Shawn Klein

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”

Albert Camus

Philosophy lecturer Shawn Klein takes on applied philosophy while talking about his academic career and pursuits in philosophy. We discuss sports through the lens of applied philosophy while understanding the insights it has to offer regarding the value of sport, fair play and the place of sports in the American Educational System. 

What is your understanding of ‘Applied Philosophy’ ?

In a way, all philosophy is applied philosophy. The philosophical positions one holds (implicitly or explicitly) inform, influence, and impact nearly every decision and action one takes – whether one is consciously aware of it or not. But more specifically, I understand applied philosophy as the deliberate and conscious application of the ideas and concepts in philosophy to particular current issues, debates, or affairs. 

How does your research relate to Applied Philosophy? Tell us a little more about some of your work

My research focus is, generally, on the philosophy of sport and play. Some of it is more theoretical, such as definitional inquiries into the concepts of sport or play. But fundamentally it is all applied because sport and play are part of our lives in significant ways, so a better understanding of these human activities gives us a better understanding of ourselves more broadly. 

Sport also has a lot of ongoing controversies and dilemmas, so much of my work is also focused on applying philosophy to these issues. Philosophy is essential here because it helps to get more precision in the concepts or brings out various assumptions or implicit premises. These important clarifications allow us to better understand the problems and help, hopefully, to resolve them. 

Thinking back to your early academic career, what made you realize philosophy was the right choice for you? 

I am not sure I can point to an exact moment; it was more a slow burn. I started as a Biology major in college but switched to English Literature because that seemed to get more deeply into the kinds of questions about the world I was interested in. By my junior and senior years, I realized that philosophy gets into these questions in a much more fundamental and systematic way. So, after working for a while after graduation, I went to graduate school for philosophy (at ASU).

Any philosopher or school of thought that inspires you the most or stands out? Recommended readings for our readers

I would have to say that Aristotle is the greatest influence on all my thinking and work. Both directly and indirectly through later Aristotelians like Philippa Foot. Foot’s Natural Goodness is an amazing, though challenging, book.

What kind of opportunities and careers exist out there for students pursuing philosophy? 

I think philosophy is one of the best degrees one can pursue at the undergraduate level: to succeed in philosophy means you have developed the writing skills, the critical thinking and reading skills, and the clarity and precision of thought to succeed in almost any contemporary career (and in life more generally).

What is the value of sport and what role can it play in human life? 

This is a difficult question to answer if only because there are so many ways to answer it! Sport offers us the opportunity for so many important values, here’s a few: Fun and recreation; Health and wellness; Community of those with shared interests and goals; Opportunities for growth, challenge, and excellence; Experiencing the achievement of great human feats and the overcoming of what we thought were the limits of human ability. 

These are all important values for living a good and full life. There are other avenues in life that can provide these, but sport is unique in being able to offer all of them in one package.

Competition and rivalries are seemingly integral qualities of sport but are they morally acceptable?

Competition is essential to sport. There are a few interesting exceptions, but as most of us understand sport, it is a competitive endeavor. While competition can have an ugly side, that’s not inherent in competition itself. Often the bad behavior we attribute to competition is a result of failing to take the sport seriously or, as is more often the case, taking it too seriously. By this, I mean something like treating sport as a life-death situation where anything goes. But this is not an accurate account of sport.

Sports (and games more generally) are rule-bounded, goal orientated activities. The rules both define the structure of the activity and its goals, but also the acceptable means by which we can achieve the sporting goals. We cannot achieve the goal of golf by picking up the ball and dropping it in the hole; we are bound by the rules to hit the ball with the clubs over a defined distance and space. Moreover, we accept these restrictions and rules in order to make the game possible. To compete, all the competitors have to cooperate on the rules and structure of the game: so athletic competition is a special case of cooperation. As the late sport philosopher Robert Simon described it, competition is “the mutual quest for excellence.” Through the agreed upon competitive structure of the sport, the players challenge each other to improve and excel. 

Exposure to the risk of significant physical harm is intrinsic to participation in many sports. Can violent sports be ethical? 

