Category Archives: sports

Bubbling up in the Ethics-for-Adversaries lab…

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:

  • University Student Politics (ought we to expect an emphasis on certain unwritten democratic norms that have fallen by the wayside in big-money national politics?)
  • Debate Club (how is it like a sport? what is its function? is this a better way to develop public-speaking and logic/rhetorical skills than other pedagogical or social means? what formal and informal rules and norms surround the competitions?)
  • Academic Philosophy (similarly, what can we learn by contrasting student and professional academic philosophy communities that place greater or lesser emphasis on aggressive argumentation?)
  • Job Hiring for Non-Adversarial Institutions (there are formal and informal competitions going on all the time in even the most non-adversarial institutions. E.g., competitions for student placement or job hiring. How do otherwise non-adversarial institutions best handle and constrain these competitive moments?)
  • Ballet-Company Politics (one such non-adversarial institution — after all, its purpose is to put on a show that is evaluated on its own terms by aesthetic criteria — is the ballet company. And yet at all levels, we are told that the competition between dancers, and their parents, is like a blood sport.)
  • Animal Mate-Selection (what can we learn from the mostly genetically-encoded norms that govern mate-selection in different parts of the animal kingdom? Robert Frank has recently written that  Darwin, not Adam Smith, is really the father of modern thinking about market economics. So what can we learn from Darwin about the social benefits of a well-designed adversarial practice?)
  • International Relations, Diplomacy, Espionage, and War.  (At the limit: surely one of the oldest, and most ritualized, deliberately and inherently adversarial practices.)
  • Scientific Research (a cooperative community in a common search for the Truth, or red in tooth and claw? What kinds of tactics and strategies are justifiable in the competition for grants, patents, and publications?)

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.

Unwritten rules in the sweet science [updated]

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.”

Unwritten rules in football

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.)

“From each according to ability, to each according to need?” Not in sports! Or Politics 101: Learn to play the game, fairly or not

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 [1923])

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.

Race-to-the bottom watch: competitive babies?

This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition.  The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.

Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder.  The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities.  It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world.  The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”

Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players.  The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win.  Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery.  Wheelen writes:

“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don’t think that’s what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here’s the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it.  If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision.  On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.

It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem.  Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes.  While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.

 

A friendly chat about adversaries

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.

Are some elections literally slam dunks? Did your Congressman win the way Blake Griffin did?

 

[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.”