Johan Huizinga, influential Dutch social theorist active in the first part of the twentieth century, quotes Paul Valéry as saying in passing to him “No skepticism is possible where the rules of a game are concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable truth. . . .” (Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens : A Study of the Play-element in Culture. London: Routledge, . Print. p. 11) Huizinga here points to the core of his theory of play, and ultimately the offense of spoil-sportery. Valéry’s comment works to flesh out in explicit terms what Huizinga implies – that the world of play is circumscribed by an inviolable boundary: the rules of the game itself. Huizinga imagines a “playground,” both literally or figuratively, as a space in which play commences and with which comes absolute rules of an almost sanctified nature. (10) Play, to Huizinga, is not “ordinary life”, but something different – a space wherein new codes of conduct take hold and each participant has a new set of expectations. Play is distinct from ordinary life in that “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place,” and the rules enacted are temporary – they exist on the figurative playground and for the duration of play, but cease immediately with the end of the game. (9)
Let us look briefly at basketball to illustrate our point, before coming back to the ultimate offense to play: spoil-sportery. Basketball is a game that is enacted in a particular space – a playground, gym, or arena – with definite boundaries. When a basketball is thrown out of the boundary, play ceases until the play world is righted and the ball brought back into the proper space. Likewise, there is a time clock marking out explicitly the time of play, before and after which the rules of basketball do not apply. Within this playground - this concretely bounded time and space - there are rules which apply only in-game. A ball in the hoop counts for between one and three points; once the ball is brought by the offense past the mid-court line, it may not be brought back before possession changes; kicking the ball results in forfeiture of possession; et cetera. These rules are at once absolutely binding and wholly arbitrary. Once the final buzzer sounds, the rules of the game no longer apply. In fact, the game can only be said to have ended when the constraints of the rules are totally dismissed. Basketball is play because it is enacted in a bounded time and space with rules that are absolutely binding only during the duration of the game – play can happen no other way.
Imagine, however, that a player were to bring in a second basketball to the game, and begin shooting baskets during play with the second, un-official basket. This is spoil-sportery. More than just cheating, this action on the player’s behalf threatens the myth of the game itself. Basketball has a system by which it can deal with shooting fouls and the like, but no faculties through which to adjudicate a two-ball situation, and the game breaks down. The emperor has no clothes.
“The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself.” (11)
Spoil-sportery, to Huizinga’s theory of play, is the ultimate transgression – an attack on the game itself. The spoil sport “…robs play of its illusion—a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” (11)