Sports

Do Running Backs Matter?

A philosopher on the NFL’s hottest profound question.

The Thinker wears a football helmet and cradles a football.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AndrewHorne (talk)/Wikipedia, Enterline Design Services LLC/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Gearstd/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

As the NFL further embraces the joys of passing, teams are running the ball less than ever before. Only one running back was chosen in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft (the Raiders selected Alabama’s Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick) and, with a few exceptions, franchises are more reluctant than ever to give these players long-term extensions. As a result, the question “do running backs matter?” has come to dominate The Discourse this offseason. (In June, USA Today ran a story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ depth chart with the headline “Bruce Arians Officially Joins Team ‘Running Backs Don’t Matter.’ ”)

But “do running backs matter?” is more complex than an issue of personnel decisions. It’s an attempt to find a running back’s place in the universe. To better understand this profound question, I called Erin Tarver, an associate professor of philosophy at Emory University. Our interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nick Greene: Are you familiar with this question: “Do running backs matter?”

Erin Tarver: I haven’t seen that quoted, but certainly as the NFL has become more of a passing league I have heard about those kinds of discussions. There’s a difference between the question of what makes the most sense strategically in terms of prioritizing player selection and then saying, “Do the people who play this position matter at all?” While I think that phrasing the question in the second way is perhaps more click-generating, it’s something that I worry about from an ethical perspective.

As a philosopher, what do you hear when someone says something “doesn’t matter”?

When I think about this in the context of football, it especially worries me. I say this as someone who is a lifelong football fan, but there’s something about the violence of football that, perhaps more than any other team sport, tends to encourage fans to see the players in almost exactly this way: as people who aren’t full people at all, but who exist for the purpose of giving glory to our teams. We as fans are conditioned not to take seriously the very real physical trauma that necessarily accrues to these people. When someone is injured on the field, we take a commercial break; we’re not even going to look at it.

Watching and playing football have tons of ethical implications. But what about other fields of philosophy? How would an existentialist answer the question “do running backs matter”?

In ordinary life, when we say that something “matters,” usually we mean that it has moral or metaphysical significance.

In terms of the intrinsic, some philosophers would say, “Human beings are significant because God created them.” On the other hand, you can have someone like Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who said human beings matter by virtue of their rational nature. Kant would argue they are ends in themselves, so it’s not OK for me to treat another human being as a mere means to my ends. By the way, there’s a whole little sidebar to that, which is that Kant didn’t necessarily think that women have a rational nature or that people of color had rational nature. He was famously kind of a jerk, but that’s one explanation.

Alternatively, someone like an existentialist would say that human beings are significant not because of rationality or because of God—in fact, many existentialists would say that God doesn’t exist—but rather because those human beings are the first-person experiencer of a life. I make my world and myself significant by the mere fact that I am interested in it.

You mentioned “metaphysical significance.” I don’t know much about philosophy, but it seems that asking whether or not something matters could be a metaphysical question. Am I totally off-base in my understanding of what “metaphysical” means?

When I’m teaching introductory classes, I talk to my students about the fact that in philosophy we think of metaphysics as just being the study of what there is. If I try to answer the question “Does God exist?” or “What is the meaning of human existence?”—both of those are metaphysical questions.

Just like “do running backs matter,” right?

I would want to ask, “What do we mean by that?” If we mean, “Do running backs as an instance of humanity have some significance?”—then yes, that can be a metaphysical question.

Though, often when people say this sort of thing I take them not necessarily to be making a metaphysical claim, but to be trying to say something like “The specific person playing running back for any given team is a decision of less statistical significance than the person who is playing quarterback, and therefore it’s prudent to focus on drafting some specific quarterback instead of some specific running back.” I don’t think that they take themselves to be making some larger claim about the purpose of these individuals in the cosmos.

Hmm, that’s interesting. In keeping with that, is it fair to say that fantasy football is like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” because it works as a simulacrum of real life? Or do I sound like an idiot right now?

