There is a contention that sport can never be truly fair given that there are always inequalities between competitors: differences in height or metabolism, age, training, skill, etc. including differences that result from social inequalities, such as opportunities to develop abilities as a consequence of class, wealth, location, and so on. If we follow such considerations to their endpoint it is clear that absolute fairness is impossible simply because no two competitors are identical and therefore cannot be precisely matched. Of course, if held in good faith, this is a defeatist view: the problem is too difficult, we can’t ever solve it, let’s give up on fairness. It is a view expressed in the UCI’s revised regulations for the inclusion of transwomen in the female category in cycling, specifically,
“The intention for separating athletes into male and female categories is to provide women athletes with meaningful competition. It would be reasonable therefore to allow transgender to compete with other female athletes if their inclusion guarantees fair and meaningful competitions. It may not be necessary, or even possible, to eliminate all individual advantages held by a transgender. It is paramount, however, that all athletes competing have a chance to succeed, albeit not necessarily an equal chance and in line with the true essence of sport.”1
Apart from some versions of this claim put forward in evident bad faith, there are several things wrong with this view of “meaningful competition”, not least of which is its explicit abandonment of some central principles of sport.
Measurement and Categories
There are several reasons why this view is fundamentally misconceived and they will be examined in some detail in turn. These are:
(1) Fairness does not require equality across all measurable characteristics.
(2) Not all differences are necessarily relevant to a given competitive situation.
(3) Such a set of considerations would lead us to one of two outcomes:
(a) the elimination of all competition, because any would be unfair, or
(b) the elimination of any limitations on competition, on the grounds that since it is all unfair anyway, there is no reason to limit its conditions.
(1) The notion that if competitors cannot be perfectly matched then fairness is unachievable rests on a false dichotomy: equivalence or nothing. Even so, if competitors are identical in abilities, it isn’t a priori obvious that nothing could be gained from the competition. It is a spectator’s fallacy that such a match would be boring and therefore worthless (it might actually be the only truly fulfilling match for the competitors), and it would suppose (as some do) that draws are inherently bad sport outcomes, for which there are ample spectator perspective based counterexamples.2 But following the more reasonable assumption that competitors will not be identical in abilities, we are not committed to jettisoning competition categories just because there will be differences. The available alternatives are not restricted to absolute equivalence or unregulated mélée; we might also consider a degree of tolerable versus intolerable “unfairness”, though I think this is likely to turn out to be fully within a reasonable interpretation of fairness. Thus, we can look for ways to organise competition so that people with similar but not identical abilities could test themselves against each other. What we would want to avoid would be categories where one competitor, or group of competitors, had a significantly diminished opportunity to succeed, or to demonstrate the skills specific to the sport that they had developed. “Significantly diminished” is a vague description and so we will need some specificity for what constitutes too much loss of opportunity.
To deal with this properly we need to take into account some central and defining features of sport as such, especially, why sport (generally) involves competition regardless of whether we are talking about “competitive” or “recreational” sport. Any given sport is defined by a set of intrinsic activities, which activities can be enjoyed by participants for their own sake, but which, because it is a physical activity extending through time and space and involving the movement of at least one circumscribed physical body, is also an event whose episodes are subject to comparison as isolated instantiations of the activity. Even if one, e.g., runs alone, one’s runs can be compared, whether as faster/slower, easier/harder, smoother, more enjoyable, longer/shorter, etc. When we participate in sport with others, we not only compare our own times, distances, etc., but we compare these results against those of others. The measure we use to interpret our achievement and our progress (or regress) is both absolute and relative: so many minutes or metres and in comparison with other participants. Individuals acting in isolation can choose to ignore these interpersonal comparisons and so, to an extent, can those participating socially.
Once we start to make relative comparisons we need comparators that can tell us something useful about what we are comparing. We can compare unlike things: the speed of light and the speed of cheetahs, for example. In the case of sport, we could simply rank all human sprinters by time over 100m or by 10km. This group would include all ages, both male and female, able-bodied, single- and double-amputee, highly trained, novice, clean and doped to the gills. The result might be mildly interesting, but it wouldn’t really count as sport as opposed to census. Sport isn’t just counting; it is the achievement of expertise in difficult physical tasks through training and competition and that competition has to have certain structural elements. We compete with and against other people and this circumstance makes a considerable difference to how we perform.3 Perhaps it “shouldn’t” in some sport-calvinist sense but it nevertheless frequently does make a difference to one’s commitment to doing one’s best whether one is within reach of those against whom one races. More significantly for competitions that involve stages or levels of progression, such as heats, tournament rounds, or league divisions, and for the present discussion, there are good practical as well as moral reasons to ensure that competition stages are organised so as to ensure that each competitor faces an analogous challenge to any other. These reasons include (a) the profitable development of athletic excellence for the participants in their sport, (b) the reliability of the contest as diagnostic of present athletic development/excellence, and (c) the inclusion of as many participants in the activity as possible.
With respect to (a), competitors learn and progress by being challenged. No one is athletically developed by being blown out by, or by blowing out, their opposition. Granted, it can be pedagogically worthwhile to discover that one is not so brilliant as one thought, but even this is only useful when the one brought low by nemesis is able to respond positively, having learned not to take one’s abilities for granted. This is part of appropriate challenge. But this is not the same as putting a fifth-tier team into the first division or 8 year olds against 25 year olds and expecting anyone to get anything sportingly useful out of it. Challenge should be answerable, but not a certainty; for sport to be sport, it should be possible for any competitor to either win or lose through their own athletic capacities.
