“Professional Sport”: Also a form of “play” defined by Huizinga?

So when I first read bthor22’s “The Transformation of ‘Play’”, I was planning to write a short comment about my different point of view about professional sports, but I ended up wrote a whole bunch of paragraphs so I finally decided to expand it and write it as an separate blog post.

In bthor22’s “The Transformation of ‘Play’”, the central thesis is basically that the modern professional sports is no longer defined by Huizinga’s definition of ‘Play’ because the primary motivation for the modern athletes is monetary needs. However, I was not fully convinced and I believe that this is an arguable idea.

Before going on to talk about the professional athletes, I firstly want to discuss how the casual form of sports, that people play after school or work, is defined by Huizinga’s definition of ‘Play’. In Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens”, he presented several basic features or traits of ‘Play’. If we put a type of sports, ex. soccer, into Huizinga’s context, we would apparently find that soccer (or any other casual sports) is defined as a form ‘Play’ by Huizinga: playing soccer is voluntary; it is ‘pretend’ (outside real-life); it is not about normal wants and needs; it is limited in time and space; it has a fixed ‘cultural form’ (repeated in some style once formed); it is rule-governed…and so on. Therefore, ‘soccer’ (or other sports), played by amateurs, is definitely defined as a ‘Play’ by Huizinga’s definition.

Now, the problem we deal with here is whether “professional sports” is also defined by Huizinga’s definition of ‘Play’. In order to solve this question, we first need to find the differences between pro sports and casual sports. If we still use soccer as an example here, then the main difference between pros and amateurs, according to my fellow blogger bthor22, is the monetary interests of the pro soccer players. And if we put that into Huizinga’s definition, professional soccer seems to violate the “voluntary (pros are forced to play the game)” and “disinterested (pros have monetary interest)” traits of a “Play”, thus making pro sports out of Huizinga’s definition of “play”

However, what I want to question here is that: are athletes really “forced to play the game” and is “money actually the primary interest” for them? And if we can prove these are not the actual case, then professional sports should be logically and legitimately defined by Huizinga’s definition of “play”.

Now we are having a very clear direction, and here are several reasons that can potentially prove the above case: The first thing we should always keep in mind is that, for every kid who later goes on to the path of a pro player, the beginning form of the sport he/she played as a kid, as we have discussed in the beginning, is definitely a “play” (outside normal interests such as money, and is voluntary). And I would also believe that, for someone who is willing to sacrifice his opportunity to receive education or go on to other “common” work and devote him/herself to this single sport activity, then this “interest” or, I should say, “love” to this sport should be enormous. Because of this enormous love, I would logically assume that every professional athlete’s primary motivation to play the sport as a career is the love to this sport (instead of money or other “normal wants and needs”), making “playing the game” a completely “voluntary” action at the same time.

Isn’t the desire of a pro athlete to “present a show” to the spectators is completely “voluntary” and out of “normal wants and needs”? (Link)



Following the above logic, in spite of the income earned by the professional athletes, their actual attitudes toward sport should be both “voluntary” and “disinterested” (not about normal wants and needs such as money). And the “income” they earned is simply a necessary way to help them keep playing the sport they genuinely love. Therefore, we may conclude here that professional sports can be defined by the Huizinga’s definition of “play”, because the primary motivation of professional sport is ultimately the same as that of the casual sports people play after school and work.


The case of professional athletes is really an interesting one to discuss because it is defined as a “play” according to my above discussion, but the fact that players are getting paid still makes people to argue that it is a “work” but not a “play”. In order to further clarify this point, I want to reinforce Huizinga’s definition with the idea of “grasshopper” in Bernard Suits’s “The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia” that a certain activity can both be a “game playing” and a “work” simultaneously. Even though the example of “John Striver” and “William Seeker” in the context of Utopia seems to be inconceivable in the real life, the professional sports, I would argue, is a lively real-life demonstration of a combination of “play” and “work”, that is, according to Suits, both autotelic (intrinsic enjoyment of playing the sport) and instrumental (making money for survival).

Maybe these guys are the genuine primary motivation of pro athletes. (Link)


At the end of the day, don’t be deceived by the whole bunch of money earned by the pro players. They are not running around on the pitch only for the money, but also for the feeling of hearing the cheers of fans after scoring a spectacular touchdown at the final seconds of a match, exactly the way they imaged for thousands of times when they were still little kids.


2 thoughts on ““Professional Sport”: Also a form of “play” defined by Huizinga?

  1. While I do agree that many professional athletes begin playing sports only because they love it, by the time they start to profit from their sport, they clearly have more motivation to continue playing than just “love of the game”. In the case of athletes who choose to forgo their formal education in pursuit of their career, I would argue that further proves that they are playing for financial success. When athletes make the jump from amateur to professional, they are giving up their education and opportunity to pursue other careers. Now their financial future is completely dependent on their performance as an athlete. Even though I do agree that virtually all athletes love to play their sport, by the time they are professionals a lot of their motivation is financially driven.


  2. Wow, what can I say that besides the fact that you took the words right out of my mouth. I too found myself lingering over “The Transformation of Play” disagreeing that all professional athletes are no longer playing simply because they rely on the sport as their main source of monetary income. While I agree with you that professional sports walks that boundary between work and play (with play still maintaining a role in the forefront) I do think that the degree to which they are “working” or “playing” depends on the particular athlete. Some athletes are more driven by money, others more driven by passion for the game they love. To broadly categorize people is the one main downfall of your argument and of bthors22 ( but it is also a grave downfall of society in general, so I’ll forgive you). But I agree with you argument on the whole and I’m glad that you responded to “The Transformation of Play” so completely, as it saved me the trouble of doing so myself.


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