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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Defining sport: Intrinsic and Instrumental (not utilitarian) Values

I have written before about defining sport and distinguishing sport from other athletic competitions. My preferred definition of sport includes four elements: 1) Large motor skills; 2) Simple machines; 3) Objective scoring (distinct from subjective judging); and 4) Competition. Of these, # 3 has proven to be most difficult, controversial, and contested, as the comments on this post show. Watching the Olympics (count me among the many who detest the NBC Primetime productions) has lead me to a different way of thinking about # 3, using a line familiar to legal scholarship--the difference between intinsic and utilitarian instrumental values. Hear me out.

Everything involves the performance of particular skills (dives, flips, swimming strokes, running strides, throwing, putting the shot, whatever), with the hope of performing those skills as correctly as possible. The difference is why the athlete performs those skills.

Sometimes they are done for utilitarian instrumental purposes--to enable the athlete to swim or run faster or to put the shot further or to put the ball in the basket. And the better or more perfectly the athlete performs those skills, the more likely he is to do well in the competition. But ultimate evaluation is not on the skills themselves and correct performance is not essential to success. A shot-putter still can have a good throw even if his performance on that throw is not technically correct; a swimmer still might swim fast even if his stroke is off; a jump shot in basketball may go in  even if the form on the shot is off. Each of those scores is worth the same as one done with perfect form. Other times, those skills are performed for their intrinsic value and utlimate evaluation is on the correctness and form of the skill itself. An Inward 2 1/2 that is not done correctly will score less than an Inward 2 1/2 done correctly; a backflip not done correctly will score less than a backflip done correctly.

This is our new third element. Sport is utilitarian instrumental; skills are performed toward some other end and outcomes are determined by the result of the skill rather than by evaluating the skill itself. It is not sport if it is intrinsic; skills are performed for their own sake and outcomes are determined by evaluating the skill itself. We no longer care about objective or subjective evaluation, about scoring or judging. Instead, we focus only on the thing being evaluated to determine outcome--the skill itself (not sport) or the results of the skill (sport).

Combined with elements 1, 2, and 4, above, we may have a winner.

Two Updates:

I accept Patrick's friendly amendment in the comments and have changed "utilitarian" to "instrumental."

I am trying to figure out whether this new element solves the conundrum of boxing. Boxers are throwing punches to score points, although the vagaries of judging sometimes hint that judges are evaluating the punches themselves.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 4, 2012 at 06:11 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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The concept that best contrasts with intrinsic value(s) is extrinsic or instrumental value: utilitarianism has all sorts of implications you might want to avoid (sometimes the word 'consequentialism' is used to avoid some of those, but they overlap for most purposes). Even the notion of "teleology" might be better suited to your ends here (no pun intended). Just something to consider should you want to develop this further.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 4, 2012 7:03:42 PM

On this definition, darts and billiards could be olympic sports, along with tiddlywinks.

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | Aug 5, 2012 1:37:43 AM

Eric, Do darts and billiards, or tiddlywinks, for that matter, involve "large motor skills?" That criterion may have a fuzzy boundary, but I think it's safe to rule out the three examples you mention (they might be Olympic 'games' however!).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 5, 2012 2:22:19 AM

If ping-pong does, then yes. How large must the motor skills be? I take it you'd exclude all shooting. Archery too?

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | Aug 5, 2012 3:55:22 AM

Something can be in the Olympics without being a sport (see Nastics, Gym).

I took the definition from an economist who teaches in a kinesthesiology department, so I imagine there are some scientific definitions of large and small motor skills. I'm pretty sure table tennis involves large motor skills, as would archery. Tiddlywinks, probably not.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 5, 2012 7:25:11 AM

I do so much thinking about classifications and metaphors that I'm not big into the "definition" game. (I think of the definition game in terms of the dictum of Joshua, the computer in War Games. "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.")

