education to the extent that its pursuit cultivates these virtues. Schools subscribing to this philosophy may still hire and fire coaches based on their ability to win, but should only do so to the extent that such wins are manifestations of the winning virtues the coach is actually instilling in his or her athletes. By the same token, a coach who manages to instill winning virtues in athletes but fails to win in the analytic sense should be retained nonetheless. The criterion should not be immediate win/loss statistics, but rather the educational value students derive from their athletic pursuits.

Excessive focus on the analytical idea of winning threatens to undermine the cultivation of virtues that give athletics its educational value. This is because analytic wins can be gained by using techniques that bypass or even squelch the kind of virtues that give winning its value. The virtue of self-knowledge associated with a winner is eliminated when the athlete uses clandestine means such as steroids or E.P.O. to artificially expand their personal limitations. A user of performance-enhancing drugs shows no appreciation for value of learning about oneself and carefully crafting ones maximum performance, but rather it reveals a complete lack of discipline and a refusal to recognize natural capacities and limitations. Chemical short-cuts also reveal a lack of courage in the athlete — an unwillingness to meet challenges through hard work and dedication. Furthermore an athlete who trains either to please others or to avoid their punishments is not displaying true dedication and clearly lacks the virtues associated with victory. Finally, attempts to thwart the justice of sport by gaining an unfair advantage or a developing a secret weapon are attempts to erode the very value of victory itself. If you've made sure that your victory is inevitable, ask yourself how it could possibly be a victory at all.

Some of those who acknowledge that the value of winning is intimately tied to the perception of virtues associated with it might still be content to settle for the analytic win. After all, to the victor go the spoils whether winning virtues were manifest in the victory or not. Many athletes have retained the glory and riches associated with victory despite their use of unethical techniques or substances. Indeed a good argument can be made that the goal for professional athletes is simply making money and the manifestation of virtues is not a relevant issue. Why shouldn't high schools, colleges and universities teach their athletes the professional skills that will bring financial reward in sports industry just as they teach their business students skills for pursuing profit? And why shouldn't schools make their own profit in the bargain? Colleges and Universities are in business, too, it may be argued. But schools are in the business of making better people, and their use of athletics for profit rather than education would amount to egregious exploitation of the very people they profess to serve.

The real goal of sport in education hasn't changed in 2.500 years; it is the cultivation of aretê, human excellence. To the extent that winning can be or is achieved in scholastic athletics exclusive or in spite of such excellence, it is not winning at all — at least not the sort of winning that made winning valuable in the first place. If athletes are to be students, coaches are to be teachers, and schools are to count sport as a legitimate part of the curriculum, they must ask themselves why (and when) the pursuit of victory is worthwhile. In examining the philosophical question "What is winning?" we learn that winning may be everything, but every victory is not necessarily winning. Once we recognize that the very reason we should value winning is for the virtues we associate with it, we must accept that winning analytically without manifesting the associated virtues is not winning at all — at least not the sort of winning scholastic athletic programs should strive for. Schools are in the business of educating their students and athletics can be an integral part of that mission — so long as they retain a considered perspective on sport, education, and the meaning of victory.

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(1) Both of these popular sayings are derived football coach Vince Lombardi, who later modified his statement to: "Winning isn't everything — but making the effort to win is." See Walton (1992), p. xi.

(2) The dialogues dealing specifically with these parts of virtue are: Euthyphro, Charmides, Laches, and Republic, respectively. Virtue is the central topic of nearly all the Socratic works, however.

(3) Interestingly, the signs do not always indicate that the athlete is religious. The winner of the 1997 Tour de France, Jan Ullrich, began crossing himself during the race for good luck even while admitting he is not religious and had learned to make the sign from watching other riders.

(4) For a fascinating account of this, see David Sansone's Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport (1988).

(5) See Apology 20d ff.

(6) This incident is described at Laches 181b, and Symposium 221a.

(7) See, especially, 433a ff.


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