Considerations (b) and (c) are closely connected. Reliable contests are ones that test relevantly similar contestants. There would be little point in having a shot-putter and a gymnast compete against each other for a place on the archery team if what we want to find is advanced archery skills. All the more so if we already know what sort of physical capacities and skills make for the best archers. It makes sense to test for archery skills amongst archers, but also to restrict the search to those archers with the characteristics that are required to excel over all other archers.
So, to determine which of the archers was “the best” we could simply have all of them compete against each other. But, suppose we have both male and female archers, 12, 30, and 60 year olds, novices, veterans, those training intensively and those occasionally on free weekends, and that all these categories are mixed up together, i.e., 12 year old female intensively training novices and 60 year old male veterans, etc. If we only select the single top archer and tell all the rest to go home we risk starving our archery programme of participants–and we give little incentive to our pool of archers to continue competing as some, maybe most, of them will only ever lose, and many will have little incentive to improve, both because they cannot win and because they are not usefully challenged (these considerations give a partial response to point (3) above). Their sport may well become objectively meaningless for them because of the absence of progress even if they continue to gain subjective pleasure from shooting.
This is why inclusion and retention of participants in sport requires that we establish competition categories. These categories have to be wide enough to include participants with varying levels of accomplishment to provide those participants with a reasonable level of challenge but narrow enough to ensure that results are not a foregone conclusion nor participants put at undue risk of injury. Some category boundaries may be relatively arbitrary but many are not: sex, age, weight, skill level, etc. should all be defensible on sporting and safety grounds. Using such categories, then, allows us to determine the best athlete in a given sport taking into account their placing in a category. We need not, then, restrict our recognition of the “best” athlete in sport φ to a single Battle Royale champion, but are able to determine objectively and fairly, the best male or female novice, male or female elite level, the best lightweight boxer or crew, and so on. And we give more people the opportunity to compete and develop in that sport.
(2) Not all differences between competitors are relevant for determining categories or for ensuring fairness in competition. Categories exist, in part, to give us a boundary within which to measure performance. They do not eliminate variation but ensure that we are measuring items that are sufficiently alike for the measurement to have meaning. It is often charged, however, that sport categories are arbitrary and strict fairness impossible because there are differences between individuals such that unfair advantages cannot be ruled out: this objection manifests in the “what about tall girls/left-handers” question and usually ends up somewhere in the vicinity of Michael Phelps. Fairness requires that all participants have a reasonable possibility of challenging, and that everyone can win or lose; it does not require uniformity. But then in this case, what we have is a participant with an advantage, but one against which fellow competitors can adapt. There are ways to beat left-handers, tall girls, and swimmers with big feet. These are not insurmountable advantages, but ones that require an athletic or sport intelligence adaptation. It is only when there is no adaptation that can possibly allow success that the contest becomes meaningless and this is much more likely to be the case where the advantage is not one belonging to a random individual but that belongs to an entire category of individuals, who might in that case be justifiably placed in category of their own, as would be the case for distinctions on the basis of sex, age, weight, or level of expertise.
Thus, in response to point (3), the charge that human variation is so great that we should either eliminate competition altogether or remove all restrictions on it, since, either way, there is no set of restrictions that could be justifiable, due to the endless range of counterexamples, we can say this. Humans actually have some fairly predictable variations that can be used to construct categories; empirical research is available on the subject and should be relied upon here, along with careful analysis of the logic and requirements of sport as a human practice governed by rules. I do not take the “eliminate competition” option to be entirely serious. While sport need not entail competition, the vast majority of it does and it is not even utopian to suppose that it is eliminable from sport as people pursue it. Removing restrictions (categories), by contrast, is an option that should be resisted by anyone who sees sport as something that should be open to ordinary people, including women, children, and quite a few men, since its natural outcome is a radical shrinkage of participants. It is protection through categories that allows for a more democratic participation in sport.
Objective and Subjective Meaning
No one knows what the IOC means by “meaningful sport”; it might simply mean that female athletes can be justifiably prevented from winning in their own category just so long as it isn’t too obvious (i.e., no “disproportionate” advantage). That aside, there are at least a couple of interpretations of “meaningful” (neither of which, I suspect, the IOC was thinking of), which correspond to a split between the public and the private. The public sense of “meaningful” has a social or objective inspectability while the private is subjective and potentially idiosyncratic. And, as is often the case, which should be seen as more important depends on what the point of sport is taken to be.
If the point of sport competition is the determination of which competitor is “the best”4, in other words, if the sports contest is a kind of diagnostic of the progress of development of sport-specific skills in the competitors, then sports contests are heuristic instruments in an epistemological exercise. They are designed to produce objective results–empirically verifiable data–that can be the ground of knowledge about particular athletes, effective training practices, human physiology and kinesiology, etc. which, depending on the sport they may do well or badly (games involving dynamic interactions between multiple participants do this less well than sports that concentrate on extremely narrowly defined movements by separately competing individuals). But getting that data depends on intelligent sampling: making sure that what you collect isn’t distorted by failing to account for relevant similarities and differences in the study population. The main concern here, however, is not about correct research methodology but the circumstance that what is revealed by sport competition is objective results that are open to public scrutiny and debate. The “meaningfulness” of the competition is likewise publically accessible and debatable.
