Here’s a great case study on the phenomenon of “gentlemanly” unwritten rules in a sport. Several different examples; justified or criticized on different grounds; enforced in different ways; threatened for different reasons. H/t Chris MacDonald
Here’s a great case study on the phenomenon of “gentlemanly” unwritten rules in a sport. Several different examples; justified or criticized on different grounds; enforced in different ways; threatened for different reasons. H/t Chris MacDonald
Was it a goal or not? This question will forever cause a stir between English and German soccer fans. (Probably less of a stir for English fans since England were awarded the disputed goal in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final in Wembley Stadium: watch the disputed goal here, read about it here.) But this is not the only thing matter of debate between English and German soccer. Germans often complain that English football is just about money, finding a big sponsor, and less about sports and a fair competition.
Whenever we are talking about professional spectator sports there are always two overlapping competitions in play, so to speak. The one we are watching take place on the fields (court, ice, etc.) between the teams, and the one that goes on in the marketplace between rival businesses. The German complaint, in a nutshell, is that English football is driven too much by the pressures of the marketplace, and not enough by what the English fan’s themselves love to call “England’s game.”
In order to promote the sport over the marketplace, the German Bundesliga invented the “50+1 rule”. It says that clubs are allowed to compete in the Bundesliga only if they hold a majority of their own voting rights (50% + at least 1 additional vote; read more about the rule here.) By this rule the “on-field” sporting interests of a club should be protected from the “marketplace” economic interests of its investors. This way, financiers and businesses will be able to gain control over clubs and professional football teams. The Germans believe that this is exactly what has gone wrong with English football. For example, Manchester United is owned by the US-American business-family, Glazer. (You can read about the differences between English and German football policies in this BBC article from 2013.)
What does that mean for the sport? Is the competition in England and elsewhere unfairly manipulated by investors? Is it unfair that some clubs have wealthier or more generous investors than others? Does the German rule make it impossible for smaller teams to compete with the historic giants of the Bundesliga like Bayern Munich? Perhaps finding an investor is just part of the game if you really want to be able to compete on the field. Such are the dilemmas and paradoxes when two fundamentally different kinds of competitions – sports and markets – overlap so completely.
A fan-made video highlighting flagrant fouls on Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin has been going viral in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From a New York Times article on the video, which you can watch for yourself below:
Piecing together clips of Lin being whacked in the face, clotheslined, bleeding, tumbling to the floor — all without ever drawing a flagrant foul — Kuei tried to convey that Lin, an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, was the victim of excessive physicality from opponents and insufficient protection from the league and its referees.
With its bruising simplicity, it revived questions about the fairness and consistency of officiating in the N.B.A. and led to conversations about latent racial biases.
Fans of Lin, especially among the Asian community, have interpreted the video as evidence that Lin is being treated unfairly because of his race. I haven’t watched enough of the NBA to know whether this is true, though there does seem to be a pattern of referees not calling fouls on Lin in cases that are pretty clear-cut. Moreover, in the Times article, ESPN reporter Tom Haberstroh notes that “the 813 fouls that Lin had drawn over the past three seasons represented the highest total for a guard — and the third highest number for any position — without a flagrant foul, a particularly hard foul that can lead to an ejection.”
The video raises some interesting questions about buck-passing in unfair games. Suppose his race is a factor, due to referees’ explicit or implicit racial bias. Then, suppose opponents know referees won’t call fouls on them if they overstep their boundaries with Lin, so they take advantage of this fact to play more aggressively with him. This form of gaming the system would seem unsportsmanlike in most contexts, but part of professional sports (if not other leagues) is that playing to win is the dominant, and often overriding, motive for players. Playing to win often requires playing the refs. This is as much a part of the game as any official rule-bound move. For example, the practice of diving in professional soccer is the new normal.
In this context, I’m not sure if players would be wrong to shrug their shoulders and say “Blame the system” while clocking Lin in the face. But compare this to the question of individual responsibility for collectively caused racial problems in everyday life. Surely there’d be something seriously wrong there about passing the buck to “the system” when one could just refuse to play by the rules of an unfair game.
I have blogged elsewhere about why I think a contest that does not involve defensive tactics barely qualifies as a sport. Or at any rate, in the aesthetics or connoisseurship of sport, the highest ranking sports are those for which good defensive play and strategy is as satisfying for the spectator as good offense. That’s why most events in the Winter Olympics — ice hockey and curling aside — will never rank highly in my pantheon of great sports. But I digress before I have even started.
When using sports in the service of understanding the ethics of competition in other adversarial realms (law, business, politics, war, etc) it is worth paying attention to the extent to which “defense” is a permissible, or even admirable, feature of the competition. Is it acceptable to try to win by thwarting an opponent’s offensive tactics (the way one does in hockey, American football, or chess)? Or is the competition the kind in which the only permissible winning strategies involve making yourself perform as well as possible (as a sprinter runs as fast as she can, or a pianist competing for a prize plays his heart out, or a law-school applicant presents a dossier with her highest possible grades and test scores, etc)?
Competitions that do not involve “defense” tend to present fewer challenges for adversarial ethics. Competitors can still cheat — by puffing or fabricating their alleged achievements, plagiarizing, bribing judges, using banned performance-enhancing substances (say, cocaine for LSATs). And if such cheating is widespread, or believed by the competitors to be widespread, it is especially problematic in an adversarial realm, because it strongly incentivizes all competitors to cheat. But when there are no opportunities for defensive tactics (a law school applicant has no way to make her rivals look worse — the way a politician, lawyer, or salesperson can), there is less directly adversarial behavior to have to regulate or monitor.
