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“How Competition Goes Wrong” by Prof JOHN McMURTRY (1991)

Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1991 pp. 201-209

How Competition Goes Wrong


ABSTRACT The article begins by identifying a set of hitherto undisclosed contradictions of meaning and value attributed to a basic structure of our existence—competition. It seeks to resolve these contradictions by showing that there are two basic forms of competition not previously distinguished: (1) the dominant model of competition in which pay-offs extrinsic to the activity itself are conferred on one party at the expense of others; and (2) the submerged, spontaneous form of competition in which no structure of extrinsic and exclusionary pay-offs is imposed on the action. Illustrating in terms of a paradigm example, ice-hockey, the analysis shows that the well-known and systematic pathologies of competitive conflict-violence, cheating, authoritarianism, sexism, drug-taking and so on—are a law-like consequence of the dominant structure of competition and not a problem of competition as such.

Competition is generally presupposed as an immutable structure of our existence—whether as evolving organisms in the biological struggle for survival and reproduction, or as buyers and sellers of goods in the international marketplace, or as players of games in our leisure time. We are all competitors in the game of life in some way, but we have very different and opposed ideas of competition’s meaning and value. Arguments for and against competition have raged since Heraclitus’s condemnation of Homer in Fragment LXXXI for lamenting the “conflict among gods and men”. Yet these arguments are so diverse and profound in their differences of understanding of competition that they pose a kind of Babel of confusion on the topic.

Unfortunately, there has been in the history of thought almost no reflective analysis about competition as a form of life, and none that cuts across the discipline boundaries of biology, economics, law, political science and the many other areas where competition is assumed as a basic category of understanding. Thus, although a vast and multi-disciplinary literature presupposes competition as the organising framework within which evolutionary, market, juridical, sporting, scientific and even philosophical activities take place—there seems no field of life which has not been understood in its terms—almost no analysis has considered competition as a general structure of existence. What exceptions there are to this conceptual parochialism—Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, contemporary game theory and more explicitly, recent interdisciplinary studies by Walter Ong and Alfie Kohn—fail to recognise the systematic contradictions of meaning and value in the usage and understanding of the concept. Rather, as others who presuppose competition’s nature as given, they adopt one or the other side of these contradictions as their guiding truth, and pursue it single-mindedly against any comprehension of its oppositions of sense [l].

To provide some coherent structure and recognition of these uncharted antinomies of thought on perhaps the primary structure of our existence, we need to exact from the ubiquitous and conflicted commentary on competition some organising schema of the many different positions on its nature and worth. Only when we have laid bare the underpinning logic of these opposing claims about the nature and value of competition, can we begin to comprehend our problem. We can achieve this incisively. The generating inner core of disagreements about competition is identified by the following set of exactly opposed claims.

  • Contradiction 1. On the one hand, it is held that competition promotes excellence, stimulating participants into better and better performances by their trying to surpass each other. On the other hand, it is held that competition encourages apathy and mediocrity by the fear of failure it generates, which keeps people from participating, or doing as well as they can.
  • Contradiction 2. On the one hand, it is claimed that competition promotes socialisation and moral development by the lessons of fairness and co-operation it teaches in situations of conflict and stress. On the other hand, it is claimed that competition promotes systematic selfishness and moral insensitivity by its overriding requirement to seek to win at others’ cost.
  • Contradiction 3. On the one hand, competition, is commended as a structure of equal opportunity for all where no-one is allowed a special advantage. On the other hand, competition is condemned as a structure of eliminative selection that ultimately leads to monopoly by a dominant elite.
  • Contradiction 4. On the one hand, it is believed that competition encourages diversity by its play of opposing forces in creative contention. On the other hand it is held that competition by its nature imposes uniformity by the sameness of conditions, standards, means and goals it requires.
  • Contradiction 5. On the one hand, it is supposed that competition provides the acid test of achievement in the crucible of trial against others. On the other hand, it is claimed that competition produces distorted and misleading results by the rule-bending, cheating, intimidation and so on it enjoins by its imperative of victory before all else.

These contradictory understandings of competition pose deep conflicts of meaning and value which run to the heart of the human condition. We cannot resolve them easily, but we can understand them better if we do not take one side or the other, as is invariably done, but instead recognise that competition can admit of opposed general types.

To initiate this distinction of types or ‘ways’ of competition, we will analyse in laboratory isolation one paradigmatic field of competition—Canada’s national sport of ice-hockey.

