Category Archives: sports

Constructive Game-Over and What Makes Brannen Greene’s Dunk a “Dick Move”

 

brannen greene

 

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.

Are student athletes more successful in life?

gallup coverAccording 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.

 

 

Why Lance Armstrong isn’t the “Bernie Madoff of cycling”

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….

 

Eating Caterpillars

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 ).

Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten is bad gamesmanship

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.

Football, Business, and the Rules of the Game

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.

David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

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.