Of course, when competitors find a way to undermine their rivals in a competition that does not permit defensive tactics, that can lead to grave, and often super sleazy, ethical violations. In his seminal paper on this topic, Joe Heath reminds us of the time one figure skater, Tonya Harding, tried to improve her chances for an Olympic medal by having her ex-husband and a hired goon kneecap her main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, at the US Figure Skating Championships in 1994. There is no playing defense in figure skating. And certainly not that kind. (Harding plead guilty to a felony. The USFSA — figure it out — booted her out for life, citing her “clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior.”)
Teachers who grade on a curve hear similar blood-curdling tales of classmates who hide books in the library, mess up their classmates’ lab experiments, and refuse to cooperate in study groups, so that they can climb over their fellow students and claw their way higher in the curve.
Anyway, all of this is a rather pretentious set-up for a totally low-brow, and misleadingly advertised bit of clickbait from the Onion’s Clickhole entitled
Put it this way: nobody’s going to jail for any of these revelations. Nobody is going to have to make a living in their post-athletic careers through professional wrestling, celebrity boxing, or selling sex tapes (Harding’s fate). But the concept of “sabotaging a competitor” — especially in adversarial realms that don’t allow any defensive tactics — remains a critical and controversial one in adversarial ethics.
A few weeks ago, Kansas University men’s basketball player Brannen Greene dunked the basketball just before time expired in a contest against rival Kansas State.
Before the dunk, the KU Jayhawks were winning by 16.
(You can watch it here.)
KU head coach Bill Self called it “totally classless” and “probably the biggest dick move I’ve ever had a player do during a game.”
Other commentators note that “anyone who plays this game understands that you don’t do that when you’re up 16.”
Clearly, Greene violated a norm of basketball etiquette. There is no rule that says you cannot dunk at the end of games, so Greene was technically within the rules. But why does that norm—don’t dunk at the end of a blowout if you’re winning—exist?
The most likely explanation is probably that offered by Myron Medcalf—that when your team is up by 16 with a few seconds left, “the game is over.” Though not technically true, since the game is not officially over until the time is completely expired, underlying what Medcalf points out is that there are situations (like when your team is up 16 with a few seconds to play) where an adversarial athletic contest is constructively over because the final outcome of the contest cannot reasonably be doubted.
Greene knew, or should have known, that the game was constructively over before he dunked the ball.
When the game is over, we expect the competitors to realize that what constitutes proper (or perhaps “ethical”) behavior is no longer subject to the norms of competition. Before and after the contest, socially appropriate behavior is governed by ordinary conceptions of virtue. Ordinarily, we expect the persons who play basketball to have respect for others in a non-adversarial way, which may include being sensitive to the feelings of the players on the other team—or at least not purposely inflicting emotional distress upon a former adversary.
Simply put, we have different expectations for the actions of basketball players playing basketball compared to persons who play basketball. As Joseph Heath has (in my view, persuasively) argued, “the competitive environment licenses a greater range of ‘self-interested’ behavior.” However, choosing to remain in an adversarial role—remaining a basketball player rather than resuming life as a person who plays basketball—when the contest is constructively over is to abuse that limited license. At bottom, we regard as at least unsportsmanlike the choice to act as an adversary even when you are no longer engaged in competition.
And that choice is a dick move.
According to a huge recent survey conducted by Gallup, student athletes beat their non-athletic former classmates at the game of life-after-college.
Former student-athletes who received a bachelor’s degree between 1970 and 2014 are leading other college graduates in four out of five elements of well-being that Gallup studied. These former student athletes are more likely than non-student-athletes to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical well-being. In the element of financial well-being, former student-athletes are just as likely to be thriving as their non-student-athlete peers
For those interested in methodology — and who isn’t? — the survey and the correlations it finds, are pretty credible, as far as these things go:
Results for the Gallup-Purdue Index, which the study used for comparison purposes, are based on Web surveys conducted Feb. 4-March 7, 2014, with a random sample of 29,560 respondents with a bachelor’s degree, aged 18 and older, with Internet access, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. These respondents included 1,670 former NCAA student-athletes. The Gallup-Purdue Index sample was compiled from two sources: the Gallup Panel and the Gallup Daily tracking survey.
Of course, these results are merely correlations. We cannot infer from correlations alone the direction of causation: did participation in athletics improve students’ life skills and well-being, or do the kinds of students who go in for athletics already have those skills to a greater degree than other students? Or is it, as NCAA researcher Tom Paskus argues, a little bit of both?
This kind of data may be relevant nonetheless for deeper philosophical debates about the nature of the good life. Some find competitiveness, and the need or desire to express oneself in zero-sum competitions where your winning means someone else loses, as an inherently less desirable character trait, disposition, or way of living. At the very least, this survey suggests that a very intense period of competition in sports during a person’s formative years (a college athlete will have had sports as their major non-scholastic activity from their pre-teen years until their early 20s) does not make them a worse, less happy, or less successful person afterward.
Check out the more detailed results by asking for the report in pdf form from Gallup at the link above. Or check out the summary in this article Money magazine.
On another blog, at the end of the summer, I spent far too much space trying to figure out what we should think about Lance Armstrong after his quasi-implicit-wink’n’nudge-pseudo-confession. That statement from Armstrong came as he announced his decision to, in essence, plead “no contest” to the US Anti-Doping Agency’s public hearing of his case. My colleague Chris MacDonald follows up on the case on his Business Ethics Blog — and does so much more concisely, and with special attention to the “adversarial ethics” angle.
On Wednesday (October 10), the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.
The comparison with Madoff is to be expected. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.
But the comparison is also off target in important ways….
