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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Boxing and the definition of sport

For those of us who like to debate the Platonic ideal of what is sport, boxing creates the second biggest conundrum after golf (which everyone seems to want to define out). Last weekend's fight between Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley, in which Bradley won a split decision that has been universally derided as wrong to the point of being corrupt (the promoter of the fight has called on the Nevada Attorney General to investigate), brings the issue back up.

One of the four elements to my preferred definition is objective scoring. This means points are awarded and winners determined based on objective criteria, rather than through "judging," which involves inherently subjective and usually undefined (and undefinable) criteria such as "artistic merit" or "whichever fighter you would not have wanted to be in a given round" (an oft-accepted standard for judging in boxing). One way to distinguish this is to ask whether the judge could point to evidence and explain her conclusion in a way likely to convince anyone who watched the fight and initially reached a different conclusion.

So what of boxing? Fights obviously can and often do end by knockout, the ultimate objective determination. But, as here, they often end on a decision by judges who exercise completely unchecked decision applying a standard that, quite literally, has no determinative criteria beyond "which guy won?". This contrasts with amateur boxing, in which judges look to who landed the most punches, an objective standard (although of course subject to manipulation and error). We could tweak the definition to include boxing by defining this element as "objective scoring, or at least the possibility of determining a winner by something other than subjective judging." So the possibility that a fight could be decided objectively is enough, even if some fights are decided via subjective judging. But it is hard to call something a sport (as opposed to a competition or exhibition or contest) after a fight like this one, in which you have the feeling that things were decided by people who were just making things up, but you could not, in fact, explain why.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 12, 2012 at 11:00 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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One reason we might not want to view boxing as a "sport" is provided by Sartre in his posthumously published second volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason* (1985, in English, 1991), wherein boxing is examined, in part by way of a genetic argument, as an exquisite expression of bourgeois (capitalist) democracies, as the totalized incarnation of a kind of violence at the heart of such societies, the violence tied causally and structurally to its peculiar form of exploitation: "[B]oxing is an economic enterprise, and...its entrepreneurs recruit its workers among the exploited only to subject them to another kind of exploitation." It's not a trivial or contingent fact, in other words, that most boxers are of working-class origin. In the boxing match, the fighters incarnate the violence the ruling class exerts against the laboring classes. I can't here do justice to Sartre's unique form of "dialectical" analysis (and I think his conception of violence is conceptually vague if not careless), so suffice to say that Sartre claims the contractual moment, that is, when "one party's considered project of purchasing that violence into a commodity in order to leave his class; the other's project of purchasing that violence and making it into the source of his profits, _as if it were the labour-power of a worker_, is the decisive instant of incarnation." Allowing for the fact that this work is unfinished or unpolished insofar as Sartre did not have it published, I nonetheless think any academic or intellectual drawn to boxing should read his discussion, even if he or she does not share Sartre's philosophical and political views during this period of his life.

* See pp. 17-50 of volume two of the Critique, although the idiosyncratic terminology requires familiarity with the rather difficult first volume.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 11:56:17 AM

If the definition is in danger of ruling out something that people widely regard as a sport, that's a problem for the definition, isn't it?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 12, 2012 12:17:39 PM


Saying that an activity is only a sport if there is "objective scoring" leaves too many athletic competitive activities out including some very popular sports out there, like gymnastics. I don't like the possible problems created by "judging" but the fact that some sports are based on it does not make them any less of a sport.

My definition of sports is much broader. It is not perfect and does leave some activities open to debate but I think it works for the most part. It is this: I think of a sport as an activity that involves a competition that requires athletic ability. How the winner is determined specifically is not that relevant; it can be by finishing faster, scoring more points or getting a better score from a judge. What matters is that the participants are competing against each other and trying to win, and that the activity is athletic in nature.

By this definition, when I play golf by myself or with my buddies, I am not engaging in a sport - that is a passtime. But when Tiger Woods and the other pros play in a tournament, that is a sport. Also, by my definition, playing poker (even though it is on ESPN) is not a sport - because it does not involve an athletic activity. Gymnastics is a sport because it involves both competition and athleticism, strength, endurance, etc even though the performance is judged; but bodybuilding is not a sport because even though it is a competition the winner is not determined by according to the athletic ability of the participants but how they look.