I’ll reframe the question to dangerous sport, since there are non-violent sports, such as mountain climbing or surfing, that also have significant risks of serious physical harm and even death. Following the philosopher John Russell in this regard, I think there is great value to dangerous sports – both for participants and spectators. Because of the risk, dangerous sport allows us to test ourselves, and discover ourselves, in a more complete way. It is not just an intellectual challenge or a physical challenge. It is a challenge of our whole self. It tests us at our limits, which then allows us to push beyond those limits. The self-affirmation and self-knowledge that comes from such a challenge is an important component in living good and full lives. For spectators, there is also a value of witnessing the pursuit and achievement of values in dangerous circumstances. This can inspire us; it can show us that our own values are possible. 

Are purist/partisan spectators morally problematic? 

Spectators are an important component to sport. As we saw during the pandemic, sport can occur without fans. But it is not the same thing; live sports need live fans to be their best. Being a loyal supporter of a team or player can be an important expression of one’s identity and values. Fandom also brings community and connection. The dark side of fandom is that it can breed a kind of divisive tribalism and hatred of the other. Mix this with alcohol and adrenaline and you get some ugly results. But overall, I think sport can be a healthier outlet for our natural impulses to form tribes and separate “us” and “them”. These attitudes tend to dissipate once the match ends, while real tribalism and hate persist and do far more damage. 

We often put athletes on a pedestal and turn them into role models. In saying that, do professional athletes have a responsibility to their community?

I think it is a mistake to treat athletes as role models in a general sense. And I am not sure we really do. It is quite true that little league baseball players will copy their favorite players batting stance or a youth soccer player might try to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo’s hairstyle in the hope of playing more like him. But most studies of youth behavior and moral attitudes point much more to peers and close adults as the primary influence—not athletes or celebrities. Indeed, to the extent that an athlete becomes a role model, they are likely selected as a role model by a kid because the player already fits what the kid is looking for. The influence seems then to run from the kid to the athlete, not the athlete to the kid.

Ancient Greeks believed in arête. A part of the idea is that sport promotes excellence and it’s an educational experience. Today college sports are a big part of educational institutions and American culture. However, it seems like the approach today is all about winning at all costs. Is this a sign that we’ve lost touch with the age-old rationale for including sport in education? And what is winning? Is it just a quantifiable measure of points? 

The American college sports system is weird. It has many amazing and wonderful characteristics. Little can top the spectacle and excitement of a college football game. And it offers so many people an environment to pursue their sport at the highest level of competition. But it is also such a mess. The NCAA clings to an antiquated model of amateurism that is incongruent with the structure and reality of the way much of system operates. There are two main fundamental problems as I see it. First, there is this issue of the NCAA’s deeply flawed and unsustainable amateurism model. Second, there is just too much being put under one roof—that is, the NCAA is trying to govern over 1000 schools and some 90 different national championships. Even just Division 1 has over 300 schools. These schools, the student-athletes attending the schools, and the sports are just too different to be governed by one overall institution.

We touched upon the idea of ‘winning at all costs’. Can cheaters ever win? Moreover, is gamesmanship just another skill in sport? Is it morally correct since it is not technically cheating? 

Winning at all costs is, for sport, a contradiction in terms. Winning is defined by and governed by the rules and principles of the sport. Thus, intentionally violating the core principles and rules cannot be a way to win since one isn’t really playing the game at all.

Gamesmanship is a bit different. It is, as you note, not cheating. So, if gamesmanship is thought of as a way or strategy of using or manipulating the rules to one’s advantage, then there are two initial things to say. First, this use of the rules can be cynical and devious and that seems wrong. It seems like a way to win that doesn’t demonstrate one’s excellence in the sport. On the other hand, a second way to view it is that this use of the rules can be entrepreneurial and innovative, and that seems good. On this view, gamesmanship can be seen as an exploration of how far the rules can go before, they break. This can give us insight into the underlying principles of the sport: what is most important and primary in the sport? Though this pushing of boundaries, we might discover some new, exciting tactic or we might discover a gap that needs fixing by clarifying or revising the rules. Either way that is a win.


Dr. Shawn Klein, a lecturer here at ASU specializes in ethics, popular culture, and the philosophy of sport. He blogs at sportsethicist.com, discussing all things related to Sport Philosophy while also running a podcast available on Apple Podcasts and YouTube. He is the editor of several books including “Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines” (Lexington, 2016). For those interested, ASU also has a Sports, Cultures, and Ethics Certificate, offering students the opportunity to engage in a cross-disciplinary inquiry into the social, ethical and cultural influence of sports in society. 

Interview conducted by Areesha Hassan.

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