The other sense of meaningfulness is not and insofar as its communication is attempted, it can only be done so indirectly. Thus, participation in a particular sport may be especially “meaningful” in some sense to an individual, or the winning/losing of a particular competition, in the sense that the subjective experience figures in an important or even defining way in their sense of self. It may be meaningful to themselves and their family because of how it makes them happy (or miserable), or what significance it plays in the narrative of their life and community. Perhaps they cannot imagine themselves without this activity, it becomes fixed in what they take to be their identity. But notice that these are all essentially private experiences. By this I do not mean to imply that they are either unimportant or do not exist, but that subjective experience by virtue of being subjective is experienced only by the subject experiencing it, and is not subject to objective scrutiny except insofar as it is mediated through objectively accessible means (speech, behaviour) that can then be interpreted by others.5
We may value subjective meaning over objective fact: many of us strongly value our participation in sporting activities that we know we are objectively rubbish at–this objectively verifiable athletic failure does not necessarily diminish the joy we receive from the performance of the activity. We may be quite indifferent to any of the available metrics of our sporting activity, or find these objective facts to be profoundly meaningful subjectively. The point is that “meaningfulness” can refer to either objective fact, i.e., something that can be verifiably true or false outside the subject, or subjective experience, and these are not identical. More precisely, subjective meaningfulness can be predicated on the objective, as when it depends on the achievement of certain objective measures of success (“it meant so much to me to win this game/race/trophy”, etc.) or be independent of these measures, as when it is a matter of deep satisfaction gained by the moving through the activity itself.
This distinction has some important implications. Note the example of meaning gained through winning some competition (or, posting a personal best, etc.). The meaningfulness is contingent upon actually winning; that is, it is a subjective meaningfulness that can only be valid provided that the subject earn it through objectively defensible means, which are ordinarily set out by the sport’s rules and practices. To “win” by cheating, for example, may generate subjective satisfaction, but there is a case to be made that the satisfaction is delusional.6 Likewise, badly structured sport, e.g., when categories are drawn too broadly, may permit participants to win inappropriately and thus for the meaningfulness of such wins to be questioned.7 In this case, while the competition may be experienced by the participant as subjectively meaningful, this meaningfulness is strongly dependent on (the apprehension of) the objective circumstances of the competition. The other source of subjective meaningfulness, the experience of the activity’s movement in and of itself, in effect, the phenomenal what-it-is-likeness of running, skiing, climbing, etc., is not subject to this sort of external querying and verification.
Are we owed meaningfulness?
Which kind of meaningfulness we are talking about becomes especially important in determining whether sports participants have a right to meaningful sport. The objective meaningfulness of sport is reached by ensuring that the practice is structured in such a way as to provide several things: the opportunity for all individuals to develop excellence in the skills particular to the sport in which they are engaged; this includes providing competitive opportunities in which there is a possibility of winning and of losing for each competitor. This also requires a meaningful method of ranking participants, that is, of determining who is better at φ where confounding factors are ruled out. This describes a practice dedicated to both the wide dissemination of skills and the accurate appraisal of them in individuals.
Calling this “meaningful” competition, however, is misleading. It is meaningful in the very minimal sense that, without these conditions, sport would be meaningless, i.e., pointless. There is a sense in which sport is always meaningless, of course, in that it is a Sisyphean effort that must be constantly renewed: no champion is paramount, no victory settles sport for good; every game, every race must be re-played by the next competitors. It is incumbent upon each of us to find the meaning (in this individual sense) in our play, as with any exercise of our freedom. But this existential point does not persuade us to tolerate unfairness, and it is fairness that the aforementioned conditions demand. Meaningless sport in the objective sense is unfair sport, meaningless because there is no point playing it, and no point because there is no reliability or validity to its results, and because participants can have no assurance that their efforts contribute to excellence. If sport is unfair, its champions are fraudulent. We do not simply steal prizes, we steal truth.
It would make more sense, then, to avoid obfuscation and just declare whether sport should be fair or not. But there isn’t really a coherent option here. Unfair sport is self-defeating, at least as an attempt to reach a reliable answer to the question of “which of these competitors is better at the constitutive skills of the sport of φ?” Many of us, and not only the very best, would like develop these skills and to know the answer to this question about themselves, and so fairness of competition matters all the way down through all the levels of sport–otherwise there would be no point wasting time and public goods on those who will never be world champions. Moreover, to enter into a competition is to do so under the normative expectation that it will be fair (much as we expect, in the sense of “demand” if not “anticipate”, that our interlocutors will speak truthfully). In this sense, we are indeed owed “meaningfulness”.
But this isn’t the only sense of “meaningful”. As argued above, there is also the private or subjective feeling of something’s meaningfulness to the participant in the action. Now, if “meaningful” is being used in this context to mean sport that isn’t quite fair but in which some participant(s) do not have a “disproportionate advantage” (in the IOC’s8 markedly pusillanimous language), then meaningfulness has to either refer to objective fairness or the subjective satisfaction of participants. The only way that the former sense can operate is if competitors are participating in objectively reasonable and well-justified categories (as described above), which are ones in which no one can have a “disproportionate advantage”, i.e., they are governed by a principle of fairness. If the appeal here is to the meaningfulness acquired in subjective satisfaction, one must assume that what is meant is that competitors (all of them?) must experience the contest as justified, i.e., the winners feel that they are justified in winning and the losers don’t feel cheated. But, of course, one might feel either of these things without it being true.
Leaving aside the question of whether sport should be organised in such a way as to deliberately deceive its participants, such a principle does not stand up to scrutiny for the reason that how winners or losers feel about winning or losing is not entirely relevant to the project of sport as a practice designed to develop and determine excellence in difficult physical movements. It is arguably a defeatist principle, one that manages to be both irrationalist and unempirical, irrationalist in that it supposes that no better or principled solution can be found, and so gives up on the effort to find one that is both fair and maximally inclusive, and unempirical because it ignores an already extant wealth of evidence and seems to devalue objective measures of advantage in sport.
