Spectacle or Sport?


“I know it when I see it”

In 1964 Justice Potter Stewart ruled that a certain film was not overly obscene. as follows: I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. —Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in Louis Malle’s film The Lovers.  

“I know it when I see it” has since been established as a “realistic and gallant” standard for evaluating issues otherwise difficult to define.

For example: Where is the line between sport and spectacle?

I have a very inclusive definition of “sports” (inclusive of organized sports and those organized by kids in the backyard, and games of all varieties), and can appreciate the many and varied things people get out of them.

I can also appreciate that within any sport or game there may be an important line between feats of athleticism and something else difficult to define.

One of the reasons sports are so popular is the exhilaration of watching or taking part in amazing athletic feats or dramatic match-ups: those amazing athletic moments that stretch our ideas about human potential, or those that graze the razor edge between the glories of success and agonies of failure. But there seems to be an important difference between these and, for example, contrived hockey fights, steroid fueled home run derbies, and recent America’s Cup “yachts”. The addition of slopestyle events to the Winter Games makes me wonder about the slope from traditional sports to the X-Games, and perhaps to Cirque du Soleil. Where does sport end and spectacle begin? Is there room for both? Or is something lost?

Justice Stewart’s determination about the line between porn and art included these qualifications: “the work as a whole must lack ‘serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values’”.  Might we consider a sporting equivalent? What would we include in this standard? Maintaining a fair playing field is an obvious one. Assuring that contests aren’t contrived is another (i.e., that competition is legitimate, not staged). Promoting reasonable levels of safety and not encouraging players to take risks that threaten their longterm health, or life.

Audience entertainment (and ticket sales or TV ratings) cannot be a good enough reason for a sport to exist. Or if so, then can we call it something besides sport?


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