The Dominant Model of Competition

With hockey, as with other internationally recognised arenas of competition, the dominant model of competition is the commercial model. In this case, it is the N.H.L. or National Hockey League whose product is watched by tens of millions of fans across North America and increasingly the world, sold as a major international marketing site to large private corporations for mass media advertisements, and paraded as both a work-ethic and a patriotic symbol. A non-partisan analysis of commercial hockey’s countless competitions over network television for most of every year reveals the following general characteristics of its underlying structure.

Strict Restriction of Participation

Only those who survive the ‘cuts’ of recruiting selection and team try-outs are permitted to participate. By the age of middle adolescence, only a very small fraction of those who have played hockey still participate on a regular basis. By the age of majority, only an infinitesimal elite of those who can and would like to play hockey, can or do so within this model of competition.

Rigid Team Segregation

Players train apart, live apart, dress apart, play apart, wear opposing coloured uniforms on all game occasions, and identify exclusively with the rights, interests and concerns of their own team group. In consequence of this imposed segregation, members of opposing teams do not approve of excellent play by their opponents during a game, actively seek to disable excellent performance by members of the opposing group by covertly illegal means and never uphold, during a contest, standards of fairness that do not benefit themselves.

Authoritarian Control by External Officials and Liquidation of Moral Autonomy

Control here is standardly absolute and analogous to the relationship of master and slave in many ways. The player is owned as a marketable commodity, prohibited from ‘talking back’, normally subjected to external command of every detail of performance, regularly exposed to physical injury and subject to social humiliation if perceived as disobedient or unwilling to conform. Players who submit are ‘loyal’, ‘co-operative’, ‘good boys’. Players who do not are ‘troublemakers’ and, if persistent, are ‘finished’.

This authoritarian control of players normally entails as a constituent of its discipline the liquidation of moral autonomy. Players cheat, intimidate, and use violence if and when they are told to. Compliance with standards of fair play is left to the discretion of external officials. Bringing the referee’s attention to an unfair judgement against the opposing team is unheard of.

Head-to-toe Body-armouring, Mechanical Routine, Regimented Division of Labour and Reduction of Play to Execution of Externally Prescribed Function

As with the other typical characteristics of the dominant hockey model, the pattern here is military-industrial in nature. The competitors are conceived as combatants organised as a disciplined group to achieve quantifiable outputs, and demolish the will to resist of opposing units. Successful annihilation does not involve the killing of other young men in different-coloured uniforms, but rather the death of the capacity to oppose of other young men in different-coloured uniforms. To achieve this objective, covering body-armour, rigorous training camp preparation, relentless drill, strict division of labour and specialisation, and reflex-obedience to precisely defined functions of attack and defence are prescribed. Failure of a hockey team to succeed in conquering its opponents is standardly attributed to failure to effectively impose one or other aspect of this organisational programme.

Although hockey’s open speed surface and inexhaustible situational novelties make it a difficult game to reduce to a mechanical regime of military strategy, it has largely succumbed to the general pattern of the dominant model of competition. From the age of seven onwards, organised hockey generally apes the commercial model, increasingly so as the age-levels and selection processes advance. In consequence, the negative features of the commercial model appear to characterise hockey competition everywhere, as if they were universal properties of hockey competition as such. There is the apathy and mediocrity of the vast majority who no longer play by the age of 14, but learn to watch others do the playing for them. There is the moral insensitivity of those who succeed, the apparently inevitable product of their desire to win. There is the control of ice-surfaces at all levels by the pyramid of teams organised in accordance with the dominant regime, a seemingly unavoidable outcome of the selection for excellence that competition entails. There is the uniformity of standards and methods which is assumed necessary to provide the equal-chance conditions that competition requires. And there are the pathologies of violence and cheating—in the case of hockey, spearing, hitting from behind, slashing, hooking, kicking, intimidating and fighting which so pervade the game they are accepted as normal.

In general, hockey like other forms of contest is afflicted with the perversions endemic to the prevailing model of competition. The never-ending inquiries and failed solutions to the various pathologies which bedevil this dominant model of competition reveal a hard fact. They seem incapable of being resolved within the dominant model. For there is a law-like quality to their occurrence. They arise wherever pay-offs external to the activity itself are conferred on one party at the expense of others.

The Inner Logic of the Dominant Model of Competition

What do we mean by a pay-off that is ‘external to the activity itself’? It can be simply defined as follows: (1) an external pay-off is not an internal constituent of the activity (as skating, shooting or scoring a goal is); and (2) an external pay-offs possession persists beyond the activity to social life outside the game (as a victor’s rewards do).

