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Saturday, August 04, 2012
Defining sport: Intrinsic and Instrumental 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.


Very good discussion. I used a two prong approach to separate a sport from an activity. One, scoring had to be objective in nature. Two, my success comes at your (the opponent's) determent. That is, I win, and you lose.

The first prong appears similar to your third test.

This prong rules out sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, and ballroom dancing where a judge needs to determine a winner.

In the second prong, activities such as track events and stroke play golf are eliminated. When a team scores a touchdown, the opposing team has yield a touchdown. In a race, no such event has occurred.

Match play golf and tennis tournaments should be considered a sport because you can directly defeat your opponent. In stroke play golf, no such outcome is possible.

Anonymous michael -- 8/04/2012 7:36 PM  

In a race, if I win, how have you and all the other people in the race not lost? Why limit the definition only to 1-on-1 competitions?

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 8/05/2012 7:29 AM  

For me the difference between a skill and a sport is whether you can directly alter your opponents strategy. Tennis vs Golf to me is the classic dividing line between skill and sport. In golf you are always better off getting the lowest possible score. What your opponent does is irrelevant, if you get your lowest possible score then there is nothing that your opponent can do to alter that.

Tennis is different- there are many cases where you should not hit your best shot and are instead better off altering your strategy to hit to your opponent's weakness. You can make an opponent come to the net if they have a poor net game. You can make them hit many backhands if they have a weak backhand. You can directly alter your opponent's choices.

Anonymous Damon -- 8/06/2012 9:39 AM  

I am not limiting the definition to 1-on-1. In my previous example, I used football, which is a competition of 11-on-11. If score a touchdown, then you have yielded a touchdown. If I score a basket, then you have yield a basket.

1-on-1 basketball should be considered a sport just as 5-on-5 basketball should be considered a sport.

Doubles tennis, a 2-on-2 activity, would be considered a sport.

In a race, my opponent has yielded nothing.

Anonymous michael -- 8/09/2012 7:55 PM  

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