So... back to your original question, boxing is a sport.

Posted by: Prof. Alberto Bernabe | Jun 12, 2012 2:43:19 PM


What is "widely regarded as a sport" might be incorrectly so regarded, normatively speaking, in which case this would not count as a problem for the definition, unless our definition aimed to be a purely descriptive statement, shorn of normative intent. Of course a normative definition should capture in large measure what we usually think of as a sport, but that hardly means we need simply defer to the opinions of the hoi polloi (e.g., in some societies cockfighting and bullfighting are 'sports,' and surely we can imagine, even desire, a definition that rules out such activities as falling within our understanding of what counts as a sport). Perhaps over time social norms with regard to what counts as a sport will, for whatever reasons, change, and such change may be in the direction of our (or some other) definition. Conversely, we might imagine an activity that some number short-of-a-majority consider a sport, and our definition might, correctly, include that activity.

So I suppose much hinges on what we expect of our definitions (are they lexical? precising? operational? stipulative? persuasive? theoretical?...).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 2:57:13 PM

Patrick made my point far more eruditely than I could have.

I have written a number of prior posts on this, so I'm not going to rehash the definition, of which objective scoring is just one element. The point of this (admittedly academic) discussion is to distinguish what really is sport from other competitions or contests, even those that involve "athletic ability." Under Alberto's definition, "Dancing With the Stars" is a sport, which I don't believe is correct.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 12, 2012 3:41:14 PM

Boxing, wresting, and gymnastics seem to me to be paradigm examples of sports, all of which involve judging, so I'd tend to think that involving judging can't be a negative. Sartre may well have had a point about some aspects of boxing as presently practiced, but it can't possibly be an argument against it being a sport, since it's quite ancient as a sport- long before "bourgeois capitalism" had even been thought of. (Though I like a lot of stuff by Sartre, I also must admit that he's not close to the first person I'd turn to for an analysis of sport.)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 12, 2012 4:19:13 PM

Except wrestling is not "judged." It is scored based on points awarded for doing specific things (takedowns, escapes, reversals) defined in fairly objective terms.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 12, 2012 4:28:10 PM


To be clear, I wasn't presenting Sartre's analysis as arguing for or against boxing as a "sport," only suggesting that he provides us with reasons we may want to rule it out as a "sport," or at least a sport we demonstrate approval of through one form or another of concrete support. In any case, I doubt the modern sport of boxing has much in common with the historically ancient forms, and that speaks in some central respects to the insights to be gleaned from Sartre's treatment. And I certainly did not mean to imply Sartre should be someone we turn to for an analysis of sport, in the first instance or otherwise.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 4:40:19 PM

Maybe this is just me, but I think the idea of "body-dependentness" is a key element for a definition of sport. Chess is not a sport, because I can give directions to someone who can thereby play as well as I can in my place. (Ignore speed chess.) Golf is a sport because I can't win a PGA tournament, no matter how close Tiger Woods stands next to me explaining what to do. (You could consider all this as just a footnote explaining what Prof. Bernabe probably means by "athletic ability.")

Prof. O'Donnell proposes to deny the label "sport" to activities we find morally wrong--boxing, cockfighting, etc. It's very interesting, and I don't really oppose it. But I tend to think about the category of "sports" in purely descriptive terms. Because calling something "a sport" doesn't act as moral praise, calling something "not a sport" doesn't act as moral rebuke. (I'm also still hoping we'll be able to get agreement on the category of "sport," which will be harder if moral considerations come into play because then we have to first agree on the moral considerations.) But Patrick is certainly right that, to the extent that the law uses the category of "sport" to change legal relationships, normative considerations must come into play. See, e.g., Gauvin v. Clark, 537 N.E.2d 94, 97 (Mass. 1989) (noting how a "majority of jurisdictions which have considered the duty of care on participants in a sports competition" have "concluded that personal injury cases arising out of an athletic event must be predicated [not on negligence but] on reckless disregard of safety").

Dancing with the Stars is a sport! It's sports plus celebrities, but the sport element is still there. Basketball with the Stars would be a sport (right?), although probably just as awful to watch...