When I was in middle school, I lived next door to two boys who were constantly creating ad hoc competitions between themselves. Of course, their parents thought this was cute when they had bike races down the street or tried to build the best snowman. Except apparently those little battles weren’t extreme enough. To up the ante, they decided to recreate Fear Factor in their back yard, and the next thing anyone knew, both boys were gulping down live caterpillars in an effort to outdo each other. What most people would consider unthinkable suddenly became necessary and desirable in the name of competition. By making rules for themselves and calling it a game, absurd actions became permissible and exciting. (If anyone is wondering by the way, the record was thirteen live caterpillars in a row).
This caterpillar-eating frenzy is what immediately comes to mind when I first heard about Ultimate Tazer Ball. No, that was not a typo. Ultimate Tazer Ball. The players carry tasers, self-defense weapons, and zap each other as they fight over a 24” ball.
According to Discovery.com:
The sport was is the brainchild of Leif Kellenberger, Eric Prum and Erik Wunsch, who work in the world of professional paintball. They were brainstorming ideas for new extreme sports and thought of adding some real energy with the use of tasers. As the concept developed, they dropped real tasers, which can cause cardiac arrest and death, for stun guns that cause pain but are not dangerous. “It’s relatively safe as any contact sport would be” Prum says.
Then they turned to creating a sport that would be more than a gimmick. It includes elements of rugby, soccer and hockey. Teams of four vie to carry or throw a 24″ ball into the opponents’ goal. Tackling is allowed; punching isn’t. Defenders can only taze a player in possession of the ball who is within a designated space around the goals. (Tazing of the shoulders and groin is always illegal.)
Well, as long as shoulder and groin tasing are illegal…
With the creation of Ultimate Taser Ball, Kellenberger, Prum, and Wunsch have transformed assault into a game. While the tasers used aren’t police-grade one and are set to a lower amperage than would be required to induce cardiac arrest, the players are fairly vocal about the pain. Of course, in any sport or game, there is a risk of injury that players consent to undertaking. How much risk, however, can or should someone consent to accepting in the name of competition? Are games, no matter how dangerous, acceptable as long as the players agree to abide by the rules and accept the relevant risks? In war, soldiers consent to risk of being killed, but should a civilian be allowed to consent to the same for the purpose of playing a game?
(You can watch videos of Ultimate Tazer Ball on YouTube. One example can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M5_Jlio08k ).
This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on academic redshirting, the practice of holding kindergarten age-eligible children back in order to allow extra time for socioemotional, intellectual, or physical growth. The segment also included an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, who articulated a similar phenomenon in the case of older hockey players in his book Outliers (Gladwell calls the phenomenon “accumulative advantage”). In the many adversarial institutions these parents want their children to excel in (little league sports, elementary academics, and the cafeteria social hierarchy), there is a significant advantage for students who are older. The 60 Minutes segment showed a lot of eager mothers who adamantly claim they were not breaking any rules, but just doing what was best for their children.
Within current confines, those parents are not breaking any official rules. But, there is a sense that eager parents are gaming the system. This sort of gamesmanship also signifies a paradigm shift in extracurricular activities. Little league sports are no longer just for fun—they are institutions that cultivate talent and personalities prone to success. Most interestingly, it also appears that the process of raising children has shifted from a once inherently rewarding practice to an adversarial institution where the benefits of winning are permanent.
The scandal currently engulfing Football’s New Orleans Saints illustrates some important points about adversarial ethics, and in particular holds lessons for business ethics.
The scandal concerns the fact that over a number of years, members of the team (and at least one assistant coach) maintained a “bounty pool,” which paid out money to players who succeeded in inflicting serious injuries on players from opposing teams. Football is a tough sport; so what’s the problem?
The problem, of course, is that even tough games need rules, including rules designed to keep the game worth playing.
Drawing on Joseph Heath’s work on adversarial ethics in business, I argue that the limits on adversarial behaviour in business can be defined as those limits that keep the ‘game’ beneficial from a social point of view. Free, competitive markets are enormously beneficial, and behaviour that threatens the benefits of markets robs them of their moral justification.
For the fuller version of my argument, see my blog posting for Canadian Business magazine: New Orleans Saints football scandal highlights limits of competition.
Posted by Wayne
David Brooks, the New York Times‘s supposedly conservative columnist, regularly looks to sports as a way of making sense of our political and popular culture. This week he used the Jeremy Lin phenomenon as a pretext for some reflections on the gap between the ethos of sport and the ethos of religion (because Lin, like Tim Tebow, is a devote Christian). For Brooks the gap is a chasm that can probably not be fully or safely bridged.
The discussion is relevant for this blog because Brooks claims that the “sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” Our ethical thinking in certain adversarial contexts or institutions will — and ought to — differ from the way we think ethically in other parts of our lives, even if we are deeply religious.
The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.
The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.
He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.
His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.
This is what we go to sporting events to see
Brooks identifies this ethos with “modern sports,” but take away the inclusion of female athletes and ESPN, and the description of the virtues, goals, motivations, and glories of the athletic hero (or warrior) would not have looked out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome.
Of course, it is easy to see why these qualities are troubling for adherents of many traditional and religious moral traditions in the West and East. A “moral hero” in these traditions would not be described in any of the ways I have emphasized in bold font in long quotation from Brooks. (Although he or she would, presumably, be just as courageous as the sporting hero, even if this was not his or her primary virtue.) Brooks himself goes on to paint a similar broad-brush portrait of the religious life, and explains why he thinks the sporting and religious characters can never be fully reconciled. Following the Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks believes
that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.
Note that Brooks is focusing almost entirely on one component of a moral or ethical perspective — the part that concerns virtues or characters traits. But we also care about what rights, freedoms, and duties people have; and with the how to design just institutions (which will, in turn, assign various rights and duties to individuals occupying particular roles). So we might also ask whether the rights and duties of “players” in deliberately adversarial institutions will necessarily conflict with the dictates of a religious follower’s conscience.