Sport gives many people a great deal of personal satisfaction and narrative coherence to their lives; that is not in dispute. But this meaningfulness and satisfaction are the outcome of, and hence dependent upon, a structured activity, a fundamental feature of which is the fairness of its procedures and distribution. Without fairness, this satisfaction and meaningfulness would be a much scarcer outcome of sporting activity.9
This then raises the question of whether any given individual’s private experience of sport can be more important than the commitment to all competitors to ensure their interest in competing fairly–an outward facing social obligation we hold to our fellow participants. This would certainly qualify as a disproportionate shift in our obligations to fellow competitors. We do have an obligation to treat others fairly–this is central to justice. But individuals, free human beings, are responsible for their own choices as to meaningfulness. Unlike fairness, without which we cannot do sport properly, and although sport is a context within which many humans find meaningfulness, its failing to do so in any given instance does not mean that it is not sport. Meaningfulness in the sense of a subjective apprehension of personal existential or aesthetic value is not an essential constitutive element of sport. It may enable the retrieval of such values; it does not necessitate them, again, because this is something we are responsible for ourselves as the individual subjects we are.
Sport cannot function without fairness though it may offer considerable satisfaction to many of its participants without being fair. But that it may do so is not sufficient excuse for it to not be fair, because we nevertheless do have social obligations about treating others fairly, while we do not have obligations to ensure that others have specific aesthetic experiences. This circumstance adds further complication to any claim that there is a human right to sport. There can’t be because sport, while a human good, is one that is subject to preference: some prefer sport to other forms of human movement and others have a positive antipathy to it. It is something that one might like to do and, insofar as one does, and one meets the sport requirements for participation, then one is bound by whatever duties of fairness apply as overriding any responsibility one could be said to have with respect to the subjective experiences of others.10 We may reasonably be expected not to deliberately make other people miserable, but if others are miserable because we act fairly, justly, and fulfill our social obligations correctly, that is not something for which we can be held accountable.
1. Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). “Eligibility regulations for transgender athletes: Update to 2020 regulations” (July 2022).
2. The claim that draws are defective is based on the idea that the purpose of sport contests is to determine which of the contestants is better; draws fail to do so and so are failed contests. I do not share this view. See Warren Fraleigh, “An Examination of Relationships of Inherent, Intrinsic, Instrumental, and Contributive Values of the Good Sports Contest.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport X (1984): 52-60, and (for an opposing view) Cesar R. Torres & Douglas W. McLaughlin (2003) Indigestion?: An Apology for Ties, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 30:2, 144-158, DOI: 10.1080/00948705.2003.9714640
3. Which can be brutally evident to anyone who has had to race alone, without any other
competitors in the other lanes.
4. K. Pearson, 1973. “Deception, Sportsmanship, and Ethics.” Quest 19: 115–118.
5. This is something that we can get wrong; hence the importance of the interpretations of
others. But this is a discussion for a different paper; see, e.g., Howe, “Bullshit as a Practical
Strategy for Self-Deceptive Narrators,” Philosophical Forum https://doi.org/10.1111/phil.12318.
6. See B. Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. 3rd Edition. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2014.
7. For example, some years ago a minor rowing club persuaded a former member who was at that point on the National team roster to compete for them in a local regatta. Asked how her race went, she muttered “it’s a joke”.
8. In the IOC’s Framework of November 2021: “Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and
Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations”.
9. Hence also the poverty of the narrativity approach (Gleaves and Lehrbach, Journal of the
Philosophy of Sport 43, 2 (2016): 311-326).
10. Argued at some length in Howe, “Fair Fights and Foul” and in a shorter form in “Fair Game” Pike, Hilton, and Howe (2021), Macdonald-Laurier Institute, https://macdonaldlaurier.ca/biology-fairness-trans-inclusion-sport-paper/.
This paper was mostly written in June 2021 and has undergone a number of revisions since then. It has been sent to several journals, but it seems impossible to publish. So it is here.
Abstract: If sport is understood as a contest between human individuals on the basis of developed bodily movement involving skill, strength, and/or endurance, excellence in sport is fundamentally dependent on a principle of fairness in competition. Inclusion matters because arbitrary limitation of competition excludes practice-valuable challenges and excellence is inhibited. The same logic of fairness must also rule out competition sufficiently unbalanced as to distort either that development or the results; mismatches produce no certainty in assessment and little excellence, but only hollow champions. Given the advisability of a general policy of inclusion as well as a commitment to fairness in practice, we need to distinguish eligibility for sport in general from eligibility within sport, i.e., for specific sporting contests. In addition, the plausibility of a right to the good of sport and how such rights can be framed in a society with a social and procedural commitment to fairness is examined. Finally, while the focus of this analysis is on any type of physiological imbalance that unfairly disadvantages competitors, it is applied briefly to the question of transwomen’s inclusion in the women’s category in sport, since this issue covers all of these elements of inclusion, eligibility, rights, goods, and fairness.
[I worked on this paper between 2011 and 2013. It put together two papers that were related but not very well integrated, and it was originally pretty polemical. It got savaged by reviewers. Eventually I gave up on it, but I had done a lot of research on amateurism and the amateur ideal and it never sat well with me that that part of it vanished into darkness. So, this is a much truncated version that I tried to salvage some years ago, but then gave up on again. ]
[This talk was supposed to have been delivered at the EAPS (European Association for the Philosophy of Sport) Meeting at Paris-Sorbonne in April. Then Covid-19. Since I’m unlikely to be going anywhere for some time, it is here.]
Public debates about the value or execrableness of VAR seem to coalesce around two main issues: fairness or accuracy and the loss of spontaneity. While it seems reasonable to assume that no one seriously disputes the fairness principle, that supposes that we agree on how it is to be attained and applied. I will talk about three issues here: accuracy in the means we use to ensure fairness, the difference between events and action, and what is usually referred to as “spontaneity” and what it has to do with meaning.
