Review of Sport Philosophy Now

McNess, Matthew James. Sport Philosophy Now: The Culture of Sports after the Lance Armstrong Scandal. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 288. Bibliography, Index, and Notes. $80.00 hardback, $79.99 ebook.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

Throughout the 2016 Democratic Party primary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has railed against the institutions and policies that produce economic inequities and called for a “political revolution.” In Sport Philosophy Now: The Culture of Sports After the Lance Armstrong Scandal, Matthew James McNees, a professor of philosophy at UNC-Greensboro and co-founder of Cyclus Sports, assumes a Sanders-like crusade, urgently calling for a revolution in the organization and conduct of contemporary sport. Instead of Wall Street millionaires and billionaires, the power brokers of cycling who first abetted Armstrong’s abuse of performance enhancing drugs in route to his seven Tour de France victories and later excised him from the sport when his drug use was exposed are the villains. McNees’s intent, however, is not to re-litigate the Armstrong scandal. Rather he uses Armstrong and the scandal to ask probing questions about cycling, sport, and larger society, particularly prevailing economic conditions.

Sport Philosophy Now

Roman & Littlefield, 2015.

Unlike traditional sport philosophers, McNees refuses to separate sport from “real world” economic matters. Instead, he considers sport exemplary of them, unabashedly reckoning with cycling’s status as a ruthless capitalist business. Like powerful capitalist institutions, the institutions of and influential individuals in cycling and other sports use capital and language to exert, preserve, and perpetuate their power. In the five chapters that compose Part I, McNees introduces larger concepts of philosophy, and sport philosophy more specifically, in order to deconstruct the Armstrong scandal. Drawing on a diverse array of thinkers and concepts from philosophy and critical theory, McNees provides a wide-ranging, winding, complex, and sometimes repetitive analysis of the sport of cycling, Armstrong, and the Armstrong scandal. Nonetheless, his exploration convincingly exposes how the inequitable concentration of capital and linguistic power not only mediated Armstrong’s rise and fall, but also contains ethical and moral ramifications that require drastic rectification in the name of social justice. In Part II, McNees offers more pointed examinations of specific aspects of the Armstrong scandal and the sport of cycling. These case study-like analyses further illustrate the power of capital and language in sport and thus underscore the urgency of McNees’s call to reform contemporary sport.

Although his work effectively illuminates and critiques the often-obscured levers of power that control contemporary sport, McNees’s insistence that cycling and the Armstrong scandal best illustrate the urgent need to reform sport in a more socially just manner ultimately proves lacking. Selecting a sport dominated by western white men to examine the larger inequities produced by global capitalism forecloses a critical analysis of how race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity intersect with economics to determine the opportunities and privileges accessible to many in sport and society. Basketball, tennis, track and field, or another sport that features more diversity could provide a more comprehensive perspective of how sport epitomizes the inequities produced by the market economy.

As proposed by Kathryn Henne in Testing for Athlete Citizenship (which I reviewed for the blog in January), identity categories demonstrably influence an individual athlete’s ability to fulfill the obligations and thus earn the rights of athlete citizenship. Armstrong, like most other cyclists, represents an ideal athlete citizen and thus enjoys significant advantages. Although McNees recognizes Armstrong possessed privileges, the critical effort he undertakes necessitates a deeper reckoning with race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. However, McNees’s bold philosophical assertions do present a portable framework that scholars of sport who focus on these identity categories can use to think critically about the concentration of power, wealth, and influence in sport and society.

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In his first chapter, “Sports Philosophy,” McNees introduces the primary theories and parameters that govern his approach the Armstrong scandal, as well as his aims and intentions. Drawing on Hegel’s concept of “higher seriousness,” McNees aims to probe below the surface of sport. By applying concepts of economic philosophy, he primarily follows and critiques the flow of capital in order to gain a less idealistic perspective of the operation of cycling. He considers Armstrong a commodity part of a larger, often unseen network of cycling power brokers who aided the cyclist’s success, both on the bike and off. Furthermore, he treats cycling as “material work” not “immaterial play,” as many traditional sport philosophers have done. In McNees’ Marxian vision of cycling, Armstrong was a commodity who performed economically-valuable athletic work that was co-opted and exploited by the most powerful institutions and individuals in cycling.

McNees then attends to the importance of language in this process, focusing on its role in obscuring the working of economic power in cycling that always favors the priorities of capital over those of the athletes or fans. In particular, he criticizes the language of sport science used in narratives about Armstrong and other elite athletes that supposedly explains their greatness. He claims sport science in fact produces misinformation, or even fantasy, instead of sharing knowledge that could increase the human potential of all persons. McNees considers the use of sport science language to protect scientific knowledge about athletic performance for the few over the many a matter of social justice. He intends his work to inspire action against this exploitative and expropriate system and encourage a version of cycling, and all sports, that privilege democratic participation and information transparency.

