Sports, Teams, and Collectivism

Sports, Teams, and Collectivism

2 Mins
September 30, 2010

Question: Many team sports, football for example, promote team before individual. Acting as a collective is more beneficial, and makes them as a whole more successful than acting as individuals in the game. As an Objectivist myself, I don't like the idea, but on the other hand I realize that by acting as a collective, it furthers the individual’s goals (in this case, success in the NFL). What is the Objectivist view on this?

Answer: Sports are stylized, physical activities that call on a usually limited range of human talents, but they showcase excellence in the areas they call upon. You are quite right that team sports to one degree or another put the team over the individual. In a team sport, the score of the team as a whole matters more, in most cases, than any individual's achievement. However, the use of statistical measures has given a fair bit of scope to appreciate individuals. Hank Aaron is known as a great baseball player, though his teams were not powerhouses.

Inasmuch as team sports are focused on team results, they stylize and model a real fact of social interaction: that often, as individuals, we benefit from investing our efforts or money in shared enterprises with others. I have a career, for example, but in the immediate term I am a staff member of The Atlas Society and the well-being of The Atlas Society is vital to my professional life (it also supports the achievement of my dearest cultural values).

Understood in its proper place, good ''team-work'' (coordination with others on shared projects) is an important skill. It is often remarked that great football teams function with military precision, and in doing so they model the virtues of coordination on which successful military action and efficient commercial activity often depend.

However, in real life we are free agents. We can move from ''team'' to ''team'' faster than a major-league pitcher. We choose the organizations we support and work with, and if we do this well we do it on the basis of our own, independent judgments about the values involved. Teamwork, in its context, is a virtue, but the fundamental virtues are those of individual excellence that support an individual's selfish life and happiness, as Ayn Rand outlines in ''The Objectivist Ethics'' (The Virtue of Selfishness).

I would also remark in passing that far more than the collective good embodied in teams, what I find most disturbing about sports is their zero-sum character. Every winner requires a loser. The recent Super Bowl trophy couldn't be given to both Carolina and New England; though both played well, one team had to win, and the other had to lose. This is not how life usually is. In fact, our basic relations to others are, or should be, win-win, a reflection of the positive harmony of interests that exist between rational, productive individuals.