Category Archives: sportsmanship

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.

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….

 

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.

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.

Obama on the basic framework for adversarial ethics: why international trade is like a pick-up basketball game

In his press conference following the recent APEC meetings in Honolulu, President Obama laid out a pretty basic normative framework for the adversarial institution of international trade. The question he was addressing involved the perception among American politicians and some Asian leaders that China was not exactly playing cricket.

And I think leaders in the region understand that as China grows, as its economic influence expands, that the expectation is, is that they will be a responsible leader in the world economy — which is what the United States has tried to do. I mean, we try to set up rules that are universal, that everybody can follow, and then we play by those rules. And then we compete fiercely. But we don’t try to game the system. That’s part of what leadership is about.

China has the opportunity to be that same type of leader. And as the world’s second-largest economy, I think that’s going to be important not just for this region, but for the world. But that requires them to take responsibility, to understand that their role is different now than it might have been 20 years ago or 30 years ago, where if they were breaking some rules, it didn’t really matter, it did not have a significant impact. You weren’t seeing huge trade imbalances that had consequences for the world financial system.

Now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way.

What he is describing, essentially, are the rules for a pick-up game of soccer or basketball among a bunch of people from the same neighborhood. You agree to a set of reasonable rules (given there are no real referees), you expect everyone to follow the rules, each person still plays hard to win within those rules, and the whole game is threatened if one or more players are consistently trying to get away with blatant cheating or fouling. Obama says, “that’s part of what leadership is about,” and here he is really talking about sportsmanship.

Obama is chastising China for gaming the rules (e.g., by not devaluing its currency), though it is not clear they ever agreed to that particular rule. This press conference also unveiled some details about a new “Trans-Pacific Partnership” that might lead to a free-trade zone. But it appears that China is not welcome in this partnership until it agrees to abide by a fair set of rules.

It’s interesting that Obama also references an exception to full compliance that is often accepted by participants in a pick-up soccer or basketball game: that you may give a younger kid a little more latitude (say, to receive a pass off-side in soccer, or to travel or double-dribble in basketball). It can be fun to watch the kid trying to play “with men” above his talent level. But it nevertheless gets pretty annoying if the kid grows up to be one of the strongest players and still expects special rules or exceptions for himself alone.

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.)