The Difference Between Play and Sport

After reading and discussing the first chapter of Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture” this week, I was left unsatisfied. My classmates and I came to the conclusion that sports, professional sports in particular, didn’t fit Huizinga’s definition of play, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. After all, I’ve been playing sports all my life. “Let’s go play some basketball after school,” I’d tell my friends. “The Giants played the Dodgers last night,” (and won of course) the ESPN anchor reported through my TV. Yet I have to admit that sports such as basketball, baseball, football and all my other favorites do not fit Huizinga’s requirements: according to Huizinga play is voluntary, disinterested, and limited by time and space.

Professional sports, and to a lesser extent amateur sports, are not voluntary or disinterested by Huizinga’s definition, although they are limited by time and space. Each and every professional athletes signs a contract committing him or herself to play a certain number of seasons for a certain amount of money. Of course, in a philosophical sense these athletes have a choice in whether or not to play once they’ve signed these contracts, but in a more realistic sense they do not. These contracts often require that players practice daily, attend press events, and participate in team marketing campaigns as well. For this reason professional sports are not disinterested. Being a professional athlete is a 24/7 job. When you’re not playing, you’re practicing or doing press, or at the very least thinking about the next game or team event. So I had to admit sports do not fit Huizinga’s definition of play. Then it hit me, sports may not fit into the definition of play, but maybe play fits into the definition of sports.

This is play.

This is sport.

I got to thinking about what defines sports and came to the conclusion that sports are a combination of play and competition. Play accounts for the primal, creative aspect of sports—360 dunks, one-armed grabs, touchdown celebrations, etc. Competition on the other hand accounts for everything that doesn’t fit into Huizinga’s definition. Professional athletes sign a contract that ensures they will compete to the best of their abilities and will be compensated in return. Competition accounts for sport invading every waking moment of a professional athletes life. They compete to be the best, and being the best means never taking a moment off. The balance of play and competition is what makes professional sports so special and so exciting. I believe this balance also plays a significant role in the recent debate regarding compensation in collegiate athletics. The focus in college athletics has been shifted towards competition and the appropriate level of compensation for competing. I think the best thing for college athletics would be to find a solution that satisfies both the players and the schools, whatever that may be, in order to restore the proper balance of competition and play as soon as possible.

– Zachary Foos

One thought on “The Difference Between Play and Sport

  1. I really like how you classify the elements of sport which are play. I think you nailed it. While professional sports are not in fact play, there is a certain realm of the pro’s which do incorporate and allow for that “just because” fun element of play. This is where all the flare and celebrations in sports that traditional coaches so often admonish could be classified.


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