“Competition, Society, and the Athlete” with Paul Gaffney

Episode 4:

Originally broadcast: May 10, 2009

What is the meaning of athletic competition and how should we understand its prominence in our society? Is victory the chief criterion of success or are other values significant? Does it play a moral role in our society? Can it teach us something? Is competition beautiful? Can we justify the enormous investments made in our professional and amateur sporting enterprises? What precisely is the satisfaction gained by athletic achievement?

Paul Gaffney regards athletic competition as a basic but positive type of human relationship. It is neither a friendship nor an instance of enmity: competitors do not seek each other’s “good” as friends do, but they do not wish to destroy the other. They are not enemies. What they seek – what competitors need each other for – may not be available except through competition. Therefore, a certain paradox emerges: a competitor does everything he or she can, within the rules of the encounter, to frustrate the efforts of the other, yet he or she needs the other to respond to the challenge and give the competition its meaning and worth. This suggests that the athletic engagement, far from being just a preparation for, or a reflection of “real” world struggles, is actually an activity that we need to make sense of an increasingly human, honest, and meaningful society.

Paul Gaffney is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at St. John’s University, NY, and Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. In 1997 he was named St. John’s College of Liberal Arts Professor of the Year by Student Government. He has published many articles and reviews on topics such as Ethics, Law, Education, and Sport. A former college basketball player at Niagara University, he is currently working on a book entitled The Competition Ideal: The Structure and Meaning of Antagonistic Relationships.

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