First, the issue of fairness and the accuracy of the means employed to enforce it. The fairness that is of concern here is unfair, i.e., illegal, but not necessarily unearned, advantage. Illegal advantages usually constitute either some kind of cheating (PEDs, diving) or play that would be nullified if spotted (handball, etc), but also ones that are unintentional rule violations. For example, it may be that no one profits from the continued play of a ball that is fractionally over the line, whether as a result of deliberate play or because a gust of wind blows it out of play, but constitutive rules must be enforced if play is to remain coherently play of a particular type. Much as we might complain that, really, it makes no concrete difference whether a coxswain is a gram too light or a player a day over the age limit, we can’t do without rules in sport nor without an even-handed application of them: niggly calls are the sacrifices we make to the gods of play to allow us to keep playing.
All that being said, questions have been raised about whether the means commonly employed to regulate violations of the rules of play are all that they are cracked up to be. Harry Collins and Robert Evans have argued (Public Understand. Sci. 17 (2008) 283–308) that technological tracking devices such as Hawk-Eye are not nearly as accurate as they are generally assumed to be. More recently, Collins (2020) has put forward a working paper that makes claims about the digitisation of judgement different to but not wholly unrelated to ones that I will present here.
Devices like Hawk-Eye, goal-line technology, and VAR are ostensibly all meant to provide objective certainty for different kinds of officiating situations, in place of the presumed subjective uncertainty of human judgement. It is important to acknowledge that there are two very different kinds of situation for which these aids are thought useful: those that are ready-digitised, as it were, i.e., for which a yes/no decision is appropriate (what Collins calls discontinuous events), and those that are less easily digitised because they are continuous events or actions. Whether a ball is in or out, a goal scored or not, fall into the former category. As Collins argues, recent discussion about the merits of VAR have tended to treat offside as belonging to this category although it should not.
I do not have the time, nor the expertise, to discuss many of the details of Collins’ analysis. I will here limit myself to two issues that I draw from this. First, the understandable, laudable, and yet confused desire for accuracy and, second, what seems to me to amount to a kind of category mistake. Given the assumption that sport has to incorporate fairness as a regulatory principle, calls must be fairly given, and this would certainly seem to require that they be accurate: goals must really be scored in accord with the rules, as must fouls be awarded, and so on. But if Collins’ analysis is correct, the technological fixes we employ in order to attain that certainty are, in fact, fundamentally probabilistic and, as such, subject to a margin of error. No matter how useful it may be, If a device such as VAR has an error factor of 25cm, it cannot be used to make 1cm discriminations, as has recently and notoriously been the case.
Secondly, if an event can be judged “digitally”, that is, as on/off, yes/no, and if the technology were as true to reality as it is often touted to be, it might well make sense to use it. A very large problem looms, however, for events that cannot be so judged. Collins refers to these as continuous events (which include offside in football). These events, he contends, require an official’s judgement, not least because they require a weighing of the relative importance of different factors: they are not binary [2020, 44]. Attempting exact measurement here would be a mistake; reasonable doubt and transparency in the basis of judgement is what is appropriate.
Collins refers to “continuous events”; I would like us to think about this in terms of actions. The rotation of the earth is a continuous event but not an event of the kind that interests us here. Similarly, a piece of chalk rolling across a table, falling to the floor, and breaking apart is an event, but while my pitching that piece of chalk at a student busy with his phone is an event, unlike the previous example, it is also an action. I take an action to be, not just the interaction of objects and natural forces, but a sequence of events put into motion as a consequence of deliberate, if at times negligent, human intention. Thus, there is something I want to do and I move myself (“act”) so as to bring that state of affairs into being. In doing so, I may also do or participate in the causing of other intentional and unintentional events. Sports are dynamic interactions of both events and actions; if actions were not involved we would not call them sports. So, the movement of a ball or a puck is an event, but its significance is as part of an action–a sequence of physical events intentionally initiated by and intersecting with human movements.
One thing that follows from this is that the same objective events could be components of quite different actions. For example, the brilliant interception of a scoring chance and the utterly failed attempt to reduce an opponent could be described by the same set of physical events; what makes them different is, in part and importantly, what the agent actually set out to do. In the case of sport, we may often need to be clear about whether what we are seeking to control are actions or events. There seems no more apt, and contentious, case than hand ball in football. In contrast to the previous example, suppose that during a contested sequence of play in his own penalty area, a defender attempts to jump higher than an attacker in order to head the ball away. The incoming pass, however, hits the defender’s arm. Let us also suppose that the defender has his arm by his side and his body turned away from the incoming ball. In the 2018 World Cup, such a scenario resulted in a VAR determined penalty against Denmark. Whether a goal is scored or not is an event. For (at least some) penalties, it seems that we need to assess an action and not only an event. Hence, referees frequently wave off claims for penalties, presumably as not meeting the threshold of culpable action, although many penalties can be legitimately claimed without any question of intent, e.g., intent to clear out an attacking player although what the player does do has that outcome, as (further) in a case where a goalkeeper’s attempt to grab a low drive results in the attacker being bowled over.
My purpose here is not to dispute the specific rules of football, but to question the way in which football officiating and commentary appears to concentrate attention on actions/events in abstract isolation from the circumstances in which they are generated. The issue is whether those who make the calls in sport look at events as simple physical events when they should be looking at actions. This may be a matter of taking into account a player’s intention when that matters in the adjudication of a rule, but what I am most concerned to stress here is that many actions can only be understood as actions if they are understood in context, which is to say, as embedded in a sequence of actions and interactions that can only have significance in relation to intentional movement, rather than objective measurement. To recycle my earlier simplistic example, are we more interested on measuring chalk falling off tables or professors throwing it at students? So, for handball or certain other kinds of fouls, where we do need to take intention into account, i.e., whether a player attempted to do something, multiple slow motion replays of whether a ball struck an arm, or their studs made contact with another player before or after touching the ball, really misrepresents the meaning of what the player did as an action, rather than an event.
