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Philosophy and Sport

The Kantian Coach

Tim Madigan thinks that Immanuel Kant wouldn’t have made a very popular coach, but would have worked wonders for the spirit of fair play.

Imagine the following scenario. A football team just scores a winning touchdown. The hometown crowd goes wild. The opposing team hangs its head in shame. The referees nod sagely that all is well. Just then, the coach rushes up to the referees and says, “I’m sorry, but one of my players was offsides. You didn’t see it, but I did. You must penalize us for this. I refuse to accept a touchdown that wasn’t properly earned.” When the announcers alert the crowd in the stands and the viewers at home to this bit of news, how will it likely be received? Will the coach be carried out of the stands in triumph for his strict adherence to the rules? I suspect not.

Following rules is an essential part of any sporting event, and one of the most important roles which coaches fulfill (in addition to plotting strategy, motivating players, and inspiring the fans) is to make sure that such rules are both understood and followed by the athletes. One only has to watch the expression on coaches’ faces when the opposing team commits an infraction to see just how important sticking to the rules is to them.

Grantland Rice’s famous statement “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” is a perfect expression of Immanuel Kant’s duty-based approach to ethics. For Kant, one should never allow anticipated consequences to cause one to deviate from following the rules of ethics. One can only wonder what sort of a coach he would have made. His pep talks during half-time might lack the fire of Knute Rockne’s exhortations. “Remember team,” I can hear him say, “don’t ever treat the opposing players as merely means to an end.” Hardly as powerful as “Win this one for the Gipper!” But Kant was always suspicious of motivations based upon appeals to emotion. For him, an action can only be considered moral if it can be universalized. If it is wrong for the opposing team to win the game due to an uncalled penalty, how can it be right for one’s own team to do so?

Perhaps the real issue here is that the rules of sporting events are not as hard-and-fast as one might think. Allowance must be made for human fallibility. And often the sheer number of possible infractions are such that malicious-minded referees could plausibly penalize the athletes on almost every play, thereby giving both coaches attacks of apoplexy. Still, victories that occur because of bad calls or unnoticed fouls tend to be long remembered. Interestingly enough, such tainted victories can have their own motivating factors. Jennifer Allen, daughter of the legendary Washington Redskins football coach George Allen, wrote an article for the January 12, 2003 New York Times editorial page entitled “Don’t Let the Healing Begin.” In it, she writes: “My father, George Allen, was a firm believer in keeping open the wounds of unfairness.” He was so miffed about losing a 1975 game to the St Louis Cardinals, whose receiver was clearly out of bounds although credited with a touchdown (later known as ‘the phantom catch’) that he brooded about it incessantly. “He shared his obsession with the team”, his daughter writes. “The cause bound them together and raised their level of play. In the 1976 season, the Redskins swept the Cardinals.” As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche well knew, having the right enemy can be a powerful motivating force.

The usual stated antithesis to Grantland Rice’s motto is that of football coach Vince Lombardi:

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” But what Lombardi actually said is rather different: “Winning is not everything, but wanting to win is.” Surely even a Kantian coach would have no quarrel with that – if an athlete doesn’t desire to win, then he or she should not be on the field. But if a coach knows that victory has occurred due to a lack of diligence on the part of the officials, it makes it rather unsporting to criticize the officials when the same thing happens to the benefit of the opposition. While I don’t expect to ever see so dramatic a scenario as that with which I began this piece, I can’t help but think that a little dose of Kantianism would help restore the virtue of fair play which is so essential to any sporting event. Now go out, and win this one for the Sage of Königsburg.


Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press and a U.S. Editor of Philosophy Now.

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