Here too the answer seems to be Yes, but for very different reasons than the ones Brooks has highlighted. The best summary I know of for this case comes from Joseph Heath‘s important paper in the Journal of Business Ethics, “An Adversarial Ethics for Business: or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder” (2006). Here is how Heath sums up an argument explained over several pages:
Much of everyday morality has as its goal the prevention of a collective action problem. It is possible to secure certain advantages by lying, but if everyone did it, no one would believe what anyone said, and everyone would be worse off… This is why the… Golden Rule capture[s] much of the spirit of everyday morality. But because the central mechanism in a competition is an unresolved collective action problem, there are bound to be numerous prima facie conflicts between competitive imperatives and those imposed by everyday morality. This is reflected in the fact that a naïve or mechanical application of the Golden Rule in a competitive situation is likely to generate the wrong results. Before kicking the winning field goal, we do not want football players to be thinking, “How would I like it if the other team did that to me?” Similarly, before lowering prices, we do not want the gas-station owners to be thinking “How would I like it if the station across the street did that to me?”
The bolded phrase is the key to understanding the reason we actively encourage a different kind of ethical thinking or ethos in what we are calling deliberately adversarial institutions (like sports, markets, and democratic politics). These institutions regulate a competition in order to create benefits for “non players” outside the competition — what economists call “positive externalities.” So in all of these institutions we deliberately prevent the competitors from cooperating in ways that will be to their advantage but not to the advantage of outsiders.
Traditional morality is about cooperating and mutual assistance: adversarial ethics is about how to generate social benefits by preventing certain forms of cooperation; but also about how to make sure that the players use only appropriate tactics in their attempt to succeed. Heath’s article is as good a place as any to see the outlines of, and tensions between, these two features of adversarial ethics. But you should also find these tensions in almost every case study we highlight on this blog.
Incidentally, Heath’s article could be of some service to pious, but ferociously competitive athletes like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin. They can play hard to beat their opponents, but show self-restraint in doing so by embracing the “spirit of the rules” and by treating their opponents with respect. And of course, they can and should be as cooperative and humble as possible with their own team mates. Within the team itself, there is still no “I” in Golden Rule.
In this blog we have spent a lot of our time with case studies drawn from the “Big 4” large-scale deliberately adversarial institutions: markets, electoral politics, sports, and the justice system. But some of the most illuminating analyses are sparked by adversarial activities in other realms, or in peculiar corners of the Big 4.
Based on an initial brainstorming session with this year’s team of bloggers, here are a few of the realms of structured competition you can expect to see future posts on:
Expect this list to grow over the coming weeks. If you have suggestions for other adversarial realms we should be working on, please let us know in the comments section, below.
In the 8th grade I finished second in my
country county in wrestling (in the 99-pounds-and-under category). In the semi-final match, the referee neglected to invite me and my adversary to shake hands before the match began. He just signaled for the match to start. But since a handshake was the usual protocol, the other kid reached out to shake my hand. I grabbed his hand, performed a standard wrestling move (I don’t remember much of the jargon now), and took him to the ground. It was perfectly legal, and I was a total 99-pound asshole.
Recently, with much more than bragging rights on the line, WBC World Welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather did essentially the same thing. Here’s an account from Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor and boxing trainer, writing in the Huffington Post:
Boxing took a pounding on Friday night. The too-much-hyped championship contest between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz went down in pugilistic infamy at the end of the fourth round.
With only seconds remaining in that stanza, Ortiz had “Money” Mayweather on the ropes and intentionally head-butted him. Referee Joe Cortez deducted a point. The embarrassed Ortiz literally kissed and hugged Mayweather to express his regret. Though Ortiz claims he did not hear him, Cortez instructed the boxers to resume the action and once again “Vicious Victor” went to touch gloves. Mayweather leaned forward as if to do the same and then turned over a left hook. In that instant, a shocked Ortiz made the mistake of turning his head to the ref in protest and just as he did, Mayweather hammered him with a booming right to the chin, turning the black lights on the young fighter and ending the contest.
Most of the crowd at the MGM booed in protest at the advantage that Mayweather had taken. Debates raged all over Las Vegas and I suppose throughout the nation. No one, including Ortiz, questioned the legality of Mayweather’s stealthy move. The new champion defended himself saying that he had been fouled and that fighters are endlessly told “protect yourself at all times.”
And so the standard question: What are the best examples of this kind of gamesmanship in other deliberately adversarial contexts like business, politics, law, war, etc.?
UPDATE: there was, not surprisingly, a LOT of chatter about this move by Mayweather. Consider, for example, this piece by a blogging pastor in the Huff Post entitled “Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and the Death of the Gentleman, Sportsmanship, and Class in American Society.”
Deliberately adversarial institutions are highly regulated, and closely monitored. But for a variety of reasons there can’t be an effective or enforceable rule against every kind of behavior that seems “just wrong.” So there are generally a lot of “unwritten rules” and various written and unwritten “codes of honor” that participants expect each other to adhere to.
Last week the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, Tony Romo, took the unusual step of accusing his opponents of violating one of those rules. Here’s a quote from the NFL.com story, “Romo accuses Redskins of cheating on snap count“:
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo blamed the Washington Redskins for the problems he had fielding snaps from center Phil Costa in Monday night’s sloppy 18-16 Dallas victory. Costa snapped the ball a number of times before the quarterback was ready.
Romo accused Redskins defenders of yelling out their own snap count, attempting to fool Costa, according to ProFootballTalk.com.
