Eye-opener at University of Missouri

A lot has been written already and a lot more will be written about what the University of Missouri football team did. For those who have been doing campus visits to Hogwarts this weekend and missed this story, the football team at the University of Missouri threatened not to play if the president of the university didn’t step down. The president resigned on Monday. This was part of a campus protest regarding racism and other issues on campus.

This story has a lot of twists and turns. It is not simply—in some ways it is barely about—the football team. It’s about race, racism, campus politics, free speech, ‘safe zones’, and institutional control and leadership—among other things. Most of this doesn’t have to do with sport, so I’m not going to comment on it here.

The interesting sports angle to this story is the football team and the immense power they demonstrated. In just about two days, the football team pushed the president of a large state university out the door. Wow. Whatever one might think about the complicated underlying issues that gave rise to this protest, this is huge. It is a potential game-changer.

College athletes, well, the elite division 1 football and basketball players, are waking up to the potential power they have. As many commentators and columnists have noted, including Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel on the Dan Patrick Show, the whole NCAA system rests on the players always playing. If they refuse to stop playing, the whole system grinds to a halt. That’s quite a sword to dangle over Mark Emmert’s head.

I doubt, though, we will see athletes walk out this weekend or in the near future in order to get paid, to get better health insurance, or something similar. The Missouri situation is not so much a blueprint as it is an eye-opener. It was a special circumstance we are not likely to see in the unionization of the college-athletes. The Missouri team was linked with other campus groups and importantly had the backing of the coach. This was, at least in part, about race and so had a unifying effect of bringing the campus, the public, and the media together. But, being about race, it had a silencing effect as well: criticism of the football players for engaging in this protest would almost certainly be framed as being racist and so there was very little criticism. That will not be the case when the issue is more about the pecuniary interests of the players. There will be many vocal critics and the coaches likely will not give their support either. At Missouri, the team was apparently standing with and joining with the campus; the focus was on the university and racism. There was a clear and straight-forward demand that could be met or not: the university president resigning. In walk-outs related to pay-for-play, the players will largely stand alone and the athletes will be the focal point. The demand for pay, share of revenue, unionization, etc., is something that will require months of negotiations and the rewriting of countless rules. It’s a lot more complicated of a goal, one that is harder to know if it has been attained. It will require athletes holding out for a lot longer than two days with many losing scholarships and positions. All of this, along with the huge logistical difficulty of organizing players at different campuses, suggest we are not going to see a college-athlete strike anytime soon.

That said, the players see that they have this power. It will be tested again. How and when they wield it, and what it accomplishes, will be intriguing.


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Daily Fantasy, Gambling, and Sports

In the recent ‘scandal’ surrounding Daily Fantasy (DFS), it is frequently referenced as ‘gambling’. So one question in all this, is Daily Fantasy gambling?

Legal Definition

As in many such discussions, a large part of the issue depends on the definition. In this case what do we mean by ‘gambling’? Most states, and the federal government, use what is often called the ‘dominant factor test’. Essentially, the test is whether the outcomes of the game are more due to chance or due to skill. In general, if you can see players with greater skill winning the game more often than non-skilled players, that’s a good sign that the dominant factor is skill and not chance. Thus, such a game wouldn’t qualify as gambling under this description. (I want to thank the panel at ISLE symposium for the legal background.)

Fantasy (including Daily Fantasy) does seem to show that skill plays a large and dominant part in winning, rather than chance. Luck and chance play a role (e.g. players get injured), but a fantasy player’s knowledge and skill in drafting and building lineups is much more significant.

There are some states, including my own (Arizona), that don’t use this test and have a lower bar for considering something gambling. Thus Daily Fantasy is illegal in Arizona. (The other such states where DFS is illegal: Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Tennessee, and Washington).

Common Usage

But beyond the legal definition, we might wonder what gambling means in more common usage and if daily fantasy fits that.

If we mean just any situation where you take a big chance, where you put something of significant value at risk, then a lot of things are ‘gambling,’ including fantasy. But so, it would seem, is the primary game of football itself. People use the term ‘gambling’ in ways like this all the time (I’m taking a gamble on taking the job offer in Austin over the one in Dallas), but this is not helpful in understanding the phenomenon at issue. We need to put aside these metaphorical usages and narrow our focus.

