The Philosophy of Basketball (and its Relation to Capitalism, Democracy and Socialism)

Bertell Ollman



he rules of basketball have changed often over the years, so I hope no one will object if I offer a few modest revisions to make this truly wonderful game even better:

First, I would charge an admission fee not only to watch the game but  to play in it. And the more one pays, the longer one gets to stay in the game.

Second, there should be a price paid for each shot taken, and the easier the shot, the more it should cost.

Third, as for fouls, one should be able to pay the referees, so that they never call any fouls on you (or walking or double dribble violations for that matter).

Fourth - and maybe most important - there is no good reason that  the baskets should be the same height for both teams. It should be possible for the team that pays more to have its basket lowered, and for double that amount to have the basket  the other team is going for raised.

Under present rules, those players who are taller and better coordinated and can run faster and jump higher have all the advantages. My rules would exchange the advantages enjoyed by these people for other advantages that would benefit  a different  group, one that  has been poorly served by basketball as now played. That group is the rich.  With my rules, the rich would possess all the "talent" (what it takes to win) and - more in keeping with what occurs in the rest of society -  never lose a game.

"Whoa", I can hear some readers saying, "how is this going to make basketball a  BETTER game"?  Well, that depends, doesn't it,  on what you think the game is all about, and  on what you take to be its main purpose or meaning.  Sure, one of the main things basketball does is enable us to have fun. But, like all games, basketball  also provides people with a simplified model of how society works and - implicitly and often explicitly - how to get ahead in such a society. It does this through its rules and through what people do and experience when following (or watching others follow) these rules, and in the assumptions it encourages people to make regarding the relevance of these experiences for the rest of life. Basketball, then, is as much about education as it is about fun.  Education is part of the deeper meaning of basketball. As a teacher, I take this pedogogical function of games like basketball very seriously. Well, how accurate a picture does basketball, as presently constituted, give us of the world in which we live? Or - put a little differently - try calling a foul on your boss or landlord and see what happens to you.

Games, of course, receive a lot of help in socializing young people to systematically misunderstand their society from schools, churches, families, media, government and market exchanges, but only games are able to use the pleasure they generate to hide what it is they teach. Believing that what is so much fun cannot be part of  education (something associated with schools, reading and tests) games have been spared most of the critical probing directed at these other means of socialization.  However, if the  ideas  acquired at moments of pleasure are - as I suspect - both easier to learn and harder to discard, then  treating basketball as if it were - well - ONLY a game marks an ideological surrender of monumental proportions.

The new rules that I have suggested for basketball would change all that. People who played or watched my version of the game would no longer expect being swift and agile along with persistence, teamwork and fair play  to bring them success in life, but would learn something about how our society really works- $$$$$$$$$. Playing basketball by my rules would help prepare young people for life in capitalist society and, eventually, for doing away with what they found unfair and oppressive, rather than miseducating  them about what the future holds in store. Admittedly, the game might be a little less fun, but in the process the nave mantra, "Keep hope alive" would give way to the political imperative, "Organize to  bring about the changes that you want".

At this point, some readers are probably thinking that if basketball is such bad education maybe we should get rid of it altogether. I would be inclined to agree if I  didn't detect another equally important, equally hidden meaning in the game, and this time one that is wholly positive. To get at what it is we need only ask - what do both players and spectators enjoy most about basketball? I don't think it is the slam dunk or even the occasional circus shot. Rather,  what really excites most of us about basketball is good teamwork, the times when the ball moves around between three, four and even five players, whose movements are perfectly coordinated, and the prize is an uncontested shot at the basket.  Each player's skills, court sense and timing are on display, but it only "works" when the movements of each individual are transformed into the movement of a group, when the team as such rather than the individuals who compose it comes into focus. Putting our physical and mental energies into such successful acts of cooperation is  very satisfying. It is also very unusual because there are few occasions in life where such  intense cooperation is possible, and its fruits so immediate and evident. For players and viewers alike, it is a utopian moment, where they catch a glimpse of something wonderful, an ideal of community, that disappears as quickly as it appeared.