“We’ve got to get the snap thing worked out,” Romo told reporters after the game. “We’ll get that worked out. We’ll tell the league and see if that’s something that can be fixed because you’re not supposed to be able to do that. So we’ll see. But we can’t have that happen. We shouldn’t have been in that situation.”
Now, as it turns out, the NFL does have a rule against this behavior. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the NFL, more than any other major sport, is prepared to try to solve any problem with a new rule and close monitoring. But this is clearly one of those rules that’s difficult to enforce. It relies on players recognizing that this is “not cricket,” as they say.
With any post on “unwritten rules in sport/institution X” we will finish with the same general questions: What examples are there of unwritten rules in other deliberately adversarial institutions that are similar to defensive players in football mimicking the offensive quarterback’s snap count? And why, exactly, is this kind of tactic unseemly?
(Incidentally, there are plenty of examples in nature of predators mimicking signals its prey species uses in order to lure them to their demise. So much for natural justice.)
Frank Knight, one of the founders of the so-called “Chicago School” of economics, took seriously the idea that markets are a kind of game. But he wondered whether something that is both a game and a system designed to satisfy wants could be fair.
“In a system which is at the same time a want-satisfying mechanism and a competitive game we seem to find three ethical ideals in conflict. The first is the principle already mentioned, of distribution according to effort. The second is the principal of ‘tools to those who can use them.’ This is a necessary condition of efficiency, but involves giving the best player the best hand, the fastest runner the benefit of the handicap, and thus flagrantly violates the third ideal, which is to maintain the conditions of fairness in the game.” (“The Ethics of Competition,” p. 54 )
There is no reason to think the system or game can meet all of our ethical expectations. If winning is a priority for the team, can we expect them to play fair? Does being fair to the team and its fans (e.g. by giving them the best chance to win) require being unfair to certain players (e.g. not letting them play because they aren’t as good)? And are these notions of fairness in games appropriate in settings dealing with people’s livelihoods? Is it right for firms to give some workers benefits that others don’t get? Should firms be able to horde secrets that might make all firms more efficient if they were shared?
So what is fair and what is foul in sports or business? Knight seems to be suggesting that it is hard to tell because we have at least three “ethical ideals” for justice and they each give us different answers to this question.
This blog got plenty of free publicity last Friday when I (Wayne Norman) did a turn on Duke University’s weekly “Office Hours” live tweet-in show. For better or for worse, the conversation should be permanently accessible here:
Some of the topics of conversation were plucked from my other blog, This Sporting Life, including one on Why the NCAA Tournament is the American Idol of Sports, and What’s Wrong with the Wonderlic Test.
Bethany’s post here about what we learn about political ethics from primary elections also got a quote and a shout-out during the interview, and it can be found here. Stay tuned for some of her follow-up thoughts on that topic.
[Note: this is the inaugural post by Brandon H.]
Is politics a sport? Some things such as the rules in sports and the referees who enforce them seem accurately analogous to election laws and the election boards and courts that enforce them. Other more controversial comparisons have been suggested, none more interesting than the comparison between spectators and voters.
The simplest argument against this comparison is that spectators in sports may influence the outcome of the game but they do not directly determine it. To work around this objection, let’s see if there are similarities between (a) voters and speculators in the 2011 NBA slam dunk contest — an example of a sporting event where spectators do have more of a say in the outcome — and (b) the voters in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections.
The 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, which took place in Los Angeles, was highly anticipated for one major reason, the participation of the exciting and high-flying rookie phenomenon Blake Griffin. Blake plays for the local Los Angeles Clippers and opened a nationwide competition that aimed at giving him new dunks that he could use on national TV. Day of the competition Blake was able to electrify the fans and won the competition in convincing fashion. Even those who supported Blake’s victory question whether he was the best actual dunker in the competition. ESPN columnist John Hollinger says “in truth, McGee should have been facing DeMar DeRozan in the final instead of Griffin, but the hometown Los Angeles crowd swayed the judges heavily in Griffin’s favor.” He goes on to say the excitement in the arena every time Griffin dunked was electric and though “it’s not necessarily fair… it’s the reason he won.” In other words he may not have been the best dunker that night, but he knew how to work the crowd and do things they would love, and it was this quality that delivered the trophy.
How does this compare to political campaigns and voters? In recent history there has been a growing trend in campaigns to engage in negative advertising. Often these ads have no information about the candidate’s platform and amount to little more than personal attacks. According to the study by Amherst 54% of ads in 2010 were pure negative advertising. The truth is, whether voters want to believe it or not they are being treated much like the spectators in the Slam Dunk contest. Politicians are trying to distract the voters from the true issues and play to their emotions in order to win. Just like Blake Griffin.
Something to think about next time you hear a political consultant or pundit referring to some candidate’s chance of winning as a “slam dunk.”
FOR SHAME! This is a whole new level of cheating. Not only has Chile’s Bryan Carrasco taken a ridiculous flop to the turf, but he’s also forced his opponent’s hand up into his face in a pathetic and desperate attempt to win a free kick in his own half. A part of me wants to applaud him for originality, but NO! Just no.
Bryan Carrasco, if you are the future of football then god help us all…
One big open question for those thinking about ethics in deliberately adversarial institutions concerns how literally or directly we can transplant the vocabulary of sports to other domains. Are markets, for example, just games, or just like games, or only metaphorically and very imperfectly like games?
For Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this question doesn’t seem very open at all. He seems to take it as obvious that not only markets, but life in society in general, is very similar in structure to a game.
