Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Relationship Between Play And Sport

This post develops themes from a previous article, Towards a Marxist Definition of Play.

                  “What is sport? I suppose it’s anything they can make competitive
                               or entertaining enough to be good television.”[1]
                                                                                                - Observer (1982)

It is far easier to discern the main features of sport than it is to define play. Guttmann sees modern sport as being marked by seven key characteristics: secularism, equality of opportunity to compete and in the conditions of competition, specialisation of roles, rationalisation, bureaucratic organisation, quantification, and, finally, the quest for records.[2] For those, such as Jean Marie Brohm, who would disagree with Guttmann’s over-arching analysis there is extensive agreement over the key components of sport. In a section of A Prison of Measured Time, entitled “For a Revolutionary Marxist Definition of Sport”, Brohm states:
“…sport is an institutionalised system of competition, delimited, codified and conventionally governed physical practices which have the avowed aim of selecting the best competitor – the champion – or recording the best performance – a record – on the basis of comparing performances.”[3]
Of those characteristics listed in Guttmann’s description, four may be found in Brohm’s observations, and another – equality of competition – is implicit. Nor do these exhaust the possible definitions. Bale defines sports as “institutionalised contests involving the use of vigorous physical exertion, between human beings or teams of human beings.”[4] In none of these examples is sport described as, or defined by its relationship to play.
Guttmann does attempt to define the relationship between sport and play, suggesting that sports are best understood as “‘playful’ physical contests, that is, as non-utilitarian contests which include an important measure of physical as well as intellectual skill”.[5] Thus sport is a distinct subset of the play category, distinguished by competition, rules and physicality. This serves as a worthy working definition, but the quotation marks (scare quotes?) around ‘playful’ are instructive, pointing towards a conceptual difficulty. In light of this confusion Richard Gruneau asks a pertinent question:
“To what extent, and under what circumstances is it possible to see sport as a negation of play or, conversely, to see sport as an extension of play’s essential character into the broader spheres of institutional life in society?”[6]
The truism that ‘we all know play when we see it’ is applied to sport only with a certainty that comes from common-sense understanding. But to assume the nature of a thing is not to prove it. One obvious way to examine the relationship is to investigate the extent to which the accepted definition of play, as outlined in the previous chapter, is applicable to professional sport.
The idea that sport takes part in a separate and special place need not detain us long. Of the three defining characteristics of play this is the most immediately apparent in professional sport. From the football or rugby pitch to the Olympic pool and the boxing ring, sport does indeed take place in a specific place, and for a given duration. The notion that the space devoted to the playing of sports is somehow separate from real life is reinforced by the separation of players and spectators.
On the extent to which sports constitute an arena of freedom Gruneau has wryly remarked, “I suppose that one may assert that even institutionalised sports are ‘free’ to the extent that one has the option of either playing them and submitting to the rules in place, or not playing and thereby not submitting.”[7] Guttmann goes further suggesting, “modern sports hold forth the possibility of a realm of relative if not absolute freedom.”[8] They differ from play insofar as they represent a “freedom to” rather than a “freedom from”.[9] The codification of rules and the presence of sporting structures do not limit the freedom of the player, instead they facilitate it. Guttmann does note that “[s]pontaneous play is paradigmatically separate from modern sports”[10] but his theoretical conception of the relationship between sport and play exists in an unmediated vacuum, and is reducible to a simple formula: “play lies in the realm of voluntary action and freedom and, because sports are inherently playful, they also are voluntary and free.”[11]
One should be careful not to under-estimate the structural limitations that characterise modern sport. Professional sport is marked profoundly by a separation of players from the control of their games. Firstly professional sportspeople have no control over the rules of the sports they play, this power residing with the plethora of governing bodies both nationally and internationally. It is not true that “new rules are invented and old ones discarded whenever the participants decide that ludic convenience outweighs the inertia of convention.”[12]
If there is a distinct lack of control afforded players on a macro level, to what extent may sporting participants control the way in which they play on a micro level, i.e. in the act of sporting contest itself? Effectively critiquing the notion of positive freedom, Rigauer argues that the increasingly “technical-organizational- rationalizing measures” of top level sports has precipitated the “progressive diminution of the individual’s freedom to act.”[13] A foremost example comes in the division of labour inherent to team sports where “one can see quite explicitly the definitions of the roles: ‘middle stormer,’ ‘right runner,’ ‘left defender,’ ‘goalies,’ etc.”[14] These positions prescribe a “pattern of behaviour for the individual player”[15] which cannot help but limit their creative freedom.
