Sports Are Relatively Rational
by Walter Block
by Walter Block
I like sports.
I like to play them, and I like to watch them.
My favorite participant sports are handball, swimming, volleyball, tennis, track, ping-pong and karate. The ones I most like to watch are handball, boxing, karate, track, swimming, volleyball, basketball and tennis. Football, weightlifting, squash, ping-pong, regattas, wrestling (not the fake kind), horseracing are all good too.
The ballet "sports" are also fun to view, but they are too subjective, really, to be considered athletic contests. Under this rubric I would include figure skating (a New Orleans type sport since it is so corrupt), gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving. Yes, all of them require great athletic ability, but so does ballet and tap dancing. But no one, and quite rightly so, considers any of the latter as real competitions. Even here, though, dropping the high and low scores, and weeding out extremist or outlying judges from future events, does lend to the proceedings a modicum of fairness and even semi-objectivity.
Boxing constitutes an anomalous midpoint in this regard. A clean knockdown, or knockout is entirely objective, while scoring, whether based on opinion or punch statistics, is as subjective as the grading in the ballet sports. What is or should be worth more: one power punch that does some damage or a bunch of pitty pats? However, there was no doubt that Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Louis, to name just a few, were really the best at the manly art, each at least for a time.
When I read a newspaper, I turn first to the sports pages. Everything therein is clear and, frankly, interesting. Winning and losing. Times in swimming and track. Distances in the shot put, javelin throw and high jump. Weights in the lift. Will the world record be beaten? Will the underdog prove victorious? Which strategies work best? Will the champ repeat, and start a dynasty? These are all questions that, I confess, fascinate me.
There are hard and fast rules concerning these athletic events and they are, the human condition being what it is, almost always applied fairly. The referees are in effect private judges. The instant replay camera has added to justice in this regard. The referees are willing to overrule themselves when the lens discerns human error made instantaneously. Photo finishes are pored over with a fine-tooth comb. Did the referees and judges fail to be not only fair but widely perceived to be so, they would impugn the sports over which they preside. The market, contrary to fact conditional coming up, would ensure that leagues seen to be biased would go bankrupt. Yes, there are exceptions; we can all name some, but they prove the general rule.
Sports rules tend to be scrupulously fair. Events with goals (basketball, football, soccer, rugby, hockey) and some without (volleyball, tennis) change sides every so often so as to obviate the possible effects of wind, sun in the eyes, lack of a level playing field. A coin is tossed to determine who goes "first." In some cases, there are weight classes (boxing, wrestling, rowing) so as to provide a bit of suspense. No one wants to see a heavyweight and a flyweight in the same ring. Males and females are almost always segregated. (Here, unfortunately, a bit of political correctness has recently seeped in to the once all but inviolable athletic world. Allowing females to play on male teams would spell the death knell for distaff side sports. For if males return the favor, and are allowed on women's teams, it is the very rare female indeed who would qualify for team membership).
Even the controversies in sport are usually addressed in a reasonable manner. Can a handicapped golfer use a golf cart? No, not unless he plays in a handicapped league. What about when a fan reaches in and grabs a baseball out of the outstretched glove of an outfielder? Same thing. Read the rule book for handball, my favorite sport, to see how the USHA agonizes over its rules in an attempt to be scrupulously fair.
Some rules appear arbitrary, but, as long as they are applied consistently, they are unobjectionable. For instance, the tie goes to the runner in baseball. If two men lift the same amount of weight, the lightest of them wins. If the champ in boxing ties, he keeps his crown.
Okay, okay, sports are not perfect. They are organized by imperfect human beings. The state butts its ugly nose into this field of endeavor as it does in all others. But let us look at the real (read: non-sports) world. Let us glance at the other sections of newspapers. There is a sharp contrast.
In the business section we learn that price gouging is evil, and victimizes buyers; that the minimum wage should be raised, and unions strengthened, in order to fight unemployment and increase wages; that Katrina will create vast numbers of new jobs and wealth, and hence was an economic boon (think of those broken windows). That taxes and welfare payments must always and ever be increased.
In the field of international relations, we are told that we should support our troops overseas, even though they have no proper business being where they are. Suppose a role reversal: Iraqi solders are trying to improve U.S. political institutions by killing masses of our citizens. We would resent it bitterly and be completely unable to understand how the Iraqis could support their troops in the U.S. who were murdering innocent Americans. Journalists, with some rare honorable exceptions (mainly, those appearing on these very pages of LewRockwell.com, plus Antiwar.com), seem congenitally unable to look at these matters through the eyes of the other guy. This is something that every athlete with an opponent is taught to do from an earliest age. "If I do this, what will he do?" is a continual subconscious question. Pity this has not translated into the arena of foreign relations for most athletes.
In the political sections of newspapers we see FEMA turning away hospital ships, doctors, bottled water from Wal-Mart, offers of free trips from AMTRAK, and then find out that this bumbling inept organization will be given billions of dollars of Katrina relief funds to administer. In a more rational world, FEMA would be disbanded, and its leaders jailed. We see pictures of hundreds of New Orleans school buses that could have been used to evacuate the inhabitants of "Sewer Dome" lying window deep in water, and Mayor Nagin has not yet been impeached.
If this sort of irrationality ever, God forbid!, infested the relatively pristine field of athletics, winning coaches would be fired, and losing ones given raises and promotions. Extra points in football would be awarded to teams with black coaches, and to NBA teams for each white player. Teams with homosexual trainers would automatically win championships. Girls would be allowed to wrestle against boys.
Hey, wait just a sec. The last mentioned outrage has already occurred! This shows that however rational are sports, creeping statism has indeed taken root. Unions plague the professional leagues. Governments subsidize professional stadiums. The NCAA should win some sort of hypocrisy award for ensuring that college athletes, alone, cannot benefit from the fact that they fill the football and basketball stadiums of the nation. And for ruining minor sports for males, with its title IX gender "equity" policies. But this sort of thing is the merest tip of the iceberg when compared to the rest of our society.
So, bring me the sports pages first. At least I understand and appreciate what is going on there.
October 6, 2005
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. Currently he is the Steven Berger Visiting Professor at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable.
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