The connection between classical liberalism and sport is not immediately obvious. Sport, after all, is a near-universal human activity that long predates classical liberalism. Its practitioners and spectators come from all creeds and political ideologies.
That is one of the enduring strengths and attractions of sport at its best: it is not the provenance of one group or culture: it is a human activity, open to all. Its contests are decided on by clearly defined rules and outcomes. In sport, any individual can pursue his or her excellence even though success is never guaranteed.
And yet, even as we differentiate sport from classical liberalism, the parallels might now be somewhat clearer.
Classical liberal ideology envisions a society based on the individual pursuit of his or her flourishing, and the conditions necessary to allow for these varied pursuits. Central to this vision is the rule of law: the clear articulation of non-ambiguous laws that are applied fairly and equally to all. The substantial role of civil society and private governance of affairs is also an important component to the vision of the classical liberal society.
Contemporary sport shares a lot with this vision.

  • From the IOC to the NFL, much of sport is privately owned and governed.
  • The rules and norms evolve by voluntary cooperation among the participating parties.
  • The aims of many of the sport associations are to make sure the rules are clear, widely disseminated, and enforced fairly and equally.

And at the core of both classical liberalism and sport is the pursuit of excellence and flourishing. In sport, this might take the form of competing at the Olympics and in society, an entrepreneur opening her dream business.
There are many things that the study of sport can teach us about classical liberalism and the free society. Here are a few such questions:

  • What can we learn about the development and evolution of laws in a free society by looking at rules in sport?
  • Can sport teach us how to better understand and address issues of inequality?
  • How has sport dealt with problems of race, gender, and religion in ways that are more consistent with individualism and freedom?
  • What can sport teach us how about the interplay of luck and talent in success?

Sport does not have all the answers. Many aspects of the history of sport and its social implications are not consistent with classical liberalism. Nevertheless, sport is a window into what it means to be human and so it can bring insight into important questions that classical liberalism seeks to address.
Shawn E. Klein is an instructor of philosophy at Arizona State University. He specializes in the philosophy of sport and runs the Sports Ethicist Blog.
Photo Credit: William Warby ( under CC by 2.0 (