Nationalism, Patriotism, and Sport: What does it mean to love your country?

In this Blog, New Generation Thinker Dr Dafydd Mills Daniel discusses the difference between patriotism and nationalism in the sporting world.

Love of Country and Love of Sport
In seminars on practical ethics at the University of Oxford, my Philosophy and Theology students and I discuss the ethics of love of country – often referred to as either, or both, patriotism and nationalism.

All the sport in 2018 is proving helpful for that discussion: we’ve seen the England rugby union coach, Eddie Jones, accosted after Scotland beat England in the Six Nations; the suggestion that Norway’s dominance of cross-country skiing may hinder its worldwide audience because more people watch an event if their own country has a chance of winning; and an array of national flags and anthems at the Winter Olympics and Six Nations, which will also be present at the Commonwealth Games and FIFA World Cup.

Of course, it’s not clear that the love of country being displayed in each of these examples is the same. Which raises the question: Although there appears to be an association between international sport and love of country, what form is this love supposed to take?

Negative and Positive Love of Country
International sport assumes a distinction between negative and positive love of country. It’s this assumption which explains the otherwise counter-intuitive response to Manchester City football club manager, Pep Guardiola.

Over the past few months, Pep has chosen to wear a yellow ribbon in support of imprisoned Catalonian politicians. FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn responded, saying “You can’t have, and we don’t want, football equipment to display political symbols.” Clearly, for Glenn the symbols of regional and national identities already emblazoned on football shirts are not ‘highly divisive’ ‘political symbols’.


The same assumption also underpins the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee tells us it has ‘been using sport to unite individuals and communities amidst their diversity and promote a culture of peace and humanity’.  Sport is able to promote such ends because it ‘has the power to bring people together. It builds friendships and draws lines of respect across borders’.

Note that so far as the Olympics regards international sport as having the potential to ‘unite’ people ‘across borders’, and amidst ‘diversity’, it does not view love of one’s own country (and cheering on their success at the Olympics) as inimical to loving other peoples and countries.

Instead, a positive love of one’s own country is developed by, and sustained through, an interest in sporting competition. It is this positive form of love that allows us to appreciate both the richness of cultural diversity, and what we hold in common as human beings.

Consequently, international sport channels a positive form of love of country in opposition to a negative form which uses cultural diversity as justification for discourses of exclusivism and otherness.

Patriotism or Nationalism?
The distinction between patriotism and nationalism also suggests that there is a positive and negative form of love of country. And, that the former helps to guard against the latter.Benjamin-West-Dr-Richard-Price-1723-1791-DD-FRS.jpg

The patriotism/nationalism distinction is not new. And my students and I – alongside the likes of George Orwell, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum – use the writing of Richard Price to examine it.

Price was a Christian philosopher, who supported the French Revolution. Indeed, his Discourse on the Love of Country (London, 1790) was the explicit target of Edmund Burke’s better-known Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1790).

Price thought that a nationalistic, blind-devotion to country encouraged international wars and prevented social change.

Nationalists would support their country in any war over its purported enemies. They would also remain loyal to their country’s hierarchical structures simply because they were ‘traditional’.

At the same time, Price insisted that real love of country was a necessary and positive motivation for peace and social change.

A genuine patriot would only support their country’s domestic and foreign policies so far as they pursued the universal human goods of ‘Truth – Virtue – and Liberty’. As a result, a genuine patriot would support revolutions to ensure their country was pursuing those goods. In doing so, a patriot was acting to make their country worthy of their love

Thus, while Price recognised the negatives of one form of love of country, he thought that a truly patriotic form of love was an essential ingredient of progressivism and internationalism.

International Sport and Warrior Virtues
Of course, international sport not only illustrates the patriotism/nationalism distinction, it also highlights its limitations.

Leo Tolstoy argued that any form of partial love towards country descends into tribalism. Similarly, we might ask whether it is possible to stop patriotism from becoming nationalism in a sporting context. Eddie Jones’ treatment by some Scottish fans, and fears about hooliganism at the World Cup, may reinforce this question.

As a result, the patriotism/nationalism debate highlights two different ways in which we discuss international sport.

On the negative-nationalistic side, international sport is about the virtues of the warrior. International sportspersons are sent out – their national anthem ringing in their ears – to ‘fight bravely’ for their country in ‘battle’, and to ‘leave everything on the pitch’.

On the positive-patriotic side, international sport is about the virtues of commonality. Here, sportspeople are not enemies, but opponents, joined in the spirit of open contest. Contestants and spectators have a shared appreciation of such values as individual skill, teamwork, and fair play. Consequently, all participants’ achievements are celebrated by spectators and contestants alike according to those shared values.

Is it possible for international sport to be described in terms of both common-virtues and warrior-virtues?

Your answer will depend to a certain extent on whether you think patriotism and nationalism can be adequately distinguished.

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