However, it may be objected, an external pay-off does not necessarily go to one party at the expense of others (e.g. being in better physical condition and thus gaining the external pay-off of a reduced risk of heart disease). This is why our principle specifies external pay-offs which can only be won by one party at the loss of others. Other kinds of pay-offs outside the game—increased general fitness and health, more attractive appearance, more accessible energy for other activities and so on—are shared rewards of competing. In contrast, external pay-offs that go to one party at the expense of others require that one side’s rewards can only be achieved by the other’s loss of them. In the language of game theory, they are ‘zero-sum’ pay-offs. With mutually achieved goods, on the other hand, there is no conflict over who wins or loses the pay-offs, and consequently, violence, cheating and so on do not confer an advantage in getting the rewards. Competition can still have external incentives here, but not ones which go to one side at the cost of the opponent, thereby generating irreducible conflicts of interest.

However, the next question may follow: how can we know whether the external pay-offs of a contest are pay-offs which will go to one party at the expense of others? The answer to this question is given by the structure of the contest. External pay-offs must go to one side at the cost of others when they are the kind of external pay-off, as with post-game rewards of victory, which rule out all others’ possession of them. Both sides in any such competition cannot win the rewards that are given only to one. This is where the trouble begins. It is the combination of the pay-offs being external to the game and their being appropriated by one side through dispossession of others, that lies at the basis of competition’s well-known pathologies. The more competitors stand to lose, the more their shared well-being is ruled out, the more probable and the more intense the pathologies of their competition will become.

Let us test our hypothesis. Observe or recall any contest without imposed gains and losses external to the action itself, and what problems does one find? Problems of violence, cheating, hatred, drug-taking and so on, normalised in the dominant model, do not arise, even with players who have been habituated over years of conditioning to the dominant model of competition.

The Underlying Problem

The underlying problem of competition is that we have not looked deep enough into the presupposed structure of its organisation. This is because this structure corresponds to a larger social-structure which is presupposed as natural law—that people secure what they want by beating other people for it. In the wider world, that is, we compete for jobs, salaries, promotions, status, most of all money wealth. In the sporting world, we compete for positions, league-promotions, status and, most of all, money wealth. “That’s the way the world works”, it is said. “That’s the name of the game”. Life is competing for possession of something that is held on the condition that others have lost it. This law-of-the-take, which has been axiomatized by contemporary game theory [2], is extended into play itself, so that even children under 10 years of age are organised to its measure, through team-cuts, league pecking orders and the final goal of ‘taking it all’ from everybody else.

Once these pay-off-takes are set up outside the action itself to be won by one party at the cost of others, then a deep structural conflict of motivation and interest divides the people playing from each other and from the game. Players are alienated from each other because their successes can only be achieved by others’ losses. Players are alienated from the game because what matters now is its win-lose results more than the action of the game itself. It is in direct correspondence to these imposed conflicts of interest that the interminable problems of competition occur-deliberate injuring, covert violation of rules, dictatorial coaching, sexism, fear of participation and so on. Reflection reveals that it is only so far as it maximises the chances of winning, or not losing, that any of these destructive options is rational. Take away the external stakes that have nothing to do with the action of the game itself and these persistent pathologies of competition do not occur. Competition is not the problem, as Rousseau, Marx and others have believed, but rather the dominant form of competition.

