Comment of the Day: “Ethical If We Want It To Be: NBA Flopping and Fooling the Ref”

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.”

I’m back.

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.

Acting!

And part of the game.

___________________________________________________

Graphic: Pegasus News

12 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethical If We Want It To Be: NBA Flopping and Fooling the Ref”

  1. 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.

    The flopping hasn’t been judged as right after debate and analysis. That debate is ongoing, and the main arguement for it being right is that it is “part of the game”.

    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.

    By your logic, Basketball shouldn’t punish floppers because then players would be discouraged from legally falling down? Your analogy fails. Even if it didn’t fail, you’re comparing the basketball behavior to a bad decision. If we can show the Lawyers realize the evidence is inadmissable, they shouldn’t be given a pass. We can actively discourage attempting to circumvent the rules without discouraging the lawyers from zealously arguing their case and introducing valid evidence.

    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!

    That’s a completely different kind of acting. Tricking your opponent is part of athletic competition and part of athletic skill. A changeup looks like a fastball and a basketball players pumpfake before shooting, but both of those are plays of skill. In your example of Yaz, the runner (and coaches) should be following the ball and playing it out, trying to gain an extra base when Yaz misjudges one of the hops. Yaz is not doing anything against the rules, he’s just using his great flyball and monster reading ability to exploit the tendencies of his opponent.

    • Let’s see…your score is WRONG, WRONG, and RIGHT.

      3. You are right that acting to fool other players is different in kind from acting to fool refs and umpires. I didn’t say it wasn’t, and I knew you would go there. My point was that Dwayne’s rationale that acting was wrong in a contest of physical skill was too narrow. I think some acting to fool refs is OK, often because its unavoidable. I don’t have a definite opinion on all instances of the tactic. The fake injury? Blocking the ref’s view?
      2. You say: “By your logic, Basketball shouldn’t punish floppers because then players would be discouraged from legally falling down? Your analogy fails. Even if it didn’t fail, you’re comparing the basketball behavior to a bad decision. If we can show the Lawyers realize the evidence is inadmissable, they shouldn’t be given a pass. We can actively discourage attempting to circumvent the rules without discouraging the lawyers from zealously arguing their case and introducing valid evidence.”

      Where in either post did I say basketball shouldn’t punish floppers? I personally think it should be stopped, but that doesn’t mean that it is unethical YET, as you point out yourself. I was not making the analogy you’re claiming: my point is that professions and cultures do decide not to strictly enforce certain rules, not that the rational for permitting flopping is or should be the same as the logic for permitting lawyers to try to slip hearsay past the judge.

      And they DO try—there’s no question about it. A few, very few, legal ethicists have argued that it should be prohibited, but it is an extremely minority view (though I agree with it in principle.) Essentially it is allowed because it’s always been that way, and sneaking in inadmissible evidence past a judge and one’s opponent is taken as a mark of skilful advocacy, not unethical lawyering.

      1. I never said that flopping had been judged yet. I was making the 100% valid distinction between ethical consensus and “everybody does it.”

      • 3. I read Dwayne’s use of “acting prowess” as being wholly divided from athletic skill. Tricking your opponent in what’s happening or about to happen is part of athletic skill. Other than the unethical hidden ball trick, your examples of acting are deceiving your opponent with skill, so I don’t think they apply.

        Basically, I don’t think you interpretted Dwayne right, but if you did your criticism is spot on.

        2. The backing of flopping was in the analogy as I interpretted it. Now that you’ve clarified your analogy, I find it worse. We’re not talking about an institution possibly deciding not to enforce rules, as flopping isn’t illegal. That missing constraint torpedoes the example. If it was illegal to flop, then we could use your analogy to talk about whether ignoring that regulation is a good thing or a bad thing

        1. You did say that flopping had been judged: “But everyone is accepting the conduct because it has been judged as right after debate and analysis;[…]” That came immediately after a statement explaining that behavior is ethical when everyone has agreed to accept it. It may have been some sloppy writing*, but it was there.

        —-

        * For the record, my writing is never sloppy, as I always type everything.**

        ** I have also never equivocated.

        • 3. I read Dwayne’s use of “acting prowess” as being wholly divided from athletic skill. Tricking your opponent in what’s happening or about to happen is part of athletic skill. Other than the unethical hidden ball trick, your examples of acting are deceiving your opponent with skill, so I don’t think they apply.

          Basically, I don’t think you interpretted Dwayne right, but if you did your criticism is spot on.

          I guess you could be right, though I just re-read his post, and don’t see it. I also don’t think the hidden ball trick is unethical. I LOVE the hidden ball trick. Marty Barrett was great at it.

