Friday, September 9, 2011

Football excellence

I sent the following in an email to a former student. He knows a lot more about the subject—both first-order and second-order—than I do, and for some reason he found it hilarious, and perhaps true, so I'm posting it (with some typos fixed):
Jon K and Mike B were talking football. And I was finding their discourse very interesting. It was a mix of descriptive and evaluative language, with the two inseparable, in the way natural law theorists like. Understanding almost none of the first order content of their conversation, I wondered what sorts of claims they were making. My first thought was that the evaluative language could be reduced without remainder to means-end stuff: a criticism might be a claim that such and such an action did not contribute to winning, or was not likely to contribute to winning, etc.
But on reflection, no such reduction is possible. Suppose player x does not take an action A such that x's taking A would have increased the chance of victory. This is only a criticism if we add some further claims. For instance, it is not a criticism of a player that he did not run at 90% of the speed of light, though had he done so, it might have increased the chance of victory. Maybe we want to say: we criticize x for not doing A only when x could have done A. But while that may be the case for moral evaluation, it's not the case for sports evaluation. For instance, if I was due to some freak in a football game, it would be appropriate to criticize me for not doing all sorts of things that I am incapable of doing. For while I'm incapable of doing them, they're expected of a football player. The criticism might be phrased: "That Pruss guy shouldn't have been put on the team." But it could just be phrased: "He didn't run fast enough."
Moreover, some of the criticism is probably rather mild. The person isn't being criticized for falling short of what it takes to be a competent football player. The criticism is for falling short of excellence. Maybe that's not entirely fair, but maybe it is. So we need a concept of football excellence. Football excellence is a concept that goes beyond the empirical. [I]f all the players in the world were as incompetent as I'd be, we should say that even the best players fall short of excellence. There may be games like that, say newly invented games that no one is excellent [as] yet. So what measures excellence here? I can't help but think it's some kind of a notion of human nature. Football excellence is a kind of human excellence. Thus, it is not a part of football excellence to run at 90% of the speed of light or to throw a ball with millimeter accuracy at 100 meters. For that's asking for more than human nature can be expected to yield even in the truly excellent. That would be asking for the superhuman, and we don't ask for that (though in a way God does—but he also gives the grace for it). This means that the notion of football excellence depends on a notion of human nature. Moreover, this notion of human nature does not appear to be merely empirical: there is an irreducible normative component. 
This means that a naturalist can't consistently talk football. 
How's that sound? I may be fudging too much, since I didn't really understand many, or maybe any, of their first order claims.


Brandon said...

This is pretty close to what MacIntyre has in mind in linking virtues to practices. MacIntyre's own example is chess, but he does on occasion mention sports as well as the sciences and the arts as examples. I think we should expect, then, that if this argument works, then the problem is quite pervasive throughout human life, since what will apply (at least fairly generally) to all sorts of practices.

JSA said...

That *is* pretty hilarious! :-)

IMO, the banter usually has little to do with making claims about the actual excellence of particular players. The banter is all about signalling your expertise and trustworthiness as a judge of game outcomes. It's about jockeying for psychological advantage when the next game comes up for a bet, and you have money riding on the outcome, a fantasy league, or whatever. As you establish a reputation in judging sports games as an outsider, that reputation carries over into situations where someone is choosing someone for a work responsibility, etc.

Mike Almeida said...

I don't think we have a genuine violation of ought-can here, and maybe you're not suggestion we do. The objection to your failure to compete well (though you can't compeete well) is an objection to your suiting up at all. You ought not to be on the field at all without being in possession of certain fundamental skills. And that is something you can do: you might have decided not to play the sport. So, ought-can applies to both moral evaluation and skill evaluation. There's no opting out of the moral game, but there is opting out of most other games. And the criticism for failing to live up to game standards beyond your capacities in non-moral games is criticism for failing to opt out of the game.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's an interesting suggestion. I'm not sure, though. Suppose I have extremely good reason to sign up as a football player. Maybe somebody will donate a billion dollars to Caritas if I do. Then it seems I can't be criticized for signing up, and the team can't be criticized for signing me up, but I can still be criticized for running too slowly, etc.

Perhaps, though, you could say: I can be football-criticized for signing up, but I can't be criticized simpliciter for signing up. Maybe that works.

What about this case? Sam is an ageing football player. At the beginning of the season, he is good enough. At the end, he's not. Moreover, on balance his season's performance is such that it was football-good for him to have signed up for the team. And there are no replacements available, so it's football-good for him not to drop out of the team. But his skills are below what is reasonably expected of a football player. We would say: "He's not running as fast as a football player should." And since he is a football player, it seems that we should be able to infer that he's not running as fast as he football-should.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dagmara Lizlovs said...

When Bo Schembechler coached the Michigan Wolverines and Woody Hayes coached Ohio State, this whole thing was a non-issue. You ground out the yardage up the middle come hell or high water or whatever else. It was all guts and iron will. Back then it was not for nothing that the Big Ten was called the Big Two and the little eight. Hail to the Victors!