It is illuminating to note here that Marx and Marxists presuppose the very dominant model they abhor. Competition is understood as necessarily competition for extrinsic stakes at others’ expense: essentially economic competition among capitalists and between capitalists and workers, for appropriation of surplus-value. Even when they consider competition in the most general terms, it is clear they presuppose that it entails this dominant form. In the words of Engels: “Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in civil society … a battle for life, for existence, for everything … ” [3]. It is for this reason that Marx also holds that the workers (my emphases) “must either succumb to the power of competition once more … or they themselves must entirely overcome competition and abolish it” [4]. It may be because of this one-sided view of competition which presupposes its pathological form as its only form, that Marxism has subsequently been unable to find a dynamic alternative to capitalist competition, throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The implications of a one-sided concept of competition are world-historic. Yet we will confine ourselves here within the limits of our object of analysis, the laboratory paradigm of sport. Its isolation as a competitive system provides us with the bounds of focus we require to penetrate such an edgeless problematic. With sport competition, specifically ice-hockey competition, which is not subjected to the dominant model, the pathologies of the dominant system simply do not occur. Or they occur only in an imitative way. During 45 years of participant observation of this form of competition, where no pay-offs external to the activity itself go to one party at the expense of others, through thousands of hours with all ages, types and skills, I have not observed any of the pathological patterns so familiar to extrinsic reward competition. An outburst of violence, for example, may arise, but only exceptionally and never as a normalised feature of the game. However, let exclusionary pay-offs-losses of face, money, standing, life-opportunity-be organised into any one of these games and these disabling consequences are systematically generated. In correspondence to them, a war-like regime is invariably instituted: armouring of the players against the violence of opposition blows, strict segregation of the teams, restriction of playing time to a fractional elite, an inviolable hierarchy of command, and a regimented system of attack and defence in which all have their specialised roles of combat. Alongside the individualized pathologies of violence, cheating, fear and loss of fellow feeling, develops the organisational framework of a military boot camp-each degeneration corresponding to the extent to which the intention of the action is to maximise the chance of winning and the avoidance of losing that which is wholly external to the game itself.

We can formulate the pattern of occurrence here into a unifying principle of competition: The probability and intensity of individual and organisational pathologies increase in direct proportion to the extent to which the goal of competitive activity is pay-offs external to the activity itself which are conferred on one party at the expense of others.

This principle applies far beyond ice-hockey. It applies to all sports, and to all competitive activities-economic, political, legal, sexual, sibling or military. It might be said to be the secret to evil in the human condition. Let these exclusionary pay-offs cover all the major interests of competitors-territory, wife and family, means of life and production, social status, creative possibility, life itself-and the competition will be monstrous. We know this historically from the example of military war, the most totalised instantiation of the dominant form of competition that exists [5].

Free Hockey as Paradigm of an Alternative Form of Competition

If competition in sport is a symbol of competition in general, resolution here may point to a general resolution. A clear exemplar of such resolution lies hidden in the practice of Canada’s national sport in its self-governed form, where it is not organised for victory spoils for some at the cost of others. The game is played everywhere in the country where there are the means for it to occur, but it is still known only by metonymic allusion—’shinny’, ‘pond hockey’, ‘pick-up’. Yet free hockey, as we might more properly call it, is the competition players of the game, including the most accomplished like Wayne Gretsky, generally prefer. It is competition which is free of competition’s contradictions. However, because its practice has been reduced to an amnesiac subcurrent of the commercial culture we are conditioned to accept as ‘reality’, its pattern of contest has been submerged as a lost fact. It deserves our notice. It suggests an alternative, non-pathological paradigm of competition whose principles can be generalised to other forms of life.

The game begins when there are enough players on the ice to have one. Someone throws a stick into the circle and others follow suit. A player close to the centre circle than arbitrarily selects sides by throwing sticks one-by-one towards each goal just as they come to hand. When the sticks have all been thus tossed in a Canadian version of the yarrow-stalk throwing of the I Ching, the players pick theirs up, and the chance-sorted teams then take up their positions on either side of centre ice. A puck is brought out by someone, and if there are too many players on the ice, enough select themselves off to the bench to await their turn until only four or five a side are left on the ice out of the goal. In more primitive circumstances, all share in the game or the games that are going on.

There is one overriding concern in forming the teams—that they are as evenly matched as possible. Chance usually decides this well enough, and when it does not, switches are unobtrusively made to even up the sides. The object is to ensure that both sides face as strong an opposition as possible. In this way, free hockey is, in principle, more competitive than hockey within the dominant model. That is, it rules against the one-sidedness, dynastic loading and walkovers that hockey teams within the prevailing model seek as their goal.

Since, in free hockey, there are no extrinsic pay-offs to motivate domination, it is the competing in itself that counts, the overcoming of limiting conditions for its own sake. Scores are made, but not kept. Success is never converted into pay-off or loss external to the game. Because good plays by one side do not harm or promise harm to the opponent, they can be experienced impartially, and therefore fully. The frustration or anger that does occur is usually at oneself for falling short of one’s projected performance. In this way, the edge of competition is made to cut only on the plane of ‘competing against oneself’: for which the opponent is an ally in providing the necessary occasion for test, not an enemy against access to valued pay-offs external to the game.