Even in the supposed freedom to participate we find that “rules auxiliary to those of the game are needed to determine eligibility to participate”.[16] Vamplew is correct to suggest that there ”is nothing in the nature of sport itself which determines who can and cannot play. In the purest forms of sport only self-exclusion should apply.”[17] Yet in professional sport, people are confronted by a series of gatekeepers, set aside from the act of play itself, who determine access to the playing field. Tournament organisers, selectors, managers and coaches (especially in team sports) all potentially stand between the sportsperson and the opportunity to participate. Freed from compulsion, but not necessarily from impediments, we find another distinction between play and sport.
The most sophisticated attempt to resolve this question of sport’s relative freedom may be found in the work of Richard Gruneau. Charting a course between Marxism and liberal idealism, Gruneau argues that sport is, paradoxically, both freedom and constraint. Using the work of John Searle, he argues that, “in most examples of western institutionalised games and sports, the formal limiting of options within the institution appears to have occurred in two related cultural senses”.[18] The first is a technical or constitutive sense, the laying down of rules without which “the whole range of behaviour that they sustain simply would not exist.”[19] The second is a moral or regulative sense, whereby the unwritten codes of conduct guide one’s actions. These limitations are not bound in stasis rather the pressures brought to bear by interested parties condition the relationship. However, it is important to recognize that not all parties have the same weight of influence, and as such:
“their transformative capacity, can be seen to be closely related to the type and range of social resources that individuals or groups of players and nonplayers can bring to bear in order to restructure, reinterpret, and transform the limits in question.”[20]
By locating the question of freedom in the realm of the social constitution of organised sports Gruneau’s argument manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of theoretical parochialism and determinism. It is recognition that, under present circumstances, the wealth and power of clubs and governing institutions plays a greater role in determining the rules of the games than players and supporters.
The question of whether or not professional sport is an autotelic activity is perhaps the most important to resolve. The autotelic and non-instrumental qualities of play are the central thrust of established definitions and allegedly account for play’s uniqueness, demarcating it from the worlds of work and art. Yet a mere glimpse at professional sport will show that it is not autotelic. In professional sports the result is of primary importance, the experience a distant second. The ethos of play is contained within the injunction uttered by many a parent of an irate child: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the taking part that counts”, In the world of sport the logic is inverted - the victory is all-important. As Rigauer argues, “Human behavior becomes subsumed under certain goals and methodically regulated according to these goals”.[21] It follows that playful instincts are curtailed, subordinated to the logic of competition. Of the twin characteristics of sport, playfulness and competition, it is clear that it is the agonistic which predominates, the ludic trails in its wake.
Our attempt to match sports to the characteristics of play has been distinctly unsuccessful. Of the three key features found in play, only one, its spatial separation, can be said to apply to sport with any certainty. On the question of freedom, sport shares some similarity with play, though, at best, we can concur with the assessment that sport is both freedom and constraint. Yet on the crucial issue of sharing play’s non-instrumental character we must surely demur.
There is another problem for those who would see sport as a particular variant of non-utilitarian play. Paid professionals now populate the contemporary sporting landscape. If a defining feature of play is its non-instrumental character then sport can no longer be thought of in the same light. In an economic sense, “the athlete is the producer, the spectators the consumers”.[22] If play and work are antonyms then we have a paradox quite distinct from the one previously identified by Gruneau. Do professional sportspeople work at play? Or, play at work? Can they even be said to be playing at all? Anthony Giddens has written: “For the professional sportsman the game is not a play-activity, since it takes place within a context of economic obligation which gives it a predominantly instrumental character.”[23]Roger Callois takes a similar view:
“As for the professionals – the boxers, cyclists, jockeys, or actors who earn their living in the ring, track, or hippodrome or on the stage, and who must think in terms of prize, salary, or title – it is clear that they are not players but workers. When they play, it is at some other game.”[24]
If Giddens and Callois are correct and that sport is, in effect, the negation of play, then in solving one contradiction, they create another. If we take football as our example, then it is clear that in both form and content the game played in the Premier League is the same as the game played by ‘recreational footballers’ on a Sunday morning. Apart from the fact that one group of players is paid and the other is not, they are surely partaking of the same game. The form of the sport, the rules and the officials are identical. The standards and skills of the Sunday League player may be somewhat below their more famous and wealthier counterparts but the pitches, markings, aims, objectives, tactics and kit are all instantly recognisable as being of the same game played at Anfield or Old Trafford. Callois does in fact deal with this question, if only fleetingly:
“Neither does the professional player change the nature of the game in any way. To be sure, he himself does not play, merely practices a profession. The nature of competition or the performance is hardly modified if the athletes or comedians are professionals who play for money rather than amateurs who play for pleasure. The difference concerns only the players.”[25]
Callois is right to say that nature of the game itself is unchanged whether one is an amateur or a professional. In professional sports, players and competitors sell their labour power much as any other worker, and produce commodities - sporting spectacles - which are placed on the market. As is the general rule under capitalism, “[l]abour produces not only commodities: it produces itself and the worker as a commodity - and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”[26] Taken to its logical conclusion in some professional sports, workers “[a]s bearers of scarce and sought after qualities”[27] are quite literally bought and sold. As such professional sports are indeed work.
