What is freedom?

I recently read a slick sales pitch touting as its lead “hook” the offer of “freedom” for local soccer organizations to do whatever they want. The use of the word “freedom” is a good catch phrase for a sales pitch, because it evokes strong emotions and conjures up visions of life without limits or restrictions. That is why the word is used. But is what being offered really “freedom” or is something else going on here?

Imagine three local organizations all exercising their “freedom” to do what they want without having to consider each other. Organization “A,” in its exercise of “freedom,” decides that its soccer games should all have seven players on a team while Organization “B” exercises its freedom to have 13 players on a team and Organization “C” determines that its self-interest is best served by having 11 players on a team. Assuming all of A’s teams only play each other, it may work out for Organization A.

Then again, it may not.

What if one of A’s teams decides that it, too, is entitled to freedom and, serving its own interest, determines to have 10 players on its team. Is Organization A now going to play games with one team having seven players and its opponent having 10? Probably not, at least not if Organization A is at all interested in basic fairness.

So what does it do? Restrict “freedom?” According to the sales pitch, that makes it an undesirable organization because it clearly is against “freedom.” Similarly, what if organization A wants to play games against Organizations B and C? Do they play seven against 13, or 11 against 13, or 7 against 11?

Or do they organize together in a district or state to adopt rules to standardize the basic principles by which they play, so that they can play meaningful games against each other? Wouldn’t doing that, though, make them against “freedom?”

What about the laws of the game? Should not one organization be “free” to decide that the offside law damages the game by preventing higher scoring, while another is “free” to decide that the offside law should be kept as-is to avoid forcing the game to be played almost entirely from a defensive approach? Of course, it would then be essentially meaningless for teams from these two organizations to play each other, and doing so would benefit no one or serve anyone’s interest. But they would be “free.”

Or would they?

Obviously, there is something wrong here. What is wrong is that although the word “freedom” is used for its emotional impact, freedom is not really what is being offered or talked about. True freedom comes from understanding that freedom for each individual or part depends on recognizing that the freedom of one depends on the freedom of others; that is, appreciating and accommodating multiple interests.

For example, you are “free” to drive because you are not “free” to run red lights – otherwise, it would be too dangerous to drive and then you would have no freedom to drive at all – no one would. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Freedom of speech does not give a person the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Or as it has been more colorfully stated, “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”

Just a moment’s thought about it then leads to the conclusion that freedom is not the absence of rules or order, but is in fact only possible with rules and order. Furthermore, freedom does not mean a right or entitlement to the unrestricted or unfettered pursuit of self-interest. That idea – the idea that each should be “free” to pursue their own goals without concern or consideration of others -- is ultimately the destroyer of actual freedom. Purely pursuing self-interest at the expense of others means that the “others” are deprived of their freedom. It may well be within one person’s self-interest to take their neighbor’s property, but for the neighbor, the loss of their property is also the loss of part of their freedom. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt so aptly put it, “Those words ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ do not mean a license to climb upwards by pushing other people down.”

The word “freedom” must be used with great care to ensure that the strong emotional response it evokes does not become the means by which real freedom is undermined and lost. It is no less true in soccer than in anything else in life that true freedom requires responsibility and acceptance of obligations to others, and not just an effort to take benefits from others.