          2. The backing of flopping was in the analogy as I interpretted it. Now that you’ve clarified your analogy, I find it worse. We’re not talking about an institution possibly deciding not to enforce rules, as flopping isn’t illegal. That missing constraint torpedoes the example. If it was illegal to flop, then we could use your analogy to talk about whether ignoring that regulation is a good thing or a bad thing

          No, the legal profession doesn’t really agree that trying to get inadmissible evidence admitted is not enforcing the rules. It holds that it is an ethical conflict, with zealous representation trumping integrity. Not that I like that argument much, but that’s the argument, and it has prevailed.

          Are you really comfortable with the claim that dishonestly provoking a penalty on another player who doesn’t deserve it is technically legal? My comparison is between something that is technically unethical being treated as ethical, and flopping, which is technically legal but arguably unethical, just as submitting inadmissible testimony is arguably unethical.

          1. You did say that flopping had been judged: “But everyone is accepting the conduct because it has been judged as right after debate and analysis;[…]” That came immediately after a statement explaining that behavior is ethical when everyone has agreed to accept it. It may have been some sloppy writing*, but it was there.

          “The conduct” was meant to mean “any conduct” in the context of “everybody does it,” not flopping. I regret the ambiguity.

          —-

          * For the record, my writing is never sloppy, as I always type everything.**

          ** I have also never equivocated.

          • 3) I hate the hidden ball trick. Due to large gloves, Neither the infielder nor the pitcher has to expose the ball before pitching. As such, the only counter is for all base runners to stand on their base. If that was a desired outcome, it shouldn’t be legal to take a lead. Bah.

            2) I am absolutely comfortable stating that it is true that certain behaviors are legal and unethical. In Basketball, there is no reason not to enforce ethics with rules, so it should be changed

            I see what you say for your comparison, but I don’t think the one situation has any bearing on the other. Also, since their are ethics rules, your comparison is better stated as between something that is against the rules and unethical being unpunished, and flopping, which is not against the rules but arguably unethical. There’s nothing there to grab onto.

            1) Got it. I don’t agree, but we’ve rehashed that philosophical disagreement numerous times with no result. You believe that if something is generally agreed to be ethical, we go with that. I believe that while we generally go with that, that’s convenience, not ethics. I vote for there being absolutes despite what we decide, you stick with what we decide.

            • Among my convictions that there are no absolutes is my conviction that there must therefore be some absolutes. I agree with you. It’s just that the best way of finding out what those are is to keep searching, and make the best collective guesses we can.

  2. First off: Thanks for the CotD, Jack. (My third, IIRC.)

    So I guess I should clarify, since my already-long post could easily have been twice as long or more but for my usual propensity for brevity.

    My intended meaning of “acting prowess” in context was directed at flopping in particular. Expanding on that notion, I hadn’t considered the distinction between fooling the referee and fooling other players, but at this point I’d have to say that I have a hard time seeing where trying to fool the ref can be okay. Flopping is an example of trying to fool the ref.

    As for fooling other players, I’d draw a further distinction between what I’ll call “being unpredictable” (convincing other players that you are about to do something different from what you actually do: okay), and “misrepresenting the facts” (convincing other players that the playing field is in some way different than it actually is: not okay).

    I think your anecdotes about Carl Yastrzemski and Juan Marichal are far more about skill than about deception, BTW. Yastrzemski fakes that he’s going to let it go, then demonstrates his ability to very quickly move into position, catch, and throw. (*I* could never do that. I sure can fall down on a basketball court, though.) Marichal’s demonstration of skill is self-evident, although I would add that his first attempt may have been explicitly done to assess the runner’s ability to react and get back to first base. Both are doing the unexpected, just like basketball player faking to one side or a football “fake field goal” play.

    –Dwayne

    P.S. No discussion at all of my last two paragraphs? The spark that lead to my comment was essentially “What would my brother-in-law think?”, who is a Little League coach, and a damn fine one.

    • Silence conveys consent: your sportsmanship statement couldn’t be more correct. The problem is when sportsmanship clashes with absolute obligations to win, and its a huge and contentious topic. Sportsmanship is far clearer in individual sports, where the sportsman bears the entire consequences of an altruistic action. In a team sport, or where a professional is obligated to serve another’s interest, sportsmanship can constitute a breach of duty to another.

      Yes, law is a good example. Also this…see the end of the post.

      • In the team sport, the team’s duty should be to win ethically. I’d compare the team sport to a business. The duty is to make money, but employees that make money should still be fired if they’re unethical. Why don’t we apply the unethical actions of players (and lack of punishment from th team) to the team itself?

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