Can we really claim, though, that there is no element of play in professional sports? It is true that tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. Indeed one could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.
Conscious that we must be “sensitive to the dialectical relationships between socially structured possibilities and human agency”[28] it is necessary to stress that the ability to ‘play’ is often determined by the context of the game. Where pure play offers the continued possibility of metamorphosis, both in terms of play forms and their concomitant rules, so the structural confines of the sporting world consistently prohibit experimentation. Instead we are left with competitors who ‘play it safe’, ‘play the percentages’ and who, increasingly it seems, set out to ‘stop the opposition from playing’. The playfulness of the jinking run, behind-the-back pass, or the lofted straight drive are incompatible with maximising the chances of success and so inevitably make way for sporting necessity. The huge sums of money at stake in modern sports only serve to exacerbate this tendency. Christopher Lasch summarises the state of play:
“Modern sport is dominated not so much by the undue emphasis on winning as on the desperate urge to avoid defeat, Coaches, not quarterbacks, often call the plays, and the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them into a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else.”[29]
Despite similar misgivings about the state of contemporary sports, Bero Rigauer is forced to conclude that “[s]ince playing maneuvers are not related to each other deterministically, there is room for spontaneous ‘assists’ and thus for a widening of the role of player.”[30] Indeed top sports clubs will pay a high price for those players who can create ‘moments of magic’. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.
Therefore sports, whose origins are to be found in play, bring with them a crucial ludic element. For example, football is football; only under certain conditions does it become professional sport. There is a tension that exists between the ludic and the competitive, and the balance between the two is conditioned by social and economic imperatives as well as the sporting context itself. It is no surprise, therefore, that at times is does seem that play is absent from the professional sporting world. But it is this recognition of the ludic component that necessitates a correct conception of play, the theoretical foundation on which our understanding of modern professional sports is built.[31]
Sport, by virtue of its dual nature, exhibits the characteristics of both work and play, two categories commonly understood as being mutually exclusive. Such a “stiffening”[32] of play was detected long ago. Despite his conservatism it was Huizinga, so sensitively attuned to the rhythms and nuances of play, who saw the impact professional sports had on the ludic world. Today some mourn that “little is left of play’s freedom and creatively expressive character”[33] but how may we assess the relationship between sport and play.
Existing Marxist literature on sport, when faced with this question, seems reluctant to venture an answer. Brohm, in an all too brief foray into the relationship between sport and play, is unsurprisingly dismissive stating, “Sport is one of the strongest factors removing the element of play from bodily activity… A child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters, sanctioned by authority.”[34] Thus with a broad sweep of theoretical gusto Brohm states that where sport begins so play ceases, and never the twain shall meet. Rigauer (whom Brohm quotes extensively) takes a different stance despite writing from a similar leftist perspective. Rather than counterpose the two activities, Rigauer suggests that “play, sports and work are part of the same pattern of behaviour despite the differing accents.”[35] Such contradictory conclusions amongst Marxist thinkers is rooted in the fact that, so keen are they to dismiss sport as part of the “ideological state apparatus”[36] and so eager are they to reduce sports “to simple reflections of materialist categories”,[37] they fail to adequately theorise the concept of play. This failure is to the detriment of both writers. Without it, their critique of capital’s influence on sport is weakened and they are ill placed to see sport as a contested cultural space.[38] Ultimately it is a standpoint that denies agency to the very people it purports to represent, a view that ”downplays the reflexive capacities of human beings.”[39]
By previously seeing play as the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use values we have prepared a theoretical groundwork that allows us to analyse the relationship between play and sport. The key to our understanding is the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.”[40] We are unable to attribute to sport Hoberman’s belief that “[t]he power to create is the power to determine the meaning of the creation and the laws which govern it”.[41] Governing bodies now exercise control over sports across the globe. In addition, professional sportspeople engaged in ‘playful’ physical contests, have limited control over the way in which they play. The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use the criteria we previously employed in our analysis of play and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process”[42] then professional sports are the alienation of play.[43]
Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now a spectacle, and in turn, therefore, a commodity. For Marx, commodities have a dual character, consisting of both exchange value and “use values for others, social use values.”[44] In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the wants of the spectators – who as consumers pay for the right to consume. In professional sports, play is mediated through the prism of capitalist relations and placed on the market as a commodity. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is its product, deliberately cultivated. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”[45]
As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.[46] This distinction does not exist in the abstract. Sport is a product of historical developments “and requires that we situate our study of play, games and sports in the context of understanding the historical struggle over the control of rules and resources in social life, and the ways in which this struggle relates to structured limits and possibilities.”[47] The alienation and commodification of play has its roots in the codification of modern sports and the death of custom.
