Sports view: Is bridge a sport?

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

Sport: “An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.”  Dictionary.com

Bridge is a card game played by tens-of-millions of people around the world, in private and in public tournaments. The game has complex rules, national and international governing bodies and a loyal, if not zealous following. But is it a sport?  We’re about to find out.  Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice in London will soon decide once and for all … maybe … if bridge is indeed a sport.

According to Dictionary.com, it sure doesn’t look like bridge is a sport. The Oxford Dictionary concurs, defining sport as “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”  Physical exertion alone isn’t sufficient to constitute a sport, lest we are forced to include recreational activities such as gardening and walking the dog. But most definitions of sport do require some element of physicality. And the physical exertion in bridge is limited to shuffling and dealing cards, then laying them on the table.

Sport England, the body that promotes and finances sports in the country, ruled earlier this year that bridge is not a sport because it doesn’t involve the requisite “physical activity.” The English Bridge Union took exception to the ruling and brought suit in March. Last month the High Court held a two-day hearing in the case. During the hearing plaintiff’s lawyer argued that “sport” should be interpreted broadly to encompass games like bridge and chess.

Defendant’s attorney countered that “the sports councils are entitled to separate mind games from physical activities when deciding who to recognize.” However, that view ignores the reality that virtually every sport includes a mental aspect or “mind games.”  Anyone who has ever played a sport knows firsthand that the mental aspects are important, sometimes more important, than physical exertion. Whether strategizing your next shot in golf, outthinking your defender in basketball or psyching out an opponent in tennis, the mind has a direct impact on one’s success.

Should the fact that bridge emphasizes the mind more than the rest of the body preclude it from being defined as a sport? Isn’t the brain part of the body, just another muscle?  If so, then why can’t it be argued that “mind games” involve muscle power, i.e., “physical exertion?”

There is more than nomenclature and pride at stake in the outcome of the bridge lawsuit. In England, as is true in many other countries, sports are eligible for government funding and have a number of tax benefits that aren’t available to recreational activities. The lawsuit stems from the denial of the English Bridge Union’s request for state funding. But if the court determines that bridge is a sport, will chess, checkers, scrabble, solitaire, fantasy sports, and tiddlywinks, among other activities, be lining up at the public trough?

The reality is there is no one definition of sport. In order to be recognized as a sport, some organizations require a certain number of participants. Most sports need a formal set of rules and are governed by an oversight organization. Some sports are played individually, others are played by teams. An opponent, or at least competition, is usually a requisite. The International Olympic Committee allows a number of sports to participate in quadrennial competition, yet recognizes additional activities as “sports” although they are not allowed to participate in the Games. Included in the latter category is…bridge.

For years people have debated whether auto racing is a sport. After all, the “athlete” sits behind the wheel of a car turning left for hours at a time. But anyone who is familiar with the sport or who has taken a spin on a NASCAR track can attest to the physical demands on the drivers. And very few of us can duplicate the demanding physical regimen NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson goes through to get into racing shape.

Is bridge a sport? There’s no unanimity on that question, but my answer is no. And regardless of how the High Court rules as a “matter of law” the decision won’t put to rest the debate over what constitutes a sport. It will only determine who gets a slice of the government pie.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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