‘Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate,’ the Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios remarked to his opponent Stan Wawrinka during a match in Montreal in 2015. He was referring to Thanasi Kokkinakis, who had partnered Wawrinka’s girlfriend in mixed doubles. After Kyrgios’s remark, Wawrinka’s game went to pieces, and he soon retired from the match with a ‘back problem’.
Was Kyrgios’ gambit unethical? That is the sort of problem that occupies David Papineau in this mixed bag of essays.
Papineau, a philosophy professor at universities in London and New York, is obsessive even by the standards of sports obsessives. Only a man who derives his identity from his cricketing prowess would put this glorious specimen of humblebrag on the first page of his book: ‘I have scored centuries — but most were for teams of journalists playing village sides.’ Papineau has played almost every sport and can discourse learnedly about the ‘very pedestrian’ ‘straddles’ and ‘Western rolls’ of pre-1960s high-jumping.
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He has some valuable insights. For anyone who wonders why grown men driving down the motorway call radio phone-in shows to allege global refereeing conspiracies against their football team, Papineau explains that fandom is a life project. The commitment to your team’s success is illogical but gives meaning to your existence.
In fact, in sport people often cease to think as individuals. There’s an old argument about altruism. How can we be altruistic if our biological drive is to perpetuate our own genes? Papineau argues that sport helps us resolve this self-versus-other dichotomy. In team sports, fans and players come to see themselves as members of collectives. If your team wins, you win too. This outlook isn’t limited to sport: ‘Humans naturally form themselves into families, foraging parties, friends on a night out,’ writes Papineau. ‘And when they do, they tend to think as a group.’ Many footballers (though not the unmatched Italian egotist Filippo Inzaghi) will therefore pass to a teammate in a better position rather than try to score themselves. But teams are fragile things, and quickly fall apart when players lose ‘confidence in their ability to coordinate their actions’.
Papineau is also good on fair play. He thinks Kyrgios was out of order. However, as a connoisseur of gamesmanship he admires wilier tricksters such as the Australian bowler Shane Warne, who once spent several overs urging England’s Mark Ramprakash to go for an insane slog. The repeated incantation, ‘Come on Ramps, you know you want to,’ finally got to the batsman, who charged out of his crease and was ‘stumped by miles’. Papineau’s judgment: ‘Warne was a great psychologist as well as a great spinner.’
Each sport has its own conventions of fair play, Papineau argues, so it’s fine for rugby players to stamp on opponents when the referee isn’t looking and for footballers to dive. These aren’t transgressions against absolute morality, so we shouldn’t fuss. In some cases moral standards have slipped, but in tennis, for example, they have risen: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal don’t do ‘the brattish tantrums of a McEnroe or Connors’.
Papineau is also strong on the great question of whether the American ‘competitive barbecuing circuit’ counts as a sport. But some parts of the book are lengthy restatements of the obvious. Even we non-philosophers already knew that you have to concentrate when playing sport, and that American college sports call themselves amateur not because they are morally upstanding but because they don’t want to pay athletes.
Sometimes Papineau drifts from philosophy to include any thought he has ever had on sport. However, in a final chapter magnificently titled ‘Shankly, Chomsky and the Nature of Sport’ he returns to an indisputably philosophical question: does sport have meaning? The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said, ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that,’ while the leftist thinker Noam Chomsky dismisses sport as
an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence.
In Papineau’s judgment, sport has meaning all right. Pride in physical performance is a deep-seated feature of human nature. ‘Hitting a home run or sinking a long putt is virtuous in itself, independently of any further benefit it may bring.’ Sporting prowess is therefore part of the good life. As a clincher, he cites Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricketing novel Chinaman:
I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports…. Of course there is little point to sports. But at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. THERE IS LITTLE POINT TO ANYTHING.
There is at least a little point to Papineau’s book: a clever man’s moderately interesting stray thoughts on sport, nicely written up.
Simon Kuper writes about sport, including for the Financial Times, from an anthropologic perspective.