Friday, June 18, 2004

Honorable Sports Play-

(Update: Steven Den Beste has written a post about this.)

Here's an ethical dilemma I've been idly pondering. I don't know the answer to the dilemma, and am seeking input-

Imagine your teenager is preparing to play high school sports. He or she will encounter sports opponents who will grab and hold them when the referees are not looking. When the referees are looking, the opponents will exaggerate or fake their reactive movements, acting as if your child has committed a foul against them. How do you teach your child to ethically respond to such tactics? What constitutes honorable play in a sports game which is officiated by referees or umpires?

I ran across a Donald Sensing post about speeding and sin and Immanuel Kant and duty. I excerpted specific parts in this post, so they could be referenced in our current discussion-

Kant wrote that the primary ethical imperative is, "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Put another way: Do that which- if everyone did it- would strengthen community and promote justice.

One may argue that those who speed believe faster speed limits are justified, and they are "willing" that faster speed limits become universal law. They are neither weakening community nor promoting injustice. Keeping this in mind, I can think of three distinct approaches to honorable play in a refereed game:

1. Follow the rules as written in the rulebook.

2. Follow "the spirit of the rules." Follow the rules as you believe the referees intend to enforce them for that game, and as you can will that the rules should be universally interpreted. Note that every umpire has their own definition of the strike zone, and every basketball referee has their own definition of charging and blocking. Use those definitions to gain competitive advantage.

3. Consider the presence of the referees to be a competitive circumstance of the game. Take every possible advantage of their lack of omnipotence and their imperfect human judgment- just as you would for every other competitive circumstance in the game. Hide and disguise actions which the referees would otherwise call a foul if they could see them being committed. At opportune moments, act as if the opponent is committing a foul, and exaggerate or fake your reactive movement in hopes of inducing the referees to call a foul on your opponent.

Many players on high school playing fields will be following the third course of action. If your child does not follow that course of action, he or she will be increasing the likelihood of being defeated on the scoreboard. I doubt Magic Johnson or Larry Bird could've ever won a championship without treating the referees as competitive circumstances to be exploited to the advantage of Magic and Larry. Were Magic Johnson and Larry Bird playing dishonorably?

A participant could "will that players should universally consider the referees to be a competitive circumstance of the game." To do so would create a particular kind of justice, insofar as the referees will not see every foul, and opposing sides will not be calling fouls on themselves. Both sides are therefore implicitly agreeing that the very human referees constitute a specific kind of competitive circumstance which becomes a part of that game. Some key assumptions: A)Every competitive circumstance ought to be exploited as much as possible. B)One cannot help it if one's opponent does not understand this calculus. Of course, the moment one's opponent begins calling fouls on himself, all assumptions are invalidated.

Taking a slightly different tack: If an opponent is exploiting the presence of the referee as much as possible, where's the injustice if your child responds in kind? This is the ground I currently occupy in this issue. I would want my child fighting back if their opponent tried to exploit the presence of the referees. However, I'm not confident my recommendation is the best parental advice. It's a type of middle ground, and middle ground is usually for the weak-spirited and the weak-minded.

The alternative argument would be that playing outside the spirit of the rules both creates injustice for one's opponent and entirely misses the purpose of the enterprise. The players are there to play a sport which is defined by rules. When one is acting outside the rules, one is not even playing the sport.

Also, there's something viscerally distasteful about playing outside the spirit of the rules. It can nag at one's conscience. Is your child's intention strictly to win on the scoreboard? Isn't the deeper purpose to do one's very best and to fairly play by the spirit of the rules? Isn't it sometimes preferable to be victorious in ways that do not show up on a scoreboard? Many of us have played against basketball opponents who fiercely grabbed and held onto our uniform shorts whenever they could get away with it. I've wondered if that isn't the very definition of when to "turn the other (buttocks) cheek" in sport?

I'm seeking input. I think this impacts Youth Sports as well as High School Sports. Most parents will want to encourage honorable play, but will not want to artificially hobble their children through misguided or narrow interpretations of what's honorable. I can't seem to get a handle on the various aspects of the issue, and have been thinking in circles for some months.