Thus Spake Mountaineers

January 22, 2007

WHEN THE DetroitLions and their defensive coordinator parted ways this month over"philosophical differences," one couldn't help but wonder, Arephilosophy professors ever fired for the same reason?

"We do havephilosophical differences in the philosophy department," says Sharon Ryan,the department chair at West Virginia University, "but we never use thephrase philosophical differences, which—in the real world—almost always meansideological differences."

As a childattending New York Mets games when the team's manager was the philosopher YogiBerra, Ryan was already interested in man's most mystifying issues, like life,death and the infield fly rule.

Now she's askingBig Questions of Mountaineers athletes, coaches and fans (and posting theiranswers at thequestion.blogs.wvu.edu). As Socrates was to Athenian society,Ryan is to West Virginia's athletic department—a gadfly, bound only by thebattery life of her camcorder and her bottomless curiosity, inquiring oflinebackers and power forwards and head coaches, What is a team? What is a fan?And is winning really everything?

"Damn rightit is!" long snapper Zach Flynt replied to this last question, while othersSocratically questioned the question itself. Basketball guard Meg Bulger, whosebrother Marc plays quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, suggested that winningis everything only if we broaden the definition of victory: "As long as youlearn life lessons through what you're doing, I believe that's where yougenerally win, that sports are a tool to win in life."

Ryan stands atthe nexus of sports and philosophy. She is John David Booty handing off to JohnStuart Mill. "I'm trying to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower andinto the street," says the 42-year-old. "The stereotype of the dumbstudent-athlete is one that I'm proud to be shattering." Mountaineerssupporters posting to the blog have been trying to define the essence of WestVirginia fandom. A poster named Doug came closest: He plans to name his sonPittsnogle.

Every week Ryanjoins a group of faculty and students to discuss the imponderable issues of theday. And while they call themselves the Tuesday Night Philosophers, they oftensound like Monday Morning Quarterbacks. A recent discussion centered on theNFL's rule that a receiver must not only have two feet inbounds but alsomaintain possession long enough to perform a football act distinct from thecatch itself.

"Why mustthere be the evidence of a new intention?" asked assistant professorBeverly Hinton, an expert on Aristotle. "If the receiver continues hisintention to retain the ball, even if he performs no distinct action, why isthis not evidence of his reception of the ball?" Review that, EdHochuli.

Last week I askedthe Tuesday Night Philosophers to weigh in on some of sports' most renownedthinkers, among them Satchel Paige, who said, "You win a few, you lose afew. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them."

MatthiasCallison, a senior, pointed out that Paige had offered a view popular in thephilosophy of religion: You can't appreciate good without experiencingevil.

I asked for anexegesis of Mickey Rivers, who said, "I don't get upset over things I can'tcontrol because if I can't control them, there's no use getting upset. And Idon't get upset over things I can control, because if I can control them,what's the use in getting upset?"

Ryan said,"Rivers's view rings loudly of the Stoic philosophers." (They weremasters of their own emotions.)

And what to makeof this from Shaquille O'Neal: "I'd like to be known as the Big Aristotle.It was Aristotle who said excellence is not a singular act but ahabit."

Hinton, theAristotle expert, noted that the Greek word arete—which means excellence inperforming any function—"is a state rather than a capacity. It requirestraining to ensure that it is stable. It operates more like a habit. This israther a strange thing for Shaq to say considering that his former coach PhilJackson contends that Shaq was the only player he has coached who was not a'worker.'" Snap!

The philosophyclubbers formed a kind of metaphysical sports round table: Pardon theIntrospection. They put a smackdown on existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, whosaid of soccer, "In football, everything is complicated by the presence ofthe opposite team." As Ryan sniffed, "We think he was just trying to beclever."

Philosophy—literally, "the love of wisdom"—prizes the wise man over thewise ass. In that regard Sartre was like a lot of us who are paid by theopinion. Plato had us pegged: "Wise men talk because they have something tosay; fools, because they have to say something."

SOUND OFF
If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

"I'm trying to bring philosophy out of the ivorytower," says Ryan, who has been asking Big Questions of West Virginiaathletes, coaches and fans.

 

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

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Eagle (-2)
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