But most things you describe as intrinsic are events that either started instrumentally and became in your terminology intrinsic, or which still have instrumental effects mixed in with the intrinsic skill. For example, in diving, let's assume that vertical entry into the water with little splash is both safer and less painful than angular or horizontal entry (the worst being a belly flop). The result and the intrinsics are so intertwined that you can't really judge a triple somersault with half-twist other than by what it looks like in process and what it looks like going in the water. (Is a plain dive whose instrumental purpose is merely to get into the water a sport, but one with unnecessary intrinsic filigrees like somersaults and half-twists not?)

An activity with which I'm pretty familiar is equestrian. Put aside dressage for a moment. The other main English discipline is "hunter-jumper". What you see in the show ring in the Olympics is "jumper" in which the form of either the horse or rider is irrelevant: the only thing that matters is the and the ability to clear the jumps. That would be a sport, right? (Although I'm not sure what the simple machine is - the bridle or the saddle? - and horse racing is the "sport of kings", and as long as I'm on this digression, what about complex machines like race cars or sailboats?)

But in amateur equestrian competitions, there's also "hunter" competition, in which there are faults not only for time and jump clearances, but also for form. So that wouldn't be a sport? Or is it a demi-sport? And here's a specific. The rider may be judged on his or her "rising" or "posting" trot, in which the rider's butt comes up out of the saddle on every other stride in the two-beat trot. The correct way to post is to rise on the forward stride of the horse's outside leg (i.e., the leg closest to the outside of the ring). Rising on the correct stride is called being on the correct "diagonal." When I started riding (and still) my trainers would yell "change your diagonal." I was sure this was some kind of arbitrary highfalutin artistic demand. But it turns out that if you rise on the correct diagonal, you are unweighting as the horse is putting the most weight on its own legs as it turns to the right or to the left, and you substantially reduce the stress on the horse and balance both horse and rider. Even when you are trotting on a trail, you change diagonals regularly for the same reason you change hands when you are carrying a heavy suitcase from the airport to the car. That may seem merely intrinsic when you are trotting a couple times around a ring, but long term it is instrumental in that it serves the health and well-being of your saddle horse.

As to dressage, which grew out of military movements, there's another question entirely, which is does something being a sport require that the human effort be the primary source of either the intrinsic or the instrumental effect? While the judging in dressage includes an aspect of "connection" between the horse and rider, and the horse wouldn't do what it was supposed to with the human telling it what to do, the judging is primarily of the horse! In a race, the jockey rides the horse, but it's primarily the horse's ability that decides who wins. And the same in auto racing.

Well, enough for muddying pools for today!

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 7, 2012 12:09:58 PM

As to Jeff's diving question, it depends on why we're diving. A dive just to get in the water is a small part of a larger sport--swimming. But then the "quality" of the dive, much like the quality of her dolphin kick, matters only insofar as it affects how fast the swimmer goes. Or, if we imagine a contest for who can dive the farthest down (where form might help depth), that would be instrumental.

My thought here is that, in a diving competition, we are evaluating the dive qua dive based on some criteria for what makes a quality dive--why those criteria developed is beside the point.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 7, 2012 2:00:06 PM

Howard, where do non-freestyle swimming events fall into your taxonomy? I've never been a fan of these other swimming events (breastroke, butterfly, backstroke, medley, etc), because to me, the only outcome worth measuring is how quickly someone can go distance X in the water (probably based at least in part on annoyance with the whole Phelps-as-greatest-olympian-ever meme). Is a swimming race still a sport when the measure is how quickly someone can go distance X in the water limiting themselves to a particular form/style/skill of swimming? It's not the stroke qua stroke that is being evaluated, yet there is some outer limit to which competitors may deviate from the stroke such that you can't simply freestyle in a breaststroke event.

Posted by: Too Many Swimming Events | Aug 7, 2012 3:50:47 PM

Too Many: Yes, because it still satisfies the four elements; the sport is just being defined by certain additional parameters. Perhaps we can say that the backstroke is a different sport than freestyle swimming, but it's still a sport. For comparison, think of running and speedwalking; the point is measuring how quickly races can go distance X on the street, but speedwalking imposes certain limits on how they ambulate, while running is "freestyle."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 7, 2012 4:36:09 PM

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