Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory
Sport was included in ancient educational systems because it was thought to promote aretê or human excellence which could be applied to almost any endeavor in life. The goal of most modern scholastic athletic programs might be better summed up in a word: winning. Is this a sign that we have lost touch with the age-old rationale for including sport in education? I argue that it need not be by showing that we value winning precisely for the virtues associated with it. I then take Plato's traditional parts of aretê: piety, sophrosunê, courage and justice and show how they are manifest in modern athletic ideals of self-knowledge, discipline, courage and justice. To the extent that scholastic athletic programs develop these virtues, I conclude, their pursuit of winning is not at odds with the institutional mission of educating students. If an athletic program's pursuit of victory allows such character-building to fall by the wayside, however, it deserves no place in our high schools, colleges or universities.
As in the world of the Ancient Greeks, sport plays an important role in the educational institutions of 20th century America. The reasoning for this in ancient times, as now, is a belief that sport helps to make better people — that it promotes excellence (what the Greeks called aretê) in individuals, excellence which can be applied to almost any endeavor in life. That said, it must be acknowledged that most athletes, coaches, and school administrations identify the goal of their athletic programs in one word: winning. Is this a sign that we've lost touch with the age-old rationale for including sport in education? Is the philosophy that "winning is everything," or "the only thing," (1) or maybe the Platonic ideal of the Good as manifested in sport at odds with the fundamental objectives of education? The best way to tell is to ask a simple yet crucial question in the style of Socrates: What is Winning?
One reason this question is seldom asked may be that, on the face of it, the answer is absurdly obvious. Sports, after all, are essentially sets of rules constructed by human beings, and winning is clearly defined within each of these sets of rules. Analytically, a winner is simply the athlete or team who accumulates the most points, crosses the finish line first, jumps the highest, throws the farthest, or whatever superlative the sport designates. The definition of winning in sport is clear and quantitatively measurable — unlike "winning" in other areas of life, such as love or happiness, where success is not so easily measured. Perhaps this precision is one of the reasons we value an athletic victor so much, but certainly there is more to it. Ben Johnson crossed the finish line first in the 100 meter dash at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, but few consider him the winner of the race. Even victors who win "fair and square" sometimes see the "moral victory" and the lion's share of admiration...