Players change to give others their fair time, and reminders accompany anyone who overlooks the obligation. If ever anyone gets hurt or looks to be hurt—the stop-and-start wheeling velocity of this game gives rise to these dangers—the game stops dead, with all attending to the injured player with whatever it takes to achieve recovery and restoration of the shared game. A spear, a fight, a hit from behind is taboo to even professionally programmed players, and when confrontations do arise in the heat of the contest, they are resolved by collective intervention, gathering large smiles at what is a kind of joke [6], and a milling about in exchanges of judgement until the game is made whole again.

People try as hard as they can, but playing selfishly or violating the rules other than in jest is generally disdained. There are periods of intensity throughout with a spontaneous consent to go with all that can be mustered arising whenever a player or two take off with self-dissolving commitment to the action. The more this happens, the more most like it, and sometimes the quality of the players is collectively good enough that a game as fast and as co-ordinated as any that is played will erupt from the moment the puck is dropped.

People do get beaten inside this game all the time, but as no more—and no less—than transitions of the play. Here again, possession or loss, scoring or being scored upon, have no imposed external correlatives, but are wholly internal to the game. A goal is only a transformation of the action, the game’s inner device for marking the play’s climactic end and for requiring the teams to return to equal terms again. The opposition is recognised as a necessary partner in making the game, and it is the game’s creative action and no ulterior private interest external to it that counts. In consequence, experimentation, risking mistakes to learn, fun in the move that defeats, loss of self in the field of the action that opponents join to make, and a laughter in supreme effort at its hardest are the themal characteristics of free hockey’s intensity. In contrast, the very opposite characteristics typify the competitive intensity of the dominant model-orthodoxy, avoidance of mistakes, anguish at being beaten, alienation from the opponent as an enemy of one’s goal to win and generalised bad feeling in which laughter only arises at one’s adversary’s losses.


The endemic problems that bedevil competition are not internal to competition as such, but derive from a dominant type of competition—competition in which pay-offs external to the competing itself are conferred on one party at the expense of others. A principle of proportionality characterises this dominant form: the greater the pay-offs and losses external to the competing itself, the greater the pathologies generated in and by it. The general alternative to this presupposed regime of competition is one in which no such extrinsic interests are involved or imposed. The free practice of Canada’s national game discloses in hiding the living reality of this option. While generalisation of this free form of competition to non-leisure fields is problematic, it provides the concrete foothold for an alternative conception of competition which has so far been philosophically foreclosed.

Summary figure

Forms of competition: the paradigm of hockey

Purpose To win To play
Strategy Dominate opposition Keep sides even
Selection Cuts and elimination to victorious elite Chance division and universal participation
Teams Closed squad/segregated team structure Open unit/community identification
Organisation Hierarchical command and external enforcement Self-regulation and community norms
Methods of development Body mechanics, division of labour, drill training practice Natural movement, flexible all-round function, play practice
Rewards External to game, at losers’ expense Internal to play, at no-one’s expense
Problems Violence, cheating, authoritarianism, drug-use, mass non-participation No persisting problems

John McMurtry, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph, NJG 2W1, Canada.


Earlier drafts of this paper were presented to The Society for Socialist Studies, Learned Societies Conference, Quebec City, June 1989, and The Ontario Philosophical Society Annual Meeting, McMaster University, October 1989. I am grateful to the participants in these sessions for their testing criticisms, and especially to G. A. Cohen for his comments over many months of correspondence.


[l] W. ONG (1981) Fighting for Life (Ithaca, Cornell University Press). A. KOHN (1986) No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston, Houghton and Mifflin).

[2] Nowhere, so far as I know, does game theory analysis make this distinction between pay-offs/losses internal to a game which bear no consequences beyond the game (points won and lost in competitions with no extrinsic stake) and pay-offs/losses external to a game which are conferred independently of these internal pay-offs/losses, but in accordance with them (i.e. ‘victor’s spoils’). In this way, game theory abstracts away the central problem of competition.

[3] K. MARX & F. ENGELS (1975) Collected Works, Volume IV (New York, International Publishers), p. 375.

[4] Ibid., p. 524.

[5] Analysis of the military programme of war as the ultimately pathological form of competition is to be found in J. MCMURTRY (1989) Understanding War (Toronto, Samuel Stevens and Company, University of Toronto Press).

[6] The joke consists in the unexpected absurdity of a fight in a context where there is nothing to fight over. Because of the in-process benefit of amusement at such absurdity, most fights occur as occasional festive outbreaks in free hockey in parody of the antagonisms of the dominant game.

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