The day-to-day activities are like the actions of the participants in a game when they are playing it; the framework, like the rules of the game they play. And just as a good game requires acceptance by the players both of the rules and of the umpire to interpret and enforce them, so a good society requires that its members agree on general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules. As in games, so also in society, most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly. At most, we consider explicitly only minor modifications in them, though the cumulative effect of a series of minor modifications may be a drastic alteration in the character of the game or of the society. In both games and society also, no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions; unless that is, there is a broad underlying social census. But we cannot rely on custom or on census alone to interpret and enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules, and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p. 25; emphasis added)
So for Friedman we willingly, and usually unthinkingly, accept many of these “rules of the game” although we may not know their origins. And if we don’t, there is always an “umpire” there to enforce them anyway!
But his thorough-going acceptance of the direct parallel between good games and good societies raises more questions than it answers. Even if markets can be quite game-like, what does it mean for life in general to be compared to a game? Are we talking about the same kind of “goodness” when we think about a “good game” and a “good society”? Does a “good” society really require acceptance of rules by all of the citizens?
And what if you don’t want to “play” any more? Is it even possible to pick up your bat and ball and go home?
This is the inaugural post by Leonard Ng’eno and Michael McCreary.
Hours before this year’s basketball showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium between consummate rivals Duke and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the chancellor of UNC—Holden Thorp—took an early swing at the Blue Devils by tweeting, “Our students are talking about the future and asking smart questions instead of wasting time sitting in a tent.”
The Krzyzewskiville tradition involving hundreds of Duke undergraduates camping out for weeks in advance to get their single-square-foot claim on courtside real estate for one of the most highly anticipated events in all of sports has become iconic of both the institution and fandom at large. Duke fans, or Cameron Crazies, are known for their intensity and are proud to serve as the “Sixth Man” on Duke’s squad, providing an added advantage for the home team which is soundly reflected in the record books. As Duke undergraduates, we were obviously offended by Thorp’s cheap shot at our tradition, our team, and our friends, but after the initial sting began to fade we started to wonder: Was Thorp right? Is spending a month in a tent in order to see a premier basketball game a waste of time?
We’ll let K-Ville residents speak for themselves as to whether or not their month outdoors was worth their while this year; the specific questions we wish to address are these: What is the function of K-Ville? What are its shortcomings? And is there a preferable alternative?
The necessitation of K-Ville comes from the foundational economic principles of supply and demand, where supply represents the limited number of seats available and demand represents the number of undergraduate students vying for those seats. This excess demand creates the need for some filtration process to achieve equilibrium. In effect, tenting at K-Ville serves as a kind of “price adjustment” mechanism, increasing the cost (not monetary, but physical) of attendance and as a consequence lowering the demand.
K-Ville, and lining up in general, functions from a deliberately adversarial point of view where many students are competing against one another for a limited number of seats. The principal shortcoming of K-Ville is that very few students—including the ones who participate—enjoy sleeping out in the cold while concurrently paying for a nice, heated room: grades suffer, relationships are strained, and comfort is sacrificed. Yet, it is K-Ville residents themselves who dictate their own fate. Living in a tent is not, strictly speaking, a requirement of attending the game. Admittance relies on a “first-come first-served” policy, and K-Ville residents are merely admitted because they are the first in line.
In this way, we can see how lining up poses a serious collective action problem; one which, according to Professor Joseph Heath, “can easily degenerate into a race to the bottom, in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.” While lining up early may be in one’s own self-interest in order to guarantee a spot, the inherently competitive move prompts others to line up earlier as well and can eventuate into months of waiting for hundreds of students. On the other hand, if the amalgam of attendees turned up just an hour before the game, the result would be the same as if they had lined up in the same order months ago.
The primary problem in dodging this race to the bottom, however, is that there is no way to know who would commit to lining up first without going through the process genuinely (i.e. with every intent to sleep there for the entire duration). It could be conceived that one year K-Ville residents decided to form a pact, after completely intending to stay there the whole time, that said they would each get in line in their set order an hour before the game and avoid camping out. However, problems with this solution would be that there would be no way to prevent others from lining up during that time or to ensure that signatories of the pact would not break their oath. Furthermore, such an agreement would, to some extent, undermine the legitimacy of the next year’s line, as some might line up with an expectation to make another pact while some might not line up at all, thinking that they could just outwit the people who make the pact this time around. In essence, there doesn’t seem to be any way to artificially generate and ensure the results of the natural queuing process.
To tackle this problem, we need to reduce the demand for seats by setting up a fair competition that does not lead to a race to the bottom. In arriving at our proposed solution, we took as a premise that a fair competition is one that favors those who want to go to the game the most (i.e. those who are willing to pay the highest price). This premise is not only founded upon common marketplace ideas, but also seems to be the source of legitimacy for the existing queuing system. Thus our method was to find some competitive system that would allow the most devoted students to demonstrate their fanaticism by paying a more productive and fun cost than standing in a line. By definition, costs are rarely productive or fun (you aren’t going to reduce demand by giving people free candy), and so it took some thinking to come up with something, but in the end we were pleased with our solution.
We propose setting up a competition based on attendance of other Duke Athletics events. Those who have attended the most Duke games, of any sport, would get priority for the seating to men’s basketball games, including the marquee matchup with UNC. The university already has a system in place that rewards students for attending sporting events, called The Inferno. We suggest that The Inferno be expanded to not only give points to students for attending games, but also to reward students with game seats when demand is expected to exceed supply. Thus by basing admittance to the Duke-UNC game on a student’s attendance at other Duke games, we avoid the race to the bottom result that forces students to camp out for longer and longer periods each season in order to attend one game.
 Thorp has since taken down the tweet and apologized.
Should women lacrosse players be required to wear helmets? Should people be allowed to text and drive?
We learn a lot about the dynamics of regulation in deliberately adversarial institutions by looking at the social-science laboratories known as sports. The guardians of heavily regulated competitions in sports and life are presented with an irresistible solution whenever systematic “issues” arise within their contests: tweak the rules.
