Squirrels, Acorns, and Sports
Ever heard of squirrels being used as a team mascot? Neither had I until I did a brief search on the internet. I was surprised what I found.
The Albino Squirrels of Oberlin College in Ohio.
The Black Squirrels of Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
The Gray Squirrels of the University of Stirling in central Scotland.
The Flying Squirrels of the Richmond, VA Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
And finally, Gladys the Fighting Squirrel, which proudly represents Mary Julia Baldwin, a women’s college in Staunton, VA.
Other than a mascot connection to sports, you might be wondering how squirrels and acorns fit into this particular article. Well, while I had a few minutes to relax the other day, I had the opportunity to observe, for an extended period of time, a squirrel diligently at work. Squirrels seem to be known for their meticulous preparation and feisty industriousness.
This particular squirrel was very methodical in finding acorns which it had buried months earlier. It would root around in the mulch at the base of an oak tree until it successfully unearthed an acorn and then would chomp away at it while spinning it around in its tiny paws. The process was repeated as soon as one acorn was consumed. I was mesmerized by the proceedings, but also reminded of how one sports philosopher related acorns to sports.
In his book, Philosophy of Sport, Drew Hyland talks about the telos or “the end, good, or perfection” of something. A teleological explanation will discuss the way things “ought to be” or what they are “at their best”. This is in contrast to a descriptive analysis which would describe things “the way they actually are” with a “tell it like it is” explanation.
“The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, insisted that one simply did not have adequate knowledge of a given entity unless that knowledge included its ‘final cause’ – what that thing will become if it is allowed to develop to its highest capacity. He uses as an example our knowledge of the acorn.”
“Suppose that you had comprehensive knowledge of the molecular structure of an acorn, its varieties, and where it comes from. In fact, suppose that you knew everything about an acorn except this: If it is placed in the right environment and with the proper nourishing, it will become an oak tree. To say the least, you would be lacking decisive information about the acorn.
“But, this knowledge is knowledge of its end, goal, or perfection, what it will become if it is allowed to develop to its fullest capacity. This is its telos.”
Becoming an oak tree is the telos of an acorn even though a minuscule percentage of acorns ever become oak trees. I suppose this is due in part to the squirrels digging them up and eating them as well as a myriad of other ways in which acorns are prevented from reaching oak-tree-hood.
“The nature of an acorn is to become an oak tree, even though a descriptive analysis would point out that this happens in a tiny minority of cases. The measure of nature for teleological analyses is not necessarily what happens most of the time, what is typically the case, but what happens when a thing is allowed to develop to its highest, or ‘natural’ capacity, even if that seldom happens.”
So, how then does this apply to sport?
I would suggest that the telos of sport is to produce true competition and friendship (i.e. a partnership, mutual respect, and appreciation of the shared experience regardless of the outcome of the contest), though in the current culture of sport, at some levels, this may seldom happen.
A corruption of competition often takes place (squirrels eating the acorns) which prevents sport contests from reaching this telos. Hyland calls this alienation. “Alienation is not the natural consequence of sporting competition, but what happens when it doesn’t work right, when it is a ‘defective mode’. Competition at its best, when it works, is an occasion of friendship.”
“From this it follows that we ought not to consider abolishing sport because some of its defective instances degenerate into alienation. Rather, we should analyze what the surrounding conditions are which keep sport so often from achieving its telos, as well as what those conditions are which encourage sport to be the best that it can be.”
Essentially, this should be the reason why coaches coach . . . to help young people grow and develop and to see sport contests and competition reach their telos. The conditions under which the acorn of sport becomes the oak tree of friendship, partnership, and true competition will most effectively be accomplished by coaches who have this understanding. Let’s see if we can change the culture of competitive sports in a positive way by being committed to this end.
Dennis Scott, Ed. D
United States Sports Academy
Coaches Sports Philosophy Network (CSPN Inc.)
Hyland, D. (1990). Philosophy of Sport. St. Paul: Paragon House.