Sports are the prototypical form of play; even the verb associated with sports–play–implies their intimate relationship. Thus, considering the association of sports and play, it would seem logical that professional sports are the highest form of play. This semester, however, after being a spectator at games of the National Football League (NFL) and Berkeley Carroll (high school) varsity basketball, my understanding of the relation between sports and play has become unclear.
In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga examines what conditions qualify something as play. He asserts that for an activity to be considered play, it must be free, separate, uncertain, autotelic, governed by rules, and make believe. To me, the most interesting of these criteria is that play must be autotelic–it must be intrinsically valuable, having an end or purpose in itself. The world in which we play–a world that is separate and sacred, a standstill to ordinary life–is termed by Huizinga as the “magic circle.” Through Huizinga’s discussion of play and the magic circle, an interesting relation between professionalism and play emerges.
The two sporting events I saw represent two distinct ends of the competitiveness spectrum, with the Jets vs Broncos game at MetLife Stadium serving as a competitive extreme. Everyone involved in this game–the coaches, players, front office executives, equipment staff members, etc.–had spent countless hours preparing for this moment. This commitment was reflected in intense mood surrounding the game. For the players, football is their entire lives. These athletes have taken the playing of football to it’s natural end, epitomizing the sentiment of professionalism discussed by Eric Dunning in “The Dynamics of Modern Sport.” Dunning believes that the emergence of professionalism is the consequence of when play is taken to its natural end; however, it is interesting to note that when professional athletes play football, they are not, under Huizinga’s definition of play, playing. This is because professional athletes play for monetary gains, violating Huizinga’s criterion that play must be autotelic. When considering in the works of Huizinga and Dunning in conjunction, we see that professionalism produces an apparent paradox: play, when taken to its natural end, ceases to be play. Moreover, with professional football players, the playing of football permeates all aspects of their lives, violating the boundaries of the magic circle. In fact, after losing Super Bowl XLVI, Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots was harshly criticized for partying and not seeming affected by the loss. Thus, in the case of professional sports, play is not limited to the magic circle. When professional athletes play their sport, they are, according to Huizinga, not playing at all.
The competitiveness of my brother’s high school basketball clash between the Berkeley Carroll School and Packer Collegiate Institute could not be more different from that of an NFL football game. Unlike professionals, who are always marked with intensity, these high school athletes jovially converse with their teammates on the bench. Moreover, these high school athletes differ from their professional counterparts in another key aspect: they play simply to have fun. Their playing of basketball is thus an autotelic activity and would be considered by Huizinga to be play.
When considering Johan Huizinga’s definition of play in our comparison of professional and high school sports, we reach a surprising conclusion: professionalism–the more developed form of play–is not play, whereas amateurism–the infant form of play–is. Play must be fundamentally autotelic and unproductive and must exist outside of normal life (in the magic circle). Thus, as is the case with professionalism, when play dominates all aspects of life and permeates the magic circle’s boundaries, it ceases to be play.