[1] The Observer (1982) cited in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p335
[2] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p16
[3] Brohm, J-M., Sport, pp.68-69
[4] Bale, J., Sport and Place: A Geography of Sport in England, Scotland and Wales (London: C Hurst & Co., 1982), p2
[5] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p14
[6] Gruneau, “Freedom and Constraint”, p70 
[7] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development (The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), p18
[8] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p157
[9] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p158
[10] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p161
[11] Gruneau, R. Class, Sports and Structural Development, p22
[12] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p40
[13] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p53
[14] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p50
[15] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p51
[16] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules: Influences on the Development of Regulation in Sport” available at, accessed 7 August 2011
[17] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules”, p15
[18] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p35
[19] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p36
[20] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p37
[21] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p28
[22] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p68
[23] Giddens, “Notes on the Concepts”, p75
[24] Caillois, Man, Play and Games, p6
[25] Caillois, Man, Play and Games, p45
[26] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p63
[27] Riaguer, Sport and Work, p68
[28] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p27
[29] Lasch, C. “The Corruption of Sports”, The New York Review of Book, April 28 1977, available at (accessed 17 August 2011)
[30] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p53
[31] The constraints of space prevent a full examination of the intermediary role of games in structuring the relationship between play and sports. In a bit to short circuit the distinctions a footnote must suffice. I would draw much the same conclusions as Guttmann (From Ritual to Record, pp6-9) and agree that games are, indeed, structured play, and that sports are a distinct sub category of games. However, where I would depart from Guttmann taxonomy is in seeing all sport as inherently playful. I would suggest that the ludic potential differs according to the sport. It would seem obvious to suggest that those sports derived most immediately from warfare – boxing, shooting, riding, athletic contests, etc. – contain a negligible degree of play. It is noticeable that none of these sports are ‘played’ (nobody ‘plays’ boxing, or ‘plays’ swimming) instead they register as pure contests. Investigation of this point is surprisingly absent from Homo Ludens, especially when one considers the premium Huizinga places on linguistic analysis. Of course, it is perfectly possible to swim and play at the same time, ride playfully, or even play fight, but at the professional level the play aspect is totally subsumed by the emphasis on competition. It is in these contests that the Marxist observation regarding the mechanization of the body is most pertinent. See for instance, Rigauer, Sport and Work, pp60-62. However all professional sports share the general trend suggested in this chapter, being both removed from the control of the participants and commodified spectacles.
[32] Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p199
[33] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p3
[34] Brohm, Sport, p41
[35] Rigauer, Sport and Work, p88
[36] Brohm, Sport, pp53-64
[37] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p27
[38] Bourdieu, P., “Sport and Social Class”, Social Science Information, 17, 6 (1978), pp819-40
[39] Gruneau, “Freedom and Constraint”, p74
[40] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p34
[41] Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology, p49
[42] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p66
[43] One striking example of the alienation of play may be found in Holt, R. Sport and the British (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p300. Here he examines the autobiography of one-time professional footballer Eamon Dunphy and points to how “the awful uncertainty of the job, the fear of failure or injury, were always present. There was the public humiliation of being dropped fro the side; the autocratic style of managers, who were themselves as afraid and insecure as their players; the refusal to let good players use their natural talent to play, forcing them through repetitive training ‘systems’ and na├»ve ‘game plans’; the petty jealousness of the players, their hierarchies, and childish pranks; the fear of the new signing, who has to be included at the expense of the old friend; the view of the match from ‘the inside’ when you know a team-mate does not want the ball but wants it to look as if you will not give it to him.”
[44] Marx, Capital, p131
[45] Haigh, Sphere of Influence, p372
[46] Marx, K., The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, available at (accessed 17 August 2011). The full quote in question is, of course, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
[47] Gruneau, Class, Sports and Structural Development, p28