Is Sports Participation a Form of Make-Believe?
“Sports and competitive games of many kinds”, writes Kendall Walton, “are occasions for make-believe”. (Walton, K. (2010). "It's Only a Game!": Sports as Fiction (Draft Version - February 23rd, 2010)). Broadly speaking, he draws upon two considerations to make his argument: (1) sports participation—whether as player or spectator—shares important similarities with participation in other forms of make-believe; (2) sports participation appears to prompt emotional responses at levels exceeding those warranted by the competition’s importance, even as judged by the participant herself. Understanding sports participation as a form of make-believe, he claims, explains these otherwise puzzling considerations.
In my paper, I examine the claim that sports provide occasions for make-believe. I argue that the claim is ambiguous between a number of readings, some of which are less philosophically interesting than others. I also offer a number of considerations that should dissuade us from accepting the claim on its only interesting reading. In particular, I show how accepting a make-believe analysis of sports participation brings with it a number of unpalatable commitments. Finally, I tackle the puzzling features of sports participation under discussion by sketching a novel kind of explanation that avoids the problems of a make-believe analysis. I do this by suggesting that sports participation be understood as a species of play rather than make-believe specifically.