Dr. Emily Ryall is a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom. She specializes in philosophy of sport, philosophy of play, and philosophy of games. She recently published a book Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions, and holds a blog on the topic. She’s also a Rugby coach! Here’s a transcript of our friendly chat in August of 2019.
Ben: What path led you to become a philosopher of sport?
Emily: I’ve always been interested in philosophical questions, even if didn’t know what philosophy was. I eventually did my undergraduate and master’s degree in philosophy, and at the same time loved playing and watching sports. But, the two never got together. It was my mom that noticed there was a scholarship for a PhD in the philosophy of sport in one of the national newspapers and told me “hey, you should apply to that”. I did, and was successful! I was really fortunate that I was able to tie my two loves together because I’ve always wanted to continue in philosophy and love teaching philosophy as well. I ended up in a really ideal job where I could continue both the love of sport and love of philosophy and put them together.
Ben: What sports did you play?
Emily: My main sport was rugby, and I’ve also played a lot of cricket as well. But I just love sport full stop: skateboarding, surfing, tennis… Anything and everything I’ve probably had a go at, but rugby primarily in a competitive level.
Ben: What does your day-to-day as a philosopher look like?
Emily: Here, I’ll give you my ideal day (that might happen only once in a blue moon). The ideal day would start by reading a couple of articles, thinking about how I can use it in my projects and teaching. I might give a lecture – I really enjoy teaching. It’s so much fun to have discussions with students. Philosophy is about ideas and articulating arguments. These are kinds of things that people kind of do naturally, like debating and thinking. I really enjoy doing that. I might be asked to give a an external talk. This is kind of ideal academic day. In reality, however, it’s about answering emails, doing some administration, and doing lots of paperwork. The longer you stay in an environment, the less you do the work you initially wanted to do… But that’s not particular to philosophy!
Ben: What particular questions interest you?
Emily: The question I always come back to is: what is it to live a good and meaningful life? This is a question that as humans we always struggle with: why is it worth waking up in the morning? What is it about my life that’s worth living? In modern life, we have a lot more leisure time than in the past, and so sports seem to be playing a bigger and bigger part of our lives. There’s something about sport that provides some meaning in life. The rules of sport are trivial and put in place just so sport can exist, but at the same time it does mean a lot to those who play and watch it. It’s a paradoxical situation where in the moment of play, the only thing that matters is the goal that you’re trying to reach and everything is set up for that moment – yet it’s totally meaningless and pointless. Think about those big games where people literally put their body in the line (such as American football or rugby); think about spectator of the sport that watches their team play and if they lose they’re absolutely devastated, but if you win it feels like most amazing thing in the world. Yet it’s just sport, and there’s something really special about it that it can have this effect on people. I guess that my thinking is around sport because I always come back to why is a life is worth living. It’s a question that people have been thinking about for millennia.
Ben: Why does sport have intrinsic value?
Emily: I think because it’s self contained. The philosopher Thomas Nagel highlights that there’s something absurd about life: we’re all going to die anyway, no matter what we do. Even if you find a cure for cancer, so what? People still die anyway! In a million years time, humans will probably not be around in the form we are today, so nothing really has that much of a long term effect. If start thinking about own individual life in that form, we realize how completely absurd it is. Sport, however, is special (like music and art) in particular because it has explicit rules and so it’s very self contained, and so can have a lot of meaning in a limited time. All meaning and value can be neatly wrapped up. It doesn’t make it less absurd, but it fits well in the totality of the absurdity of life! That’s why I think sport is special. There are a lot of parallels with religion – rituals, history, rule based. Being in a stadium with tens of thousands of other people all kind of have the same aim and focus, there’s something really particularly human about that.
Ben: Is there anything that worries you about the current state of professional sports?
Emily: I look at the impact of technology on the values of sport. My fear – and real criticism of professional sport – is that it warps the value of sport so that it loses some of its special qualities because athletes are just treated like commodities. Professional sports often treat athletes like machines that you repair and that perform. That commercialization in sport is really problematic because you lose something special: I’ve read articles of athletes that lose their love of sport and that start hate going to training because of this.
Ben: Is there a particular kind of person that does philosophy?
Emily: We’re all philosophical creatures! But in the mainstream educational system it really gets beaten out of people. If you speak to any 4 or 5 year old, they always ask “why”, “why is that”. They’re very curious. I think that philosophy is about curiosity, wanting to understand ideas, wanting to understand how the world works. By nature, we’re all like that (maybe some more than others): we’re all passionate about something, and have a sense of wonder, whether it’s about music, art, theater or sports or anything else. Philosophical questions will always arise out of it.
Ben: Do you think that philosophy should be taught in high school?
Emily: I don’t think it necessarily needs to be an explicit formal part of education system in terms of the subject of philosophy. But philosophical questions should always be brought into education, and teachers should be encouraged to ask philosophical questions about science or math, or whatever subject it might be. There should always be a space for philosophy, because philosophy underpins every other subject. The important thing is to have an educational system that provides a space to have philosophical discussions. But, it’s not necessary to have philosophy as a separate class.