Playing the game of sport

It’s 7:35 pm. I am sitting in my backyard, taking in the last of these 85ºF California Summer evenings.  I can faintly hear a high school band playing their fight song in the distance.

The perfect time and place to reflect on what Bernard Suits calls the “Tricky Triad” of play, games and sport (1988).

This is the time of year when I am most reflective on my identity as an athlete. I consider myself fortunate to have been exposed to a wide range of sports in childhood. Just as my adult body began to form, I had chosen football as “my sport”. I excelled at the defensive end position in high school and college due to my unique combination of size, quickness and reaction. My physical attributes gave me the opportunity to grow as a person through tough competition and many encounters with adversity.

The next night, we played De La Salle in front of a sell-out crowd at University of the Pacific in Northern California. All our friends and family made the 8 hour drive to watch us get defeated 42-0. Talk about a lesson. (The last player in that line, #21, is Denver Broncos linebacker, D.J. Williams)

D. J. Williams, a player on the Denver Broncos...

D. J. Williams


Not a day goes by when I don’t face some adversity in life, large or small, that I don’t rely on my experience as an athlete to help me overcome. Football has taught me so much about life that I often wonder if I’d be the man I am today were I not blessed with those three unique attributes and skills.

Playful Serendipity

In his explanation of the relationship between play, game and sport, Suits proposes that one origin of sport is when play leads to the serendipitous acquisition of specified skills (1988). He offers the image of a bathing baby playfully splashing the water. This splashing serves no other purpose but to amuse the baby. Over time, the baby could perhaps learn to splash more water or control the direction of the splash. This refinement of skill could be a useful end but does not motivate the behavior in any way.

Perhaps during some time while engaged in play as a child, I developed and maintained a good amount of Type IIb muscle fibers and well-meylinated motor neurons. Were it not for the coincidental physical grooming of my athletic abilities, would I not be the man I am today? Could I not have found the character building brought about by loss and sense of honor experienced in victory in other areas of life? Sure, but would failing a test or winning a spelling bee be just as satisfying?

Aye, there’s the rub….

Games v. Sport

Though strictly intellectual pursuits may provide us with a specific goal in sight, there is little else it shares with sport. R. Scott Kretchmar said “when one takes a test he learns ‘X’ about his own skills. This ‘X’ need not stand in relation to another’s ‘X’ for it to indicate the state of one’s skill.” (1975) Though we often do turn our games of the mind in to quasi-competitions, nothing comes close to sport in quenching our primal urges for feeling intangibles such as pride, honor, triumph, etc.

As violent and nasty as a boardroom or courtroom can get, they still do not match the power of masculine expression that is football. Football is especially suited for the conditioning of our primal instincts towards violence because of the stop-and-go nature of the game. When you line up repeatedly in the face of another man, knowing his primary mission for the next 6.5 seconds will be to drive you in to the dirt, there is a great amount of self-regulation you must exercise. Having just drawn from every bad memory, insult, defeat, disappointment thus far experienced in order to build up enough anger and rage for the coming play, you must still adhere to not only the rules of decency, but those of the game as well. Sport is thus controlled violence; a ritualized form of self-control (Segrave, 1997)

Like many of my peers, my childhood had been somewhat bubble-wrapped by my parents and society at large. Between the self-esteem movement and our overly litigious society, “Safety First” has become a motto of the youngest generations. I’ve written about how the removal “risk” on elementary school playgrounds has led to developmental deficits in children. In the same way, the artificial installation of self-esteem by giving anybody capable of fogging up a mirror a participation trophy has left many of us wondering if we have a self worth controlling. In fact, we now know that violence is most commonly a result of a perceived threat to someone with high self-esteem (Baumeister, Smart, Laura, Boden and Joseph, 1996).

The Essence of Sport

And so I am the man I am today largely due to my life as an athlete. Was it strictly due to my physical development that I was able to shape my mind and soul through the athletic games known as sport? That’s perhaps an existential question for another post. What is certain is that sport, as explained in a previous post, allowed me to carve out a distinct realm of my own existence. This simulation of life served as my very own “Danger Room”  for the purpose of expression, experimentation and eventually, self-regulation of whatever parts of my true natural resources that went un-tapped in normal life.


  • Suits, B. “Tricky Triad: Games, Play and Sport,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport XV (1988):1-9
  • Kretchmar, R.S. “From Test to Contest: An Analysis of Two Kinds of Counterpoint in Sport,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport II (1975): 23-30
  • Segrave, J.O. “A Matter of Life and Death: Some Thoughts on the Language of Sport,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol. 21 No. 2 (1997) 211-220
  • Baumeister, Roy F.; Smart, Laura; Boden, Joseph M. “Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem”
    Psychological Review Vol 103(1), Jan 1996, 5-33.



3 thoughts on “Playing the game of sport

  1. Pingback: I’ve always hated the mercy rule | A Mover's Blog

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