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.


Anonymous said...

I played varisty basketball & soccer all thru HS and understand where you're coming from. There's one teammate and coach's pet that just the mention of his name in my mind epitomizes poor sportsmanship, even tho it's been well over 20 years since we played.

It got so bad in one soccer game during my senior year, that I told coach that I was fed up with the crap and grabbed my stuff to leave the game. Coach, in front of the hometeam crowd, yelled at me and told me if I left the field, I'd be off the team. Since he decided to make a public issue of it, I yelled back something to the effect that the flagrant antics behind the refs' back was leading to a pissing contest and a couple of guys were already unnecessairly hurt, and walked away.

Fortunately for me, some parents were also upset about the poor sportsmanship and laid into the coach. Coach was soon in the lockerroom apologizing to me. Coach may have learned his lesson, but I doubt it, since he continued to take any loss hard.

Later in college, I thot about trying out for the '84 olympic team, but I was already beginning to lose interest in maintaining that edge. While debating whether or not to go for it, I heard that this ex-teammate was trying out as well and favored to make the cut. The thot of being teammates again just turned me off. As it turned out, one of my college teammates beat this guy out.

That's my background, but in response to your dilemna, I can only offer my thots on how I handled it.
I had a few "foul" tricks (sleigths of hand or foot) that can be used successfully even if the ref is looking. To me, those are weapons to be used only for disciplinary payback, especially for the scenarios that you describe, where the opponent uses dirty tricks to impede you when the ref isn't looking.

As you can imagine, there's nothing more frustrating or psychologically off-balancing to know one's been fouled in front of the ref and it wasn't called, moreso when you hiss at him and say "there's more where that came from if you _______ (fill in the offense) again"

Either the opponent loses his cool and flagrantly fouls you as his payback, for which the ref is going to catch, or he ceases and desists. But the important thing is that it has to be used judiciously otherwise a game could end up being ugly.

That's my $0.02

Anonymous said...

P.S. That's one reason why I always hated Maradonna in his prime, tho I admit, I feel sorry for his medical problems brought on by gluttony and drug abuse.


Anonymous said...

Excellent that I was just discussing with a friend who coaches 7th grade basketball.

I played multiple sports in HS, and then college football. I was a mean SOB in the trenches, but NEVER dirty. There is a fine line, and it varies widely between positions within a sport, let alone different sports. For offensive linemen, grabbing a defensive lineman's jersey and holding should be considered on the "ok" side of the line, whereas chop-blocking is on the "no-no" side of the line. Laying out a ballcarrier is one thing, but spearing a defenseless quarterback in the back is another.

The fine line is obviously very difficult to judge if you have not played that sport for a long time. But I would say that it comes down to asking yourself "can I still feel right about myself as a good person if I do this"? Will the other player acknowledge that it was a good play, and maybe you got away with one, or will they say "you are a dirty cheater"?

This should also SIGNIFICANTLY depend on the level. Prior to High School, players should be focusing on team building and skill development. The gray-area competitive advantage stuff should only be tolerated beginning at the Varsity level. Keep in mind most kids younger than that won't be able to determine where that fine line lies.

David said...

I wrote a reply to Den Beste's comment on your post.

gcotharn said...

I enjoyed these comments. It's nice to see other people who know where I was coming from in the post. To AH- My condolences on having to play with the dirty guy on your soccer teams. I can empathize. That guy had no power over the type of person and player you were and are- so don't even worry about it.

To Anonymous College Football Player-- I totally agree with you and Den Beste and Clauswitz- tactics are completely dependent on the development and maturity of the individual team. I'm pretty sure that's exactly how Clauswitz said it!

Anonymous said...

I think SDB has a good point in asking what, specifically, your "objective" is. Having never been a participant in high school sports myself, and being disinclined to encourage my (as yet hypothetical) children to do so unless they really want to, I don't feel qualified to offer advice about what you _should_ want them to get out of it. But a clear idea of what you _do_ want them to get out of it would seem to be necessary before you can decide what course of advice you feel most comfortable giving.

I have a problem, though, with the idea that "middle ground is usually for the weak-spirited and weak-minded". It may be fair to say that's true of seeking the middle ground for its own sake. (Not only fair, I'd say it's quite correct...) But when one finds that analysis of the situation has led to a reasoned decision that happens to fall in the proverbial middle...well, excluding it because it lies in the center of some rhetorical spectrum is just as silly as the conformists who _insist_ their their answers lie in the middle of that spectrum.

I'd have to say my own opinion of a good outcome lies pretty close to yours, although I'd also share your fears that encouraging this outcome might inadvertently lead to a different one (I assume that's what you mean by "perhaps not good parental advice"...). On the other hand, I doubt my opinion counts for very much. :)

Either way...good luck resolving your dilemma.