If basketball offers us this kind of utopian moment, why don't we hunger for more? I think we do, but for most of us it's disguised. We are not quite sure what it is that gives us this high, so we have trouble pinpointing what exactly is  missing from the rest of our lives. According to this interpretation of its broader meaning, basketball is not so much a distorted education of  what society is like but  a utopian ideal of what it should be like. In truth, basketball contains both of these moments which are in an uneasy contradiction with each other, just as each is in striking contradiction with the laws and customs of the society in which the game is played. The one,  treating basketball as education, that is taking seriously its role in teaching us how society works and how to get ahead in such a society, calls for  changing the rules to make basketball more like life; while the other,  treating it as a utopian ideal,  calls for trying to make life more like basketball.  The choice before us, then, would appear to be whether to keep society as it is and revise (as I tried above) the rules of basketball (which would probably make the game a little less fun to play), or to keep basketball as it is and radically alter our society (which would retain or even increase all the fun). What cannot be chosen - not if we wish to be consistent and not if we wish to avoid constant frustration - is simply leaving things as they are, where basketball delivers poor education at the same time that it  provokes unresolved utopian yearnings. I have already addressed what we could do to make basketball more like life, but what is involved in making life more like basketball?

The cooperation that we idealize in the game of basketball  is essential to any functioning democracy. It is also at the core of what is still the best definition of "democracy": Abraham Lincoln's "government of, by  and for the people". We in the U.S. have a democracy of sorts,  but it is quite limited in scope and seriously flawed even in the political sphere where it does apply -  as evidenced by the recent events in Florida and the obscene influence of big money in our elections. Still, despite such qualifications - and there are more -  at least politically, we can be said to enjoy some kind of democracy. But work, education, culture, health, housing and communications are other important areas of our lives, and in every one of them a few people over whom we have no control simply tell us what to do. There is no accountability, no elections, no participation in decision making, and no chance to cooperate and experience the power and satisfaction that comes with cooperation. Rather than democracy, something akin to feudal relations rule over our social interactions in all these areas. Are we missing something? You bet we are, and the intense pleasure we get from being involved in or just watching good teamwork in basketball suggests that somewhere down inside us we know that, and even yearn for a life that would provide more opportunities to experience such positive feelings.

The comedian and political activist, Dick Gregory, said, "If democracy is such a good thing, let's have more of it". Seems obvious enough, and that certainly would increase the opportunities for people to cooperate and enjoy the psychic benefits that come with it. But what kind of society is it that "extends democracy into all walks of life"? According to Norman Thomas, a Protestant minister and one-time leader of  the American Socialist Party,  that's the best possible definition of "socialism". Could it be that the deepest, most hidden, and most profound meaning of basketball, one that underlies and helps explain its contradictory functions as miseducation and utopian ideal,  is - socialism?  Unfortunately, few of the people who love teamwork in basketball, which hides their desire for more cooperation in life, which in turn calls for the spread of democracy throughout society, are likely to admit that what they really want - and need - is socialism. For them, the term  has been too sullied by the caricatures of socialism found in a few Third World countries, which were too poor for socialist relations to take root, and in our own capitalist media (and what other kind of media are there?), whose owners are too rich to tell the truth on this subject.  But if the deepest meaning of basketball is - socialism, then why not exchange the term "socialism" in our discussion of what to do for the term "basketball"?

Our goal? To make all of life as interesting, as fair, as cooperative and as much fun as basketball, whose rules and mode of play would then serve as excellent education for life in such a society. Our motto? "Basketball players of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your coaches, your bosses and your landlords." Now there's a game - and a world - worth celebrating.


Bertell Ollman is a professor in the Department of Politics at NYU.  He has published over a dozen books on Marxist theory and socialism, the most recent of which is Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method.  For his writings, see: