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WHEN THE Detroit Lions and their defensive coordinator parted ways this month over "philosophical differences," one couldn't help but wonder, Are philosophy professors ever fired for the same reason?
"We do have philosophical differences in the philosophy department," says Sharon Ryan, the department chair at West Virginia University, "but we never use the phrase philosophical differences, which—in the real world—almost always means ideological differences."
As a child attending New York Mets games when the team's manager was the philosopher Yogi Berra, Ryan was already interested in man's most mystifying issues, like life, death and the infield fly rule.
Now she's asking Big Questions of Mountaineers athletes, coaches and fans (and posting their answers at thequestion.blogs.wvu.edu). As Socrates was to Athenian society, Ryan is to West Virginia's athletic department—a gadfly, bound only by the battery life of her camcorder and her bottomless curiosity, inquiring of linebackers and power forwards and head coaches, What is a team? What is a fan? And is winning really everything?
"Damn right it is!" long snapper Zach Flynt replied to this last question, while others Socratically questioned the question itself. Basketball guard Meg Bulger, whose brother Marc plays quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, suggested that winning is everything only if we broaden the definition of victory: "As long as you learn life lessons through what you're doing, I believe that's where you generally win, that sports are a tool to win in life."
Ryan stands at the nexus of sports and philosophy. She is John David Booty handing off to John Stuart Mill. "I'm trying to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the street," says the 42-year-old. "The stereotype of the dumb student-athlete is one that I'm proud to be shattering." Mountaineers supporters posting to the blog have been trying to define the essence of West Virginia fandom. A poster named Doug came closest: He plans to name his son Pittsnogle.
Every week Ryan joins a group of faculty and students to discuss the imponderable issues of the day. And while they call themselves the Tuesday Night Philosophers, they often sound like Monday Morning Quarterbacks. A recent discussion centered on the NFL's rule that a receiver must not only have two feet inbounds but also maintain possession long enough to perform a football act distinct from the catch itself.
"Why must there be the evidence of a new intention?" asked assistant professor Beverly Hinton, an expert on Aristotle. "If the receiver continues his intention to retain the ball, even if he performs no distinct action, why is this not evidence of his reception of the ball?" Review that, Ed Hochuli.
Last week I asked the Tuesday Night Philosophers to weigh in on some of sports' most renowned thinkers, among them Satchel Paige, who said, "You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them."
Matthias Callison, a senior, pointed out that Paige had offered a view popular in the philosophy of religion: You can't appreciate good without experiencing evil.