Fair play

    There’s no way to level the playing field but we can aim to do better by each other more often

    By Mifi Purvis, ’93 BA, on August 5, 2019

    Illustration by David Junkin


    When some people ask for fair play, they want the same set of rules to apply to everyone. To gain admittance to university, to get a job, to play a game: they want a set of parameters that allows for the blossoming of some combination of talent, intelligence and drive. In sport, fair play requires athletes to follow the same rules and use roughly the same type of equipment: ditto and ditto. But should that even be the goal? People are as different in makeup as they are in opportunities.

    Sports fans lauded Michael Phelps for his swimmer’s physique — all torso and wingspan — but never called his edge unfair. On the other hand, the governing body of track and field told Caster Semenya to take medication to lower her natural testosterone to bring it in line with that of her competitors. What assumptions inform that conversation?

    “The level playing field is a myth,” says Danielle Peers, ’01 BA, ’09 MA, ’15 PhD, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. “The unequal distribution in coaching, training and equipment means there’s an unequal distribution of opportunities.” Parents with kids in sport know the challenges of trying to pay the fees, buy the equipment and get the kid to the game on time. Now imagine the child is new to Canada or has a single parent or has no access to transportation.

    “Equitable access to sport starts with the assumption that sport should be safe, accessible and affirming,” says Peers. As a wheelchair athlete, Peers understands this better than most.

    “My colleague Dales Laing said, ‘our goal should be to enable more people to bring more of themselves, more of the time,’ ” Peers says. It invites participation and allows us to celebrate the Phelpses and Semenyas of the world. What can we achieve when we expand this goal to the rest of our undertakings: family, work, community?

    Liz Herbert, ’97 BPE, ’02 MBA, is the program manager of Free Footie, an Edmonton-based soccer league that provides vulnerable kids the opportunity to participate in sports. Herbert, a Pandas soccer alumna who also played on Canada’s national team, has shifted her career to focus on more accessible community sport. The league has removed the barriers of cost, transportation and organization and allowed kids the chance to strive together on their own terms, inviting their differences in. “Opening doors to people is what interests me,” she says. “We’re a sport organization on the outside but a human services organization on the inside.” 

    Even the word competition hints at co‑operation. From Latin, it means striving together, says Billy Strean, a professor in KSR. “If there’s an ‘I/thou’ relationship in a race, for example, competitors may seek to bring out each other’s best.’ ” If simply winning is your goal, that relationship may change to “I/it” and your competitor may be reduced to an obstacle to be overcome. And you might wonder, “What can I get away with?”

    Strean worries when he sees the “I/it” attitude at play in business and politics. “If we spent more time on a consideration of the purpose of the undertaking of sport, if these conversations were foundational, we could recognize the interdependence and interconnectedness of the effort.”

    Life has no level playing field, and we can’t confuse sameness and fairness. But if we put ourselves up against our differences rather than fitting into “ditto,” we start to strive together and bring out more of each other, the best in each other, more of the time.