The other important aspect of this question of actions has to do with their temporal direction, and to this I turn next.
One persistent complaint about VAR is that it kills the spontaneity of the game: a goal is apparently scored and no one in the stadium knows whether they can celebrate or not. Instead, all must endure some interminable wait for the decision aye or nay. While I do not deny the frustration that this may entail, I think the objection is in some important ways misconceived in a way that the previous discussion partly addresses. More fundamentally, however, the spontaneity objection relies too heavily on the immediacy of emotional flow, taking for granted the circumstances that make it possible.
There are two elements here that I particularly want to draw out: (i) that our lives and actions have a temporal directionality which is not repeatable, and (ii) that real world actions and events have persistent costs, both in terms of the effort required to perform them and in terms of their effects on ourselves and others. With regard to the first, events can frequently, as events, be isolated from their contexts. The chalk rolling off the table does not need to be understood as something that could only have happened at a specific point in time (or in my life): given the same objective conditions, the same sort of event could be expected to occur in the same way. My throwing the chalk at a student is significantly different because it is the playing out of a subjective process that includes the meaning that I attribute to the situation and my response to it. If I were to repeat this action, my second chalk-throwing incident would be importantly different because I and my conscious appreciation of the circumstances (including the likely consequences) must be different–and I shall be blamed more for it because of this. “Groundhog Day” stories depend on their protagonists being subjected only in a limited respect to repeating events; their actions (because they are conscious) are constrained by the events into which they are condemned, but they continue to move forward because of their own developing awareness of their situation. If this were not so, there would be no point at all to the story.
When it comes to any given play in sport, because it is the result of a conscious intention and effort applied to the carrying out of that intention, strict repetition is out of the question. Each 100m race is its own event, not a simple duplicate, because it is run by conscious beings, altered by the experience of each preceding race. This is even more so in a dynamic game, such as football, where the conditions are in responsive flux. What this means is that an interrupted play cannot realistically be resumed or re-played as the same or a continuation of the original play. This is not an argument against calls that interrupt play, though it may be a reason to avoid them where there are other options. Rather, it is a reason for not reviewing, and interpreting, such plays as if they are events that can be properly understood in isolation. This is particularly relevant for handball calls, where the review appears to be concerned only with whether the ball contacted a defender’s arm, leaving out of account what the defender was attempting to do. As Collins points out, this is a tendency to digitise as on/off events that are properly continuous, and thus properly subject to an informed adjudication to a level of reasonable doubt rather than certainty. More simply, whether it was a foul depends on what the player was attempting to do and what others were doing around him or her that affected what the player did. Offside is a more complex case than hand ball but seems to me to be subject to the same objections; rather than the digitised view of violation, it seems to make more sense to allow the referee to make an informed decision that includes his or her judgement concerning advantage, intent, and interference. The digitising interpretation, then, is a distortion of the facts of the case that frequently leads to an unjust or wrong decision.
My second point (ii) concerns the cost in human effort of sport and is closely allied to the first point concerning temporal direction and nonrepeatability. It is why sport is fundamentally different to digital game-playing. Unlike the digital representation of a world, such as a videogame incorporates, physical games are full of actual physical costs. Sport, however, perhaps definitionally, is an activity that expressly involves the use of one’s body in a way that tests one’s physical persistence in that activity, not just in the possibility of injury, but simply in output to the point of fatigue and then past that point. It is about the willingness to continue the race or the game although one’s throat is parched, one’s muscles burning almost unbearably, and although one knows how much better it would feel to just stop. Sport tests one’s willingness to sustain a genuine physical cost in a dynamic environment in which each choice one makes is relative to a changing set of conditions and in which one must choose to act in singular ways now and without any option to re-do this moment. I do not state these points as any kind of objection to sport–it is what sport is and it is an important part of why we engage in it, because it promises us meaning. What I do now is meaningful because I cannot do this moment again and yet commit to it, even if play restarts and I have to attempt to make that pass or draw again. [A hockey face-off is actually an excellent example here, as I may do the same basic movement but every circumstance in which it occurs is slightly altered as my teammates and opponents also adjust to each other.] I have to play as if I will never be able to do this move or live this moment again. Similarly, sport also forces us to make decisions about our interactions with others that have real consequences: to hit and perhaps damage someone, to put oneself in harm’s way or not, to cheat, to let someone else carry the burden. An athlete has real choices to make, ones that affect others and the game environment as a whole, and that are not reversible.
So, with sport as with ordinary life, our existence occurs in a temporally bounded context of physical and interpretative relations, from which it obtains meaning and which carries the further consequence that our actions and experiences are at a fundamental level not repeatable. As an earlier part of this discussion suggested, this means that whether my action is generous or malicious, brilliant or idiotic, depends on a complex web of interpersonal relations and the frameworks against which we interpret those relations.
What does this have to do with the charge that VAR drains games of spontaneity? The short answer here could be: “everything”, since spontaneity refers in part to the sense of emotional immersion that we have in action, including that of others whom we observe. For philosophical reasons, I would suggest that a better term in this context is “contemporaneity”. This is a term that Kierkegaard frequently uses to capture the demand that we need to not merely consider our relation to historical events as settled, but to live them ourselves, to ground, each of us, our own existence in a contemporaneous awareness of what that event was actually like for those who lived it then. If it matters to us then we need to know what it was to live it for those who did. This is, for Kierkegaard, a reflective act that requires a deliberate undertaking by the individual that eventuates in decision; it isn’t only (though it certainly involves) emotional immersion. Thus, to understand the meaning of an historical action of significance, I need to understand situation and intention. I cannot possibly do this by mere measurement or by isolating objective events from their context as human actions. To do so is to render them meaningless.