While McNees considers a variety of ideas in chapter two, “Childhood in Sports,” he primarily delineates how concepts of childhood mediate aspects of the fan and athlete experience. Using sport fans’ intense vilification of Armstrong as evidence, he argues that the ethical system taught in childhood remains into adulthood. The outrage at Armstrong is a manifestation of the American public’s angry realization that an ethical and moral value system that idealizes fairness does not exist in the adult world, especially in the economic realm. Rather than anger at Armstrong, an individual scapegoat, McNess hopes to re-channel this anger to more productive ends. He desires dialogue that explores the larger social context of this anger and, in turn, encourages its redirection toward reformation of this social context. While sport highlights how adult fans maintain the worldview of childhood, the experiences of Armstrong highlight how the expectations for elite athletes feature the the contradictory intersection of childhood and adulthood. By situating Armstrong in his larger social context, McNees reveals how Armstrong’s lack of formal education served the capitalistic aims of the powerful individuals and institutions of cycling. Yet, while he remained an intellectual child, the capitalist demands of cycling required that Armstrong become a physical adult. For elite athletes, the child/adult split parallels the mind/body split deemed necessary to produce elite success, both athletically and economically.

McNees adopts a critical perspective of play in chapter three, “Play,” pushing back against the prevailing idealistic conception of it. In order to critically consider the Armstrong scandal, rejecting abstract notions of play is required. McNees materializes play by highlighting how the athlete experience blurs the distinction between play and work. This realist perspective of play also does not ignore economic realities. Using the theories of Kant, McNees argues for the importance of thoroughly contextualizing play. He writes, “Kant suggests that we approach our actions in every aspect of our lives as moral expressions of the fact that these actions will affect other human beings and that we understand the social relations involved,” (92). This recognition thus accounts for the social realities that make impossible the universal experience of play imagined by traditional sport philosophers. McNees’s demystification of play also involves deconstructing the language of play, which he considers more closely in chapter four, titled “Language.”

Applying the ideas Derrida and Jameson, McNees elucidates the role of language in the Armstrong scandal. He particularly focuses on the idea of truth, demonstrating how institutional control of language permitted the production of a certain truth about Armstrong and cycling. McNees hopes his efforts help Americans “come to see more consciously the ways in which the Lance Armstrong scandal was made possible through the machinations of an operative-manipulating-language project that transformed truth and reality by introducing its own temporality,” (122). This chapter expands on many of McNees’s contentions about the centrality of language in earlier chapters, making its location at the end of Part I somewhat confusing. For those unfamiliar with post-structuralism, placing these chapters earlier not only could better introduce them but also strengthen his initial claims.

In chapter five, “Economics,” McNees similarly re-emphasizes earlier assertions. He continues to use the Armstrong scandal to criticize capitalism and the rhetorical authority it creates, further highlighting the complex and extensive ways the Armstrong scandal specifically and sport more broadly are representative of more widespread exploitative economic and linguistic practices that preserve power and privilege institutions. He provocatively proposes, “The unpalatable question of our culture is, How we can possibly say it’s bad for athletes like Armstrong to cheat in order to acquire power unless we adopt a new societal paradigm that faces the harsh inequities of the capitalist rhetoric program of manipulating the masses through language control?,” (146). Because he situates Armstrong as part of a larger network, McNees realizes that adequately addressing Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs requires reforming the entire structure of cycling. Yet, public reaction suggests Americans would rather excoriate an individual scapegoat than reflect on the sacrifices needed to enact systematic change.

McNees then shifts to Part II, which includes four case study-like chapters that demonstrate how the philosophies and theories explored in Part I can be applied specifically to criticize the institutions and priorities of contemporary sport. In chapter six, “The Milieu of Cycling,” McNees more deeply engages with the power of capital and language in contemporary sport, including by considering the role of philosophical ideas about sport in permitting or preventing this process. Among a variety of other considerations, McNees introduces importance of athlete desire, asserting that desire represents an athlete’s most basic and valuable commodity. Yet, the capitalization of this desire obscures its production, as Nike’s famous “Just Do It” slogan appropriately captures. As he asserted throughout Part I, context and language represent the most important critical tools for making possible an improved world of sport that privileges the well-being of young athletes and protects their desire from exploitation. This effort includes realizing that idealistic moral arguments about sport contain and sustain certain economic priorities. Reinvigorating morality in sport and allowing athletes to reclaim their desire thus requires abandoning elitist, Enlightenment conceptions of reason in order to ensure that such rhetoric no longer is a tool for those with power.