Oh gosh. Tell me more.

[I try to recap “Allegory of the Cave” and say stuff like, “There are guys chained up in the cave watching shadows and stuff.” I eventually make the point that some people who play fantasy football don’t consider it to be representative of real football; they believe it’s the whole shebang. They believe it’s more fun or more important, and they wind up rooting for their own fantasy players over real teams.]

The whole reason that we are talking about the cave in The Republic is because Socrates says that it’s a metaphor for the process of education. The person who gets taken up out of the cave, when they first emerge into the sunlight they are dazzled. Their eyes have become accustomed to looking at shadows on the cave walls. Initially, when we are confronted with the process of education, it is painful. It’s easier to think about going back to looking at the shadows.

So that’s like people who quit fantasy football?

Maybe. I too have played fantasy football for years. I’m a Saints fan, and at one point years ago, back when I took it more seriously, I was watching football and rooting for a Cowboys player. My partner said to me, “I don’t like watching football with you anymore. It’s not fun. You’re cheering for these individual people.” There is something interesting about the analogy, insofar as when we get focused on these statistical metrics and how they will benefit us as gamblers, that tends to occlude our vision of the larger game.

Just as Plato argued.

Right.

Is there a philosophical viewpoint that states that the New England Patriots don’t exist?

Oh my God. This is a question of real significance for me. Not about the Patriots specifically, but about the metaphysical persistence of teams. What are the New England Patriots? What is the thing that makes them the New England Patriots from one year to the next? What do the New England Patriots of today have in common with the New England Patriots of 30 years ago? Trying to solve this problem of what remains continuous through time and across changes is called the “problem of identity.”

Let’s use you as an example. You are really different than what you were when you were a baby. Scientifically, we would say you don’t have any of the same cells anymore. But there’s something about you that persists through all of these years and physical change. Scientists will say that DNA has something to do with that, but in other entities, like teams, the problem of identity is not so identifiable.

This is like the boat thing.

Yes, the Ship of Theseus. Is the ship the same once we’ve replaced it all with new material? The same question can be asked of a team. What is it that renders a team continuous? I think a lot of people want to go with something like, “Oh, it’s the franchise.” But there are instances where the franchise is not continuously existing across time. The Baltimore Ravens/Cleveland Browns are a great example. The Browns went out of existence for a number of years, yet we say they are the “same team” as the previous team. We don’t have in this case something like literal physical continuity.

As a fan, the thing that you have allegiance to is not the franchise. There’s something else going on that is helping to constitute that entity of the team over time and through change. I argue in my book that a big piece of this is in the belief of the fans and their allegiance. There is no New England Patriots apart from a group of people who understand themselves to be fans of the New England Patriots, apart from the rest of us.

Yeah, they definitely think that. Speaking of fandom, Kierkegaard said, “Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household.” If he were alive today, do you think Kierkegaard would be a New York Jets fan?

Kierkegaard is such a sad sack in many ways, so that might be appropriate. Or perhaps he’d be a Browns fan.

Fans matter in that we provide an audience and fund the sport. However, we don’t matter because we don’t play football and have no impact on the actual results of games. Are we Schrödinger’s cat in this situation?

I think there is a real paradox of fandom. We are deeply involved in this thing, which is on one level completely insignificant. That’s the nature of sport—it’s played in this realm of life that’s set apart from the rest of life. On the field, certain actions have significance that they wouldn’t have off the field. The plane of the goal line is an imaginary thing, only that we’ve all agreed that in this particular context it’s 6 points. But because we are part of this social practice that has endowed the whole sport with a kind of cultural significance, the activities of sports fandom do matter. We become completely wrapped up in it. Despite the fact that in the abstract this appears irrational, it does matter in the reality we find ourselves in.

And because football games can end in ties, that permits the cat to be both alive and dead.

Oh man, ties are a whole different question.