The guardians of a sport or, say, an industry, get to “play god” with it. But as any fan of science fiction knows all-too-well, those playing god, or accused of playing god, tend to lack god’s omniscience. They have a hard time foreseeing the dynamic consequences of their rule-tweaking. This is especially true when putative solutions involve simple technological fixes. Game-players excel by using strategic rationality, so rule-changes will change behavior, but not always in the direction the regulators intend.
Across the sporting world, the past year has been the Year of the Concussion. The Onion recently satirized the trend with its article on “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury.”
The injury, which occurred only minutes before the Kitty Halftime Show, followed a routine midfield burst of play. Slow-motion footage from the sideline and water-dish cameras show Alvin romping flat out down the sidelines before taking a risky crossing route to come at the football from an angle, at which point two larger puppies, Amy, a golden retriever, and Big Red, a 13-week-old shepherd mix, laid a massive hit on Alvin, who responded with a shrill yelp that was suddenly and ominously cut off.
But if competitors can use strategic rationality, so can regulators. A fascinating case study is going on right now in NCAA women’s lacrosse. Unlike their male counterparts (who play a vicious, gladiatorial game), the women play with speed, finesse, and without helmets. And sure enough, they get concussions. A lot of concussions.
Simple solution: make them wear helmets. Or not. As the New York Times reports in a provocative article entitled A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse, many inside the sport believe that introducing helmets would simply lead to more violent or reckless play — and thus to more head injuries, not fewer.
“It’s hard to absolutely prove, but what we’ve seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. “They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn’t without the protection. And they aren’t as protected as they might think.”
Of course, this does not show that every regulatory impulse is misguided. Automobile makers resisted installing seat belts for years, and did not work on designing more effective seat belts until relatively late in the game. Eventually, they were forced by regulators in the 1960s and 70s to make seat belts mandatory. But even then many dissenters continued to argue that belts would cause more harm than good: that it would be better to be “thrown clear” of the crash, than trapped inside it. (Yes, thrown clear at, say, 60 mph…into on-coming traffic.) Studies would eventually prove the effectiveness of good seat belts, and by the 1980s their use was becoming mandatory in most jurisdictions. It is doubtful that seat belts led to drivers becoming more reckless because they now felt safer and less prone to injury — though that has surely happened in hockey and American football.
Still, consequences of regulating are often unforeseen and perverse. Not least when the “players” do not observe the spirit of the new rules. There is clear evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than illegal levels of alcohol in the driver’s blood. So many jurisdictions have banned texting while driving. Sensible? Sure. Has it reduced accidents? No: in an effort to escape detection, people are now texting in their laps rather than up over the wheel (where they can hope to see traffic in their peripheral vision), and texting-related accidents are on the rise.
The headline above was from The Onion last week. Like most articles in the satirical newspaper and website that calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” the headline contains as much punch as the article that follows.
If you found it mildly funny (as, presumably, the 300 or so people who tweeted it directly from the site did), why? What is the underlying “truth” that the joke is riffing off?
Could it be that it’s playing on our instinctive, but usually inarticulate, understanding of the difference between ethics in “everyday” contexts, on the one hand, and ethics in “competitive” contexts, on the other?
In everyday contexts we teach children how to use “indoor voices” so they will not bother or annoy other people they are sharing space with. Like much of everyday ethics, it is designed to facilitate cooperation and solve collective-action problems (or in this case, collectively-sharing-space problems). You show respect for others, and make things go better for them, by piping down in their proximity.
But the last thing we want in a sports arena is for everyone to be using their indoor voices and sitting on their hands. Indeed, as discussed by student bloggers on this very blog recently (here and here), rowdy home-side spectators are part of the attraction and entertainment-value of sports for everyone. Even when that crowd noise is deliberately trying to help your team, and distract or demoralize the visitors, we all think that is perfectly acceptable from an ethical point of view. (Which is not to deny that there are limits to what kind of fan behavior is acceptable, as the previous posts emphasized.)
The great thing about satire is that it captures all of that in a headline or a caption. It takes a philosopher to spend 300 words sucking all the fun out of it.
I can’t resist writing a quick follow-up to the “How Crazie is too Crazy?” piece from earlier this week. If you follow college sports will know that the previous post came shortly before the storied Duke-UNC rivalry game. The game did not disappoint (especially for the Duke fans), as the Blue Devils made an historic comeback from a 14-point deficit at halftime to win by a final score of 79-73. Given the nature of the last post on “fan ethics” during sporting events, I think this game is a great case study of what should and shouldn’t be acceptable behavior for sporting fans.
Throughout Duke’s second-half surge, ESPN’s commentators’ voices could barely be heard over the broadcast as the Cameron Crazies filled the stadium with cheers. At one point, Dick Vitale called Cameron “electric” and after the game Coach K and Duke players all gave credit to the Crazies for motivating them. It was the first time Duke had overcome a deficit of 14 points to win since 1959. In rivalries like this, the crowd can play an important role. And surely that is what makes college sports so attractive to spectators. But should we allow more “extreme” measures from fans (obscene chants, gestures, etc) to be permitted in these cases? Does the fan’s passion for their team and game allow them to chant with a free conscience “Go to Hell Carolina, Go to Hell!” ad infinitum? (Ed. note for Carolina fans: that means “again and again.”) Interestingly, at Duke this is not only an acceptable chant, but is also frequently worn on t-shirts and so commonplace it’s simply abbreviated as “GTHC.”
To avoid rehashing the last post, I’ve decided to make three lists based on the latest game against UNC. Most of the things on the list can apply to any home game, but I’m using this particularly heated rivalry as a case study of sorts.