Gambling, then, usually refers to games where:

(1) The value at stake is financial or material (as opposed to an emotional value like pride or enjoyment).

(2) The role of chance is significant in the outcome. This is not just that the outcome is unknown but that chance plays a role in determining the outcome (e.g. roll of the dice, a random number generator, or the deal of the cards). It also means that the player is passive in terms of the outcome; that is, there isn’t anything they can do to affect the outcome.

(3) There is some financial/material prize for winning.

If I am correct, Daily Fantasy is not gambling because it fails #2. Namely, the main cause of winning is how one uses his or her skill and knowledge to create a line up. Chance plays a role, but the players are not passive. The more skill they have and the better they employ it, the better their chances of winning.

Paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, not that there is anything wrong with gambling. That is, even if DFS were gambling, I don’t think that matters from a moral perspective unless we have a prior argument that gambling is morally problematic. I don’t think we have such an argument. It matters, certainly, from a legal perspective given the current prohibitions in most states against gambling. (Prohibitions with which for the most part I disagree.)

Gambling and Sport

That said, the concern about gambling and sports is that there is big money at stake in gambling and the potential for, or even just the appearance of, corruption or interference in the game itself. There is, I think, a similar concern with daily fantasy. The professional sport leagues need to be careful here in working with fantasy companies. First, they need to make sure there isn’t any corruption going on. They need to have transparent and clear safeguards to prevent undue influence between the fantasy and the real games. Second, they need to make sure there isn’t even an appearance of anything corrupt. The same goes for the DFS companies themselves: the appearance of corruption is almost as damaging as actual corruption.

I don’t think there is a concern with the kind of marketing agreements between the leagues and the fantasy companies that we are seeing. The KC Royals have an official daily fantasy sponsor, but the sponsor doesn’t lose or gain anything depending on the Royals’ performances. So there is no real worry about the daily fantasy company trying to manipulate the game in the way a gambler might try to get a player to shave points or throw a game. The fantasy companies earn money by people participating, not according to the performances of a player/team.

But there could be concerns about players, coaches, officials, or others who can impact the outcome of games. They might have something personally at stake and use their position to manipulate the game so that outcome is achieved and they win. It might be best to prohibit or, in the case of the NFL, limit the participation of these individuals in such games. This wouldn’t be too dissimilar from a radio station employee not being eligible for the station’s contests. It prevents even the appearance of corruption.

The DFS scandal

Similar, the recent scandal involving DraftKings and FanDuel seems more about the appearance of corruption than actual corruption.

The information released, though not trivial, doesn’t strike me as the significant advantage that some have painted it. As I understand it, the information showed the percentage of players owned. Knowing what other players are owned can figure into your calculations about whom to start (in order to differentiate your team from the other teams). Nevertheless, I think most knowledgeable fantasy players probably have fairly good intuitions about this anyway. They won’t have the exact numbers, of course, but most will know, for example, that a good chunk of people are going to have Aaron Rogers as QB. Knowing the exact number doesn’t seem like it is going to make that big a difference. Still, it is not irrelevant or trivial information and safeguards (or at least better safeguards) should be in place regarding this information.

The real worry here is not the leaked information. It is that individuals at the company have access to this information when it is non-public and could, it seems, act on it. That seems like an unfair advantage (though we could quibble about that) and so people are concerned that the insiders at DFS companies could use this information to dominate leagues. Again, we could quibble about the fairness, appropriateness, or effectiveness of this. Nevertheless, the appearance that so-called insiders could be taking advantage of the market undermines the trust between players and fantasy leagues. So even if nothing untoward is actually going on, it is still damaging to this relationship and needs a transparent fix. The obvious fix seems to be, similar to the NFL limitation, a contractual prohibition or limit on playing DFS for individuals with access to this non-public, advantageous information. Companies that do not fix their trust dimension will lose out in the marketplace.

