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Can A Card Game Be Considered A Sport?

A court recently ruled that the card game known as “bridge” fails to qualify. Did the court get it wrong?

The World Series of Poker has been a fixture of ESPN programming since the 1980s. But has its long-running presence on cable’s flagship sports network been the result of an egregious category mistake all along? On the one hand, the word “entertainment” is officially part of the media behemoth’s name. Yet if we’re being honest with ourselves, the “E” might as well be lopped off — ESPN is a sports network; they’re not running coverage of the Golden Globes over there. (Unless of course “Golden Globes” is how you colorfully characterize the Sunday NFL Countdown team, whose insights are so pure it’s as if their brains glow with a wisdom too sublime for words).

So, should poker continue to be featured on ESPN’s suite of channels? Not according to the European Court of Justice, which just ruled that bridge, a card game played by millions around the world, should not be legally characterized as a sport.

You might be wondering why such an esteemed tribunal has concerned itself with the metaphysics of card games. Will they rule tomorrow that the virtual denizens of Sim City are incapable of genuinely reciting Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum? Perhaps the E.U. court will settle the matter — once and for all — as to whether Air Bud’s augmented athletic capabilities represent a transcendence of his ontological status as a dog.

But let’s leave these pressing matters aside for now and focus on the court’s classification of bridge as a non-sport. Why did they do it, and why does it matter?

The English Bridge Union, which organizes competitive bridge tournaments, brought suit against the British government — specifically, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the British tax authority — for requiring that participants pay a tax as a part of their entry fees. Games classified as sports are exempt from the tax; other games are not. The E.B.U. lost because bridge was not seen to contain a sufficient amount of physical exertion to qualify as a sport.

Undismayed, the E.B.U. appealed the decision and it was heard by the E.U. court. After considering the arguments, the court sided with the British government. While the court acknowledged that bridge “involves the use of high-level mental skills such as logic, lateral thinking, planning or memory,” and that playing it “regularly promotes both mental and physical health,” this is not enough to classify it as a sport.

The E.B.U. knew it would need to do more than just attribute to bridge those positive mental processes. After all, one can be in a state of “pure rest and relaxation,” as the court put it, and increase or improve mental and physical health. So the fact that a game leads to those outcomes is not, in and of itself, sufficient. The E.B.U. thus went further, arguing that the bridge tournaments it runs are organized and competitive. While the court also acknowledged this aspect, organization and competitiveness were not enough to place it in the sports column.

It is U.K. law that to qualify for a tax exemption a game must be construed as a “sport or physical recreation.” The British tax authority did not find bridge to meet that standard, and neither did the E.U. court. The E.B.U.’s characterization of bridge as a “mind sport” was not enough because the game’s “physical element” was ultimately found to be “negligible.”

The E.B.U. naturally sees the tax its participants must pay as a barrier to entry. That means the determination of whether bridge is a sport is more than an academic exercise — it is a decision that potentially has a bearing on how many participate, and even how prominent of a game it can grow to be.

A similar question has come up with reference to eSports, the term used to describe organized, competitive video gaming. The brilliance of the term “eSports” is that it builds the desired classification into its name. Imagine a new celery-like vegetable is discovered. Now consider this brilliant agribusiness initiative: bunches of the new celery-tasting vegetable are given alluring packaging and labeled “Snack Bars” — by the time you purchase a few “bars” and realize you’ve bought into a lie, the damage is done. Let the FDA wag its finger and tell me it cannot be sold alongside Twix and Snickers bars; there are more Augustus Gloops than there are smart grocery shoppers, and, dazzled by the packaging and name, they will fall for my ploy, even if it is relegated to that lair that Gloop types find most oppressive: the produce section.

In a recent paper, Daniel Kane and Brandon D. Spradley argue that eSports meets the criteria specified by the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the term “sport,” which is characterized as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” The authors go on to list various benefits associated with construing eSports as a sport — for example, if the NCAA were to do so, it would facilitate Title IX compliance for some universities.

But within the NCAA framework eSports competitors would be amateur athletes, ineligible to receive pay. What about eSports being classifiable as a sport professionally? When it comes to that question, the import is not taxes, as it is in the case of bridge in the U.K., but immigration.

The game’s participants as well as the United States itself both stand to gain from the legal inclusion of professional video gaming as a legitimate sport. According to Courtney New, if eSports participants don’t count as athletes, then

they don’t qualify for P-1 visas. And if they don’t qualify for P-1 visas, it can be very difficult for these professionals to travel to the U.S. to participate in major competitive events. This undermines the legitimacy of competitions and also encourages organizers to host these events elsewhere, depriving the U.S. cities that would otherwise host these events of significant economic benefit.

The P-1 category does not itself contain a rigid definition of the term “athlete.” What an “athlete” is, and, concomitantly, what an “athletic competition” is, falls to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to determine. The way the system currently works, the USCIS office handles each application on a case-by-case basis, and too often relies on an evaluative process that is really ill-suited for the world of eSports.

What, ultimately, is a sport?

If physical exertion of a traditional kind is a necessary condition, then sports such as football and basketball obviously qualify, but eSports and poker possibly do not. Then again, on this framing, perhaps NASCAR is also left out. What is the phenomenological difference between driving a car at a really high speed via a set of controls inside a chamber, and controlling a character really intensively via a video game controller? One of the two is actually traveling at a high speed, sure, but that is an objective difference; I asked about the subjective difference. Subjectively, it may be the case that the two experiences are far more qualitatively similar than at first thought.

Think about it this way: Is an NBA game that is happening in our world qualitatively different than an NBA game that is happening in the world of the movie The Matrix? Sure, in the real world the game is actually taking place. But think about it from the perspective of the players — is there any difference between the two for them, that is, from the inside?

According to the E.U. court, that a game can be played within an organized setting in a competitive fashion is not enough; such a criterion rules in too many activities as sports. But there is something to broadening the physiological understanding of what can count. Some bridge players, poker players, and “Smash Bros.” players, when they play, engage in an activity I’d far sooner categorize as “athletic” than whatever it is you call Trump playing a round of golf with his buddies.

At the same time, here’s why I appreciate the European Court’s courageous ruling: When I tell my kids to go outside and play some sports, they will no longer be able to respond, with any legal legitimacy, that their lazy game of Uno meets my requirement.



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