Simon Kuper Simon Kuper

Lessons and games

According to David Papineau, fair play and gamesmanship is as much a question of ethics as athleticism

‘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.

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