thoughts on football

While I enjoy playing football I have to admit that watching it just isn’t my thing, I’d rather watch paint dry (I am typing this while my partner watches the first England game). Still its hard not to be swept up in it all, particularly as the flags fly from many of the houses round my way – the street round the corner even has st. Georges Cross bunting going from house to house.

Now there is an important political debate over the level to which such sporting event negativity effects the fight for social justice. Crudely put; Can the workers of the world unite if they are all distracted by the false unity of the nationalism implied by uniting under the their nations flag. However, I want to look at a more abstract, though perhaps ultimately related question. I want to look at the phenomenon of people talking about what the England football team does as what we do – the phenomenon of seeing the actions of those 12 players as our actions.

The following sentence I take to be common examples of this: “We can do it we can win the World cup this time!”

Taking this seriously starts to raise a number of issues. Say it is my friend Gemma who says it, well she isn’t going to individually be taking part in the game so how come what she is saying doesn’t appear to be a mistake, how come she can identify herself as part of the footballing endeavour?

Now we might say that Gemma, and the rest of us living in this country, are members of the English nation and that the football team represents that nation. Can we then say then that the actions of those 12 (is it 12?) footballers are the actions are the actions of the nation?

Clearly his is not the case for all things they might do, for example, if the England’s world cup team where to take up arms and invade France then it seems unlikely that this would be regarded as the English nation invading France. Might we say then that within a specific social realm – namely the realm of football – the actions of those 12 player our the nations actions?

But its more complicated then his, even within the social realm of football – even within the realm of this specific tournament – not all the actions of the players amount to the actions of the state. For example, the news reports that Rooney has a bad temper, if he where to loose this on the pitch – kick a player in the head say – then, though he is a member of the England squad, and though his actions take place within the correct realm, it does not seem true to say that “England kicked the player in the head.”

This suggests that is is not straightforwardly true to say that the players are authorised to represent England, rather they are authorised to represent England as a team – it is the actions of the team, considered as a whole, that can be said to be England’s actions rather than the actions of the members as individuals.

That is not to suggest that the team can act other then through its members action. If England is to Win the World cup then their must be individual members who score the goals, but when each member scores a goal, unlike if Rooney kicks an opponent, his action equates to the team acting.

There are sets of rules that tell us what counts as a member of the team acting for the team, which is in term acting for the country. However, there are cases that are not clear cut – for example, while Rooney’s individual foul action might not count as the action of the team this cannot just be because it is against the rules of football – for if the team manager where to ask his players to all deliberately foul then it seems that this would be the action of the team. In such a case it even seems legitimate to say that England was playing dirty in the world cup.

So far so good, but do we really say that the England Football team is acting on behalf of the collective that has all of us subjects of the English Nation as members? If so then there is the troubling issue of authority.

We might want to say that what makes it true to say that we invaded Iraq when our government did so, is that the government gains the authority to act on our collective behalf through the process of voting. Now we might question this. Many of us marched against that war and would feel uneasy in saying that we even indirectly authorised it and further those of us of a radical persuasion might want to claim that the power structures inherent in our capitalist democracy mitigate against the government gaining true legitimacy. However, this aside there is at least some process which makes it understandable why people might at least think that we give our collective agentive authority to the government. Is there any matching process where by we give authority to the Football association (or whoever picks the England team … I don’t actually know how it is done)?* I don’t think that there is.

Perhaps we could claim that the though the Government isn’t directly invoved with the F.A. It has the power to get involved if it wants to. Thus that it gives authority to the FA by allowing it to exist (this seems like something of a stretch). However what then about countries without a democracy such as North Korea? Are North Koreans simply mistaken when they see their team as performing football related actions on all their collective behalf’s?

The messy questions, such as these, that arise when we try to think about the collective actions of huge groups make it unsurprising that many of the theorists of collective action wish to sick to looking at small scale groups. Margaret Gilbert’s favourite example of a couple going for a walk, consisting of just two members as it does, is an extreme example of this. However, the we talk that Gilbert finds so compelling in justifying a realist understanding of collective action seems just as much at play in the conversations of the folk about the world cup as it does about their conversations about small scale collective activities that they are involved in.

These, admittedly rather sketchy thoughts, seem to me to push us as away from models of collective action that require that members freely transfer there authority towards the collective to act on their behalf’s. Rather I think we must see the collective as an entity formed by the complex interactions of its individual members and we must have, I think, a more political understanding of how individuals transfer their agentive authority.

*Kim says that the Manager, Copello, picks the team rather than the F.A. But we can see him as gaining his authority through his selection by the F.A.


About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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