The “innocuous cheering” list which nearly any sports fan would condone as 100% within the realm of sportsmanship; the “borderline cheering,” made up of the gray area between being a good fan and violating an ethical boundary; and the “dubious cheering,” or just plain “jeering,” list, made up of actions nearly everyone (arguably even those of us performing the chats) know aren’t quite right. Obviously, this is only a personal opinion; and if you disagree with where I’ve put what, please feel free to comment. It’s up for debate!
Overall, however, I would say that more than anything the Crazies cheer for Duke rather than directing nasty things against UNC or their opponent. Sure, they want to get under the skin of the team they’re playing, but I would argue that the nature of the adversarial institution of sports allows for most of the Crazies type of behavior. Although, I must admit I am a bit biased as Cameron Crazy myself.
Judge for yourself based on this clip, taken from inside the student section: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta09JvSoIsU
[Ed. note: here is the first of (we hope many, many) posts this spring by our Duke University student bloggers.]
If you were wondering how adversarial ethics is different from our “normal” conception of ethics, I think this passage from Joseph Heath’s paper “An Adversarial Ethics for Business” (published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2006) is a good place to start.
“In a non-adversarial context, the fact that one person acts unethically does not in itself create any additional pressure on others to do so. For example, if one surgeon performs some unnecessary procedures, it does not necessarily give other surgeons a reason to do so. In a competition, however, the fact that one person is deriving an advantage from unethical conduct necessarily generates a disadvantage for everyone else, and therefore creates pressure for everyone to follow suit.”
In a non-adversarial setting, we don’t take one person’s ethical violations as an invitation or reason to follow suit. Heath uses the example of healthcare to illustrate this. (Note: Heath is approaching healthcare with a system like Britain’s or Canada’s in mind. In principle, these systems are much less competitive and profit-oriented than America’s system.) If one surgeon is using “unnecessary procedures” — perhaps to expedite the surgery or be able to bill for more — this does not necessarily motivate other surgeons to act the same way. Doctors swear to the Hippocratic oath and are generally expected to adhere to strict ethical standards and codes. And in any case, one surgeon’s cheating the system in this way does not take away business from the others, or in any other direct way threaten their livelihoods.
Now, take this same situation, but substitute in “baseball players” for “surgeon” and “steroids” for an “unnecessary procedure.” Baseball, like all sports, is a deliberately adversarial institution, a zero-sum game. Here we see, as Heath says, that one player’s getting an advantage from unethical conduct gives all the others player at least a reason, and maybe a very compelling reason, to do the same.
We might say that in adversarial settings, certain kinds of cheating or unethical behavior can spread like a virus, infecting even those who had no prior interest in cheating.
To figure out what is different about regulation and ethics for deliberately adversarial institutions, we obviously need clear examples of (relatively) non-adversarial institutions.
If sports are the touchstone examples of deliberately adversarial institutions, then various physically challenging art forms (like modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, cheerleading, “pro” wrestling, a Bruce Springsteen concert…), ritualistic displays (including dances, running in front of bulls in Pamplona, standing on one leg for hours or days in India…), and forms of exercise (yoga, aerobics, sweatin’ to the oldies…) are the closest non-adversarial cousins.
The appeal of sports is that they put on display most of the physically beautiful or breathtaking features of those non-adversarial practices, but they add to it several elements derived from the competitive challenge: the incentive to innovate and improve, the uncertainty, the partisan affiliation of the spectator, the tactics and strategic rationality, defense, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (And this is why we see so many attempts — some of them successful, alas — to move physical activities from the latter categories into the “sport” category, by using judges to decide whose yoga poses, dance routines, bodybuilding, skateboarding tricks, etc, deserve to “win.”)
And then there’s sumo wrestling.
Is it a sport or a ritual? Well it’s both, obviously. The Japanese public is said to consider “sumo — which traces its origins to rituals of Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto — [to be] a venerable tradition. Wrestlers, their hair in samurai-style topknots, have been seen not just as athletes, but as upholders of a stoic work ethic and noble public behavior.” So how important is the “sport” part of this practice? Opinions are divided. But a recent match-fixing scandal suggests that the competitive element may be essential to maintain interest. (Police have found text-message evidence of two wrestlers orchestrating and fixing a match, as an article in the New York Times recounts. ‘“Please hit hard at the face-off, then go with the flow,” one of the wrestlers, Kiyoseumi, texted on the afternoon of May 10…’)
Some fans, it seems are not terribly worried about the draining away of the competitive element of sumo, as long as the illusion of competition remains. “It’s been going on from the old days,” Shintaro Ishihara, 78, Tokyo’s governor, told reporters Friday. “We should just let them trick us into enjoying it,” he said, adding, “It’s just like Kabuki theater.”
But other fans, especially younger ones, are voting with their feet (or their remote controls or smart phones) — deserting sumo in favor of baseball and soccer. There are surely plenty of reasons for sumo’s declining popularity in contemporary Japan. But the contempt of true fans in the face of cheating scandals is most telling — though we cannot be sure what it exactly it tells us. Is it that the ritual is just not interesting enough on its own unless we can believe that both adversaries really are doing everything possible to win? Or is it that by cheating, these guardians of ancient samurai traditions in the post-modern world are betraying the values of the “ritual” element of the sport?
The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan considers the scandals to be “a very serious betrayal of the people.” And the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hanaregoma, sighs that “It is as if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down.”
Baseball in America is mostly sport, but also part national ritual. Still, the steroid scandal of recent years never prompted quite this reaction. So I suspect sumo is more ritual than sport — but that the deliberately adversarial nature of the ritual is an absolutely essential element.