It would seem that contemporaneity is a vanishing art of human existence. Olympic athletes filming their own procession through opening and closing ceremonies suggests either a healthy skepticism about the stuff and bombast of such events or a failure to distinguish between the digital representation of reality and reality itself. Again, the latter of these suggests a flattening of meaning between contemporaneous immersion and the remote objective gaze of mediated representation. Given how common is the phenomenon of people attending live events but only watching through their phones, alienation from the experience of events with singular meaning seems widespread–as if the event never happened or didn’t mean anything unless it can be transferred to digital media and disseminated for review at will.
So, what I am suggesting here is that the dismay that the current state of VAR use in football provokes has much to do with this draining of meaning out of the human activity of football, just as we increasingly see an alienation from the immediacy of embodied intention and meaning in general. VAR seems utterly pointless, at least in part, because if what matters are things like whether there is a digital representation of whether a toe is in the wrong place rather than whether someone had deliberately gained an unfair advantage, then the playing of the game by players seems to be made redundant. Neither we nor the officials are watching the game, they are watching the mediated representation of a game having occurred. In that case, we’d be better off watching esports instead–and that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
©Leslie A. Howe (April 2020)
[Through the ‘90s I was doing the academic job tour: trying to get a permanent position and moving almost every year. I also played a lot of hockey, especially while I was living in Quebec. I ended up playing something like eighty games a year: bi-weekly faculty pick up games, women’s city league games, intramural men’s games, women’s varsity, and lots and lots of shinny.* At one point it was suggested that, since a new magazine on women’s hockey was looking for copy, I should write a piece on the history of women’s hockey at a small and very minor university in the Eastern Townships. So as I pored through all the archival material I could find, I found that women’s hockey actually had a long history in the province, and eventually produced this document. In the end, Women’s Hockey only published about 25 words, none of which looked like mine. Later that year (1997) I was hired at the UofS and, although I played hockey until 2006, it was gradually superceded by rowing and soccer. When I left the Townships for the prairies I deposited a copy of my article and my research with the University library where it languished until another researcher found it twenty years later. So here it is, rescued from archival oblivion and 3½” disk. The original essay is followed by the timeline of mentions in various campus publications.
*(My experiences with hockey up to and especially including that last year eventually formed the basis of “Being and Playing”.)]
At the Left Hand of the Divine
Women’s Hockey at Bishop’s University
“The Co-Eds defeated the Divinity men in an amusing game in the Minto rink, by the score of 5-4”.
Thus reads one of the earliest references to hockey played by the women of Bishop’s University, in the Mitre of Easter 1915. Two pages earlier, a brief description of the game bemoans the absence of one Mabel Wilson, “whose splendid end to end rushes are well known to all”. And so begins a tale of quiet but extraordinary persistence. At a university where hardly anyone even knows that a women’s team exists at all, hockey has been played by women in one form or another, not quite continuously, but for most of the last 82 years.
It may well be that women were playing hockey at the University (which only admitted women students, on a limited basis, in 1902) earlier than 1915. But it is difficult to be certain about much of this history, since throughout this century women’s hockey at Bishop’s has been an even better kept secret than professorial misconduct. It is clear, though, that the game was being played by women in the Eastern Townships area of Québec at the time, as evidenced by the challenge received the following year from the students of the Lennoxville Academy. Play continued at the University through to 1919, but the highlight of each season appears to have been the game against the Divinity students, who had formed a team in 1907. This became an annual event, played almost without fail, and almost always resulting in victory for the women, up until 1959.
Hockey, at this time a seven player game, seems to have been, although a passionately followed sport, a somewhat occasional one. Rinks were often outdoors, and as anyone familiar with the Townships can attest, winter weather is a variable sort of thing in these parts. Games were equally likely to be cancelled due to sudden blizzards or to near marine conditions. And, as no one presently familiar with women’s hockey will be surprised to hear, the women’s team was the more likely to lose half or more of its season due to uncooperative weather.
Despite the obstacles, and even in the periods when there was no regular women’s team, there was almost always the annual Co-Eds-Divines contest. Accounts of these games fall mainly into two categories: the dismissive and the downright hostile. A few accounts are more even-handed, and whatever else may have been going on (the game was treated as something of a carnival event) the “lady students” still had to put the puck in the net–which they appear to have done with a high degree of determination, not to mention frequency.
Which, all in all, is just as well. Women’s hockey has persisted at Bishop’s despite both a stunning lack of support and a quite notable lack of on-ice success. A comment in one of the Yearbooks of the mid-thirties pretty well sums up the situation, not just for that year’s team, but for much of our dogged history:
“A brief glance at the 1934-35 Women Students’ Hockey convinces one that we play for the pure love of the game rather than for any real hope of winning an outstanding victory”.
Nevertheless, the team that played from 1929 to 1940 participated in a significant expansion of women’s hockey, which was eventually shut down by WWII, and the curtailment of virtually all intercollegiate sport–even Bishop’s best-loved son, football. During this period, many of the area high schools had girl’s hockey teams, making up the Eastern Townships League in which Bishop’s sometimes participated. There was also some limited intervarsity competition with McGill (Royal Victoria College), an annual game against a high school team from Québec City (weather permitting), and regular play against the boys from Bishop’s College School. Some of the women who played at Bishop’s, then, had previously played high school hockey, though many had not played before (which would perhaps account for their frequent defeat by the high school teams). What is perhaps surprising to those who have studied the history of social attitudes to women in sports, is the high degree of acceptance of women in hockey apparent at this time–one player I spoke to could recall no opposition or criticism of their participation, or difficulty in getting ice-time, but remembered it as being viewed as a completely normal activity for young girls.
