This is a wonderful comment by Dwayne N. Zechman, which goes to the heart of what makes sports ethics so perplexing. Let me leave it to Dwayne now, and I’ll have some comments at the end. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post Ethical If We Want It To Be: NBA Flopping and Fooling the Ref:
“I admit I’m having a little trouble with this one.
“If I understand correctly, your premise is that each sport has its rulebook, and what’s ethical or not is mostly determined by what’s in that rulebook. The outside margins of “mostly” come from long-standing traditions, and de facto rules related to safety or practicality. The game isn’t life–it’s a distinct “closed system” if you will, and the rules about life might not apply. Or perhaps it’s better to say that we can choose to declare (in the rulebook or through tradition) that certain rules of life do not apply within the game and that’s okay. Doing so diminishes neither the ethical rule nor the game itself.
“So the beginning of my trouble is that this smacks a little of a combination of “Everybody does it”, “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical”, and The Compliance Dodge. Okay, I can accept that, though, because we’ve already stipulated that specific ethical principles can be exempted from a game/sport.
“Next comes my own dissonance in trying to reconcile this article with other recent articles here on Ethics Alarms about pro football, where the same exemption of ethical principles is applied, but somehow shouldn’t be. Okay, I can accept this, too. There is a distinction in that an ethical principle shouldn’t be exempted from the game when there are clear, demonstrable consequences to the player that persist after the game is over and the player’s real life resumes. In a situation such as that, it’s impossible to exempt an ethical principle JUST for the game because the exemption itself renders the game no longer a “closed system”.
“But ultimately, I keep coming back to this: If a sport is supposed to be a contest of athletic skill (or maybe just “skill” for certain sports like target shooting or bowling) then anything that detracts from that contest–or makes it a contest of something else–is inherently unethical. I fail to see where a demonstration of one’s acting prowess should ever be considered a valid part of a contest of (oversimplifying, I know) putting a ball through a hoop the most times. The point of the game is to measure your skill (or the collective skill of your team) against another, not just to WIN! This is just good sportsmanship: give your best effort, congratulate the winner if you lose, be gracious to the loser if you win, and try to win by being better at the game rather than by cheating.”
“And teaching good sportsmanship is one of the primary ways that our culture teaches young people the basics of good ethics. Take that away, and you cultivate a culture of grown-ups who know nothing but winning by whatever means can be gotten away with.”
“That is a VERY serious, and long-lasting consequence that continues into real life after the game ends.”
Dwayne raises several issues that the blog will keep coming back to over time, because they are central to the dilemma of deciding what is right. As to his first point, “Everybody does it” is both a rationalization for unethical conduct and an unavoidable component of making cultural decisions obout right and wrong. In the absence of a perfect and infallible moral arbiter—and one of the great advantages of religion is that it supplies one—we have to puzzle out what is right by reason, experience, debate and consensus. “Everybody does it” will not make a wrong act right, but when everybody accepts particular conduct as legitimate and beneficial in the balance, the culture has spoken: the conduct is ethical, or at least powerful there is evidence that it’s ethical. But everyone is accepting the conduct because it has been judged as right after debate and analysis; the rationalization addresses the reverse, when something is treated as right because everyone is doing it, and for no other reason. Traditions and cultural norms that vary from the law exist in every culture, including professions. They are unavoidable, and also necessary, because rules are always incomplete and imperfect.
For example, in law, Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4 says that lawyers must never introduce testimony or evidence that they know isn’t admissible. Yet it is standard practice for trial lawyers to try to get some hearsay evidence admitted, even when the lawyers themselves believe it is inadmissible. They are hoping the judge makes a mistake, and that opposing counsel is asleep at the switch. This is very similar to trying to fool the ref in sports, and the reasoning is similar: once the judge says it’s good evidence, then it’s good evidence, just as once the ref says it’s a foul, it is one. The legal profession does not use 3.4 to punish lawyers who “give it a shot,” because it fears that enforcing the rule too literally would discourage lawyers from trying to get testimony admitted that might in fact be legitimately admissible.
Regarding the apparent inconsistency Dwayne suggests in my posts on violence in football, my response is that I have never argued that promoting head trauma in football is unethical in the context of the game as it is played, but that a game that promotes crippling head trauma is itself unethical. Similarly, nobody would argue that knocking out an opponent in boxing is cheating or unethical. It is boxing itself that may be unethical, because it requires harming human beings, perhaps permanently.
I would respond to Dwayne’s ultimate point this way: team sports involve a great deal more than just athletic performance and physical skill. They involve psychology, tactics and strategy as well. I will use baseball because it’s the sport I know best, and I’ve written about the many forms of deception used in the game through the years, some of which are cheating, some of which are traditional, and some of which are strict rules violations that the game has decided to allow. When an opposing batter hit a ball that looked like it might be a home run in Fenway Park, and left fielder Carl Yastrzemski guessed that it would hit the big green wall in left field instead, Yaz would stand motionless in his position, acting as if the ball was long gone and no longer worth his attentions, to fool the batter into going into a home run trot. Then, when he heard the ball clank off “the Green Monster,” Yaz would whirl around, catch the ball on the rebound and hurl a strike to second base, sometimes turning a certain double into a mere single, and on occasion causing the embarrassed batter to be tagged out. That’s acting! So is the old hidden ball trick, which is very legal (but roundly detested by its victims), in which a wily fielder hides the ball in his glove after having a conference on the mound with his pitcher, who then pretends that he is getting ready to pitch. The baseman walks back to his post, and as soon as the unsuspecting baserunner leaves the base to take his lead, produces the ball and tags him out. Acting! I saw the great pitcher, Juan Marichal, in his first American League game after a long career in the National League. He was old, had been injured, and the players didn’t know much about him. The first baserunner to reach first was a noted base-stealer, and Juan tried two pick-off throws. They were slow and obvious, fooling no one; the cocky baserunner noted Marichal’s technique, obviously indicia of his diminished pitching skills, and walked out to an aggressive lead. Then Marichal effortlessly whirled around in the slickest pick-off move I’ve ever seen, and the shocked runner was dead on arrival. Marichal tipped his hat to him and smiled as the runner walked back to the dugout. His first two awkward throws to first were a charade, designed to lull the runner into carelessness.
And part of the game.
Graphic: Pegasus News