Posted by: Chris Lund | Jun 12, 2012 4:43:23 PM


For the record, I am not a professor but merely an adjunct instructor (one class of late) at a community college.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 4:48:59 PM


If you look at the old posts that I link to, my definition (which I stole from a sports economist and kinesthesiologist) has four elements: 1) large motor skills (akin to your body-centeredness), 2) simple machines only, 3) objective scoring, 4) Competition. Boxing clearly satisfies 1, 2, and 4; the point of my post is whether it satisfies # 3. And # 3 marks the line for a lot of things--diving, gymnastics, figure skating, synchronized swimming. And DWTS.

By the way, BWTS (Basketball With the Stars) would satisfy # 3.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 12, 2012 4:55:17 PM

I like batting around concepts as much as the next person, and I've actually struggled in print with how to define "game." (The definition I went with somewhat questionably leaves out Sim City as a game, which seems like a strike against it to me.) But if we're not constrained in coming up with our definitions by the need to be consistent with *very* widespread uses of a term, then I'm not sure where else the constraints might be coming from. The word itself does not have any independent existence apart from how it is used.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 12, 2012 5:12:11 PM

Cockfighting? Perhaps it's a sport...from the rooster's point of view.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 12, 2012 5:52:44 PM


For lexical definitions, your approach may be fine but, say, for normative legal purposes we might want something on the order of a precising definition or a theoretical definition. For instance, our dictionary definition may adequately capture what most of us mean to say when we speak of "markets," but I can imagine any number of reasons why we may want a legal definition, or a definition sensitive to legal questions (or even, perhaps, moral questions: something that alerts us to different kinds of value or the limits of economic value), something that allows us to draw finer distinctions or more explicit boundaries, for different purposes. This hardly mean we utterly ignore the lexical definition, indeed, we may in some measure depend on (or assume) it, but wanting a non-lexical definition of a concept need hardly imply that an alternative definition is somehow untethered from use (either existing or envisaged). Someone may, for example, disagree with Howard's definition, but it's at least recognizable from the vantage point of those who employ more casual, loose, or intuitive definitions that serve as the common currency. In short, the constraints may be other than simply those that arise from current use of the term by most speakers. Again, I think much hinges on the rhetorical purposes for which our definitions are designed. I happen to be rather fond of the concepts of "common sense" or "folk psychology," and shudder at the prospect of their replacement by a more putatively scientific vocabulary, but I can certainly imagine more sophisticated conceptions or definitions of mind, or consciousness, and so on, that respect (i.e., are true to) some of the basic beliefs and concepts intrinsic to this folk psychological vocabulary while increasing its philosophical and psychological integrity or serving to defend it against crude materialist or reductionist accounts and definitions. In the end, we might see these various definitions as even possessing something like strong or genetic family resemblance to each other (think of different maps, all of the same terrain, but capturing distinct topographical features).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 5:59:21 PM

I might have mentioned that it's possible that a lexical definition may evolve on occasion to more closely reflect a proposed theoretical or precising or some other normative definition. This of course has happened with the dictionary definition of some words, like the lexical definition of water, which now often includes mention of its chemical properties.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 12, 2012 6:24:23 PM

Howard, as a former wrestler (not an especially good one, I'll grant, but I did it for longer than I did gymnastics) I'd suggest that the line between "judging" and "fairly objective terms" is, at best, a completely vague one. The "judging" in gymnastics is also "objective"- were the person's feet pointed when they should be? Did they take a little extra step?- in a way that's as clear as "did that guy's shoulder touch the mat"? or "did his hands break grip"? or the like. If anything, the judging in gymnastics is as good or better than that in wresting, in my experience. Similarly, the activities of a gymnastics judge is distinct from that of a baseball umpire, at best, by a vague line that's at best called fiat, or perhaps even better, prejudice.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 12, 2012 8:26:32 PM

All martial arts are stylized versions of hand-to-hand combat. This is true for wrestling, boxing, kick boxing, judo, karate, aikido, jiu-jitsu, mixed martial arts and all the others. This seems to be an uncomfortable fact for some people. In combat, of course, the winner is determined by who is left standing at the end. The civilian world objects strenuously to martial arts competitions fought with similar rules (see, e.g., the early history of mixed martial arts in the US) so we are left with substitutes that are sometimes not very good.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Jun 13, 2012 3:43:10 AM

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