Having said that, however, it must also be admitted that Bishop’s University is a place given to the preservation of traditions long discarded by others. Founded as an Anglican institution in the mid-nineteenth century, students were until 1969 required to wear academic gowns on campus. And its officials have at times been more concerned with propriety than practicality. Thus the efforts of Clara Parsons, player and manager of the 1933 team, to persuade then Principal Dr. McGreer to allow the women’s team to wear shorts instead of skirts and purple bloomers, were met with the terse pronouncement that “young ladies at Bishop’s would not be allowed to wear shorts”. It should perhaps also be pointed out that, while the men’s team were fitted with all the usual padding, the women played without the benefit of any protective equipment at all. And yet, progress and common sense come even to the most reluctant of enclaves, and by the time varsity hockey returned to Bishop’s in 1972, women were indeed allowed to wear shorts. The rest of the equipment appeared soon afterwards.
Women’s hockey struggled along at Bishop’s in the form of the Women’s and “Bedesmen’s” match until 1959, and in the ’fifties, ’sixties, and early ’seventies as an intramural sport. Although interest in forming a varsity team was often expressed, this never seemed to get off the ground. In 1966 a pick up team did venture out to play a game against MacDonald College in Montreal, winning by a score of 3-2, although as The Campus newspaper notes, Mac practised twice a week and played against McGill and McMaster. A major problem for Bishop’s, then as now, is size. Smaller than many urban high schools, there just aren’t enough students to provide the reliable base of athletically inclined women necessary to build a team. The advent of the CEGEP system in Québec and the founding of Champlain College provided new resources, but also new limitations: the shorter college programme means a radical turnover of players every year. But, ironically, although women’s intramural hockey laboured under a severe player shortage for some years, it was actually this shortage that finally motivated the formation of a single university team that could go outside to play against the various local teams. A few tentative and fairly informal outings in the winter of 1972 led to the formation of the “Bishamplain Women’s Ice Hockey Team” in 1973, renamed the Polar Bears the following year, on account of the brutally cold arena in which they played.
Those first two years were an auspicious beginning, with a winning record in their first season, a 13 game unbeaten streak in their second, and with a highly organized and motivated coach in Tim Manning, who set up Invitational Tournaments that ran in 1975 and 1976 (with Loyola, Dawson, University of Toronto, John Abbott, and UNB as participants). It is a credit to Manning and those who supported the team that any of this happened at all, since there were those in the University who did not think that the school’s ice ought to be wasted on girls, and the tournaments proceeded with the sort of petty restrictions under which many of us still labour. With the disappearance of the Faculty of Divinity, the women no longer had the padres to pick apart, but for a few years the men’s basketball team stepped up to the challenge. This evolved into an annual contest against the faculty, but this tradition was finally put to sleep after a game in which one male faculty member found it difficult to maintain his perspective.
In 1977-78 the Montreal Women’s Hockey League started up, with Bishop’s, Concordia, John Abbott, and the Concordia Grads, and long time Bishop’s coach Al Ansell serving as commissioner. This became the Québec Women’s Interuniversity Hockey League the following season, with various teams (McGill, UQTR, Laval) being added or dropping out over the following years. The Polar Bears played in the League, in tournaments, and in numerous exhibition contests against collegiate and club team opponents from Ontario and the States. Success was not a constant companion, and the team’s best years were unquestionably in the late 80’s, when they twice just lost to Concordia in the finals of League play, despite excellent seasons. In the years after 1990, winning records have been less than a memory, and with Bishop’s departure from the Québec League in 1993, we have concentrated on a travel restricted exhibition schedule, playing teams from Sherbrooke, Montreal, and Vermont.
It is regrettable that just as women’s hockey is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance, with new hockey programmes starting up or being rejuvenated at other universities, a history as long as that of Bishop’s should be facing the prospect of being nibbled to death by budgetary ducks. We have played through roster shortages and virtual anonymity, and we are now continuing to compete with almost no financial resources.
But money is only a symptom. And, in any case, we have never had very much of it. Rather, the problem we face is the same one the team has always faced, and that virtually all women’s sports, in all institutions, face: the perceived priority of, and deeply ingrained preference on the part of administrators, powerful alumni, and the public for, men’s sports. On this view, men’s athletics are important: they support the university; women’s athletics are, still, an extra: women’s sports are good for women, but that doesn’t give them a general priority.
Women’s hockey at Bishop’s is, as it has been in many places, a lesson in persistence in the face of resounding indifference. It exists here as elsewhere because too many women love this wonderful game to give up, despite the obstacles put in their way, whether by design or negligence. But what our experience has shown is that persistence on the ice is not enough. In the late ’sixties the huge funding disparity between men’s and women’s athletics triggered agitation for appointment of a director of women’s athletics (a movement publicly supported by then Athletics Director and football coach, Bruce Coulter). But this never happened, and it can be argued that this has been a detriment to the development of women’s sports at the University, even though participation by women in athletics and recreation is, in fact, greater than that of men. It is clear that women’s sports in general require direct and determined representation in the essentially political domain of athletics administration, to ensure that women receive their share of the finances and the facilities. All women in sports have to be much more forward about promoting and protecting their own game. We’ve shown that we can play the game on the ice; we have to pick up the challenge off the ice, as well.
Leslie A. Howe August 1997