Op-Ed: Battle of the Sideline Philosophers

September 26, 2017

In this media frenzy it is not certain who elected or appointed Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and one of the princes of the National Football League, as the philosophical interpreter of American exceptionalism. The appointment has been made, nonetheless, and his words must be taken seriously;  indeed, they must be compared with other philosophical work.

Here is Irsay’s dictum on this weekend’s “taking of a knee” at NFL games and how it defines America:

“I am troubled by the President’s recent comments about our league and our players. Sports in America have the unique ability to bring people from all walks of life and from different points of view together to work toward or root for a common goal, and the Indianapolis Colts are proud to be a part of that tradition in our home city and state.

“The vast majority of players in the NFL — especially those who have worn and continue to wear the Horseshoe — have donated millions of dollars to charities, raised money for those affected by recent hurricanes, created charitable foundations, visited schools, mentored students, worked in homeless shelters, cleaned up parks, and put in hours of their personal time toward improving their communities and the lives of those around them. That’s the spirit in which this nation was founded, and we all need to work tirelessly to bring people together to take on the challenges that face us and give back to the people of our communities. More so than any result on the field, that is a common goal worth rooting for.”

And here is fellow political philosopher Dan Hannan on the same general topic:

“Oligarchy and oppression, caste and exploitation, slavery and serfdom: These have been the lot of our species through recorded time. The slave empires mentioned in the Old Testament were not so different, politically, from a mediaeval European monarchy or, come to that, a modern kleptocracy (a professional football league). The pattern is the same: A gang of people get into power, rig the rules so that they and their children will enjoy hereditary privilege and then systematically loot the territory under their control.

“Then, between three and four centuries ago, a revolution occurred — and it occurred largely in the language in which you are reading these words. People hit on the notion that the law ought to be something more than the will of the king or the biggest guy in the tribe (or the commissioner of a sports league). They established a system where individuals could engage with each other voluntarily (in contracts for playing sports), rather than having their relationships mediated by birth, caste or tradition. Social organization moved, as the great Victorian jurist Sir Henry Maine put it, ‘from status to contract.’

“The extraordinary thing, though, is not just that this breakthrough should have occurred; it’s that it should have endured. The English-speaking peoples saw a series of landmark transfers of power from state to citizen: The Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution. But, elsewhere (in the National Football League particularly), despotism tended to re-establish itself.”

Sorry, we couldn’t resist the parenthetical comment.

— Craig Ladwig


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