In chapter seven, “Is Sport Fiction More Real than Sport Fact?,” McNees notes that the media  endorsed and reproduced the story the institutions of cycling wished to tell about Armstrong. However, instead of simply excoriating journalists for “regurgitating information uncritically,” he introduces fiction, specifically Greg Moody’s cycling murder mysteries, as an insightful resource that productively can encourage “a new way of looking at things,” (194).Through a critical reading of Moody’s seemingly outlandish novels, McNees reveals that they subtly but productively expose many of the problems in cycling that journalism ignored,  thus positioning fiction as a useful space for offering radical critiques of sport and other powerful institutions.

McNees next turns to USA Cycling, asking in chapter eight, “Should USA Cycling Continue?” He unmasks USA Cycling as an institution of social control that, through language, co-opts and codes athletic desire in service of institutional and capitalistic priorities. McNees also eviscerates all idealistic notions about the aims and intentions of USA Cycling, as well as other institutions of sport. In his estimation, USA Cycling has violated its obligation to young athletes and their well-being, thereby requiring a total overhaul of the institutions of sport in order to enact impactful change. Adopting the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, McNees discourages a “roots” perspective of USA Cycling, which imagines a purer past that can be rediscovered and returned to, and instead favors a “rhizomes” perspective, which views the institution as the byproduct of the accretion of layers. From this perspective, USA Cycling is a hierarchical structure with no connection to an ideal point of origin. This schemata provides an effective visualization of McNees’s insistence on the necessity for revolutionary change instead of selective reform, for reform would only result in another layer that subsumes rather than eliminates current problems.

In chapter nine, “Is USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision’ Fair?,” McNees probes USADA’s official reaction to the Armstrong scandal. By recognizing the larger context in which USADA operates, McNees determines the “Reasoned Decision” unfairly castigated Armstrong. In contrast, a fair reasoned decision would have required USADA to question the rationale for its own being for, as McNees has emphasized throughout his text, Armstrong belonged to a larger network of cycling institutions, including USADA, that had condoned his success. USADA instead protected the institutional structures of cycling by removing Armstrong from his social and economic context and thereby individualizing his supposed crimes. McNees also conducts a close textual reading of the “Reasoned Decision,” which further reveals how USADA obfuscated its role as a supposedly fair authority. McNees’s analysis demonstrates that USADA established a narrative of the Armstrong scandal that proved effective due to its limited, inconsistent scope. The Armstrong narrative exemplifies how narratives propagated by powerful institutions mask social realties, as well as establish“facts” and “information” that validate a certain version of reality.

In his conclusion, “Did Anyone Win?,” McNees explicitly connects sport inequality to economic inequality. He proclaims that the belief that winning requires cheating pervades sport, as well as American culture more broadly. He then insists that the cheating/winning connection is maintained due to a refusal to question the language of American individualism, which benefits institutions and thereby increases inequality. While he considers this mentality damaging for sport, he realizes its pervasive influence in financial dealings produces more detrimental consequences. However, he asserts that sport represents a useful arena for illuminating the problems of the cheating/winning mindset, as the his examination of the Armstrong scandal has made evident. Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty, McNees then calls for drastic change to the American sport and economic systems. McNees hopes that the Armstrong scandal can encourage this change; if not, he suggests bigger scandals will occur until the institutions of sport reckon with the attitudes and inequities for which they are responsible.

While McNees’s final assertions do not inspire optimism, they prove appropriate for, unlike traditional sport philosophy, he did not intend to foster idealistic imaginings about sport. Instead, he sought to explore and expose the economic problems of contemporary sport he deems critical. Whether or not one agrees with all his claims, McNees’s thorough deconstruction of the extent of economic power in sport demonstrates the possibility of activist sport scholarship. His work makes evident the societal relevancy of the study of sport. McNess may not convincingly convey that revolutionizing the institutions of cycling represents an urgent social justice cause, but his exposure and critique of the sport’s entrenched inequities, and their parallel to those of broader society, nonetheless reveals the possibility of using rigorous sport scholarship to envision more socially just institutions.

As noted, McNees’s inability to adequately address matters of race, gender, ethnicity, and sex represents a significant limitation. Additionally, his sometimes heavy use of jargon, reliance on a variety of complex theories, tendency to cover a wide range of ideas in individual chapters, and frequent reintroduction of previously discussed concepts makes his text a difficult and tedious read. However, his work is important and relevant for sport scholars, not only for its ideas but as an example of bold academic work.

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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