Regulating DFS

I don’t play DFS (mostly because it is illegal in AZ). But I think it is an exciting and dynamic industry. It highlights how markets can respond to individual tastes and desires in unforeseen and creative ways. What I fear from this situation is that lawmakers and regulators will come in and in the name of consumer protection or some such thing, kill or weaken this growing market. This situation certainly shows that the industry needs to make some changes as it matures. Competition and consumers should drive those changes and will do so in ways we can’t predict, finding solutions to problems in fitting and creative ways. Government regulations, on the other hand, will tend to hamper and prevent such dynamism; imposing one-size fits all, costly rules. The likely outcome of government regulation of DFS, based on what normal happens in regulated industries, is the cartelization into a few dominant players (instead of today’s dynamic and growing field of competition) and the locking in of current practices and standards (instead of seeing ingenuity and development of new more effective and appropriate practices).

Lastly, if I had to gamble I would bet (see what I did there?) that the main forces driving the ‘regulate DFS bus’ are those connected in some way to the heavily regulated gaming/gambling industry. DFS is a competitor and this would be an easy way to weaken it. (One might compare this to Uber and the taxi companies—the same phenomenon seems to be at work there: a dynamic new business is threatening the old way of doing things, providing greater choice and options to meet individual desires and needs in unforeseen ways.)

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Ethics and Fantasy Sports

This is the text of my remarks from Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law & Ethics 2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium. The Symposium was held on September 10, 2015. I was on the” Fantasy Sports: Gaming, IP, Ethical and Other Issues” panel. The symposium was great, I want to thank ISLE for inviting me.

This panel is made up of lawyers and industry leaders who have direct involvement in the business of fantasy sports. I’m an academic philosopher who plays fantasy sports purely for fun. So, my approach is probably going to be a little different.

As a philosopher, I seek the deeper, more fundamental meaning of things. As an ethicist, I look at this deeper meaning and try to see what it tells us about how best to act. In this case, what does understanding the nature of fantasy sport tell us about how to act regarding fantasy sports? My time is limited, so I will point towards some of the ethical concerns in fantasy sport, and close with some of the positives.

Fellow sports philosopher, Chad Carlson, dubs Fantasy Sports: “parasitic, second order, or derivative games because they find life only by building off of real sports’ elements.”[1]  Fantasy is driven by the real sport, without the football there is no fantasy football. This makes them games about other games. Calling them parasitic suggests something negative about this relationship; that fantasy feeds off and harms its host sport. But before addressing that concern, it is important to see that fantasy sport, though a game that is built off another game, is still truly a game: it has its own distinct goals and methods. It has its own rules, structures, and traditions.

But this derivative nature of fantasy does lead to a group of objections to fantasy. These objections are all roughly based on the concern that fantasy sports are changing the way we understand, consume, or appreciate sport. The derivative game is affecting the primary game and, according to these objections, that’s wrong.

There are concerns that the popularity of fantasy will and has driven rule changes to the primary game. This direct effect on the game could be a concern if it undermines or weakens the primary game. One wonders how much of the NFL rule changes in the last decade that have driven up offensive numbers were driven by the popularity of fantasy. (As a side note, I don’t think those changes came about because of fantasy—but it is not hard to see how that could have happened.)

Fantasy, particularly fantasy football, tends to overemphasize certain features of the game over others. In general, offense is emphasized over defense. Certain positions, like QB or WR, are emphasized over other essential positions, like left guard or a blocking TE. These latter positions are essential for competitive teams to be able to play offense well, but they are not tracked by fantasy (at least not directly). This tends to skew our understanding of the game of football in one direction.

A related concern is that Fantasy negatively affects our fandom. In real football, most fans root for a team to win. We want the Patriots or, I guess, the 49ers to win. We value the importance of the team and teamwork. But, in fantasy we root not for the team but the individual players, and only for as long as they are on our team. In some cases, shockingly to me, fantasy players might root against their own real team for the sake of fantasy. In their study of the fantasy industry, Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley report that 41% of all fantasy participants indicated they would prefer a win by their fantasy team over their regular/favorite team.”[2]

Fans might come to prefer to watch something like the Red Zone channel instead of a game in its entirety. This breaks up our sense of the continuity and narrative of the game of football. If we only watch scoring plays or highlight plays, we don’t really know how the game went. We don’t really understand how the teams played. I know that when I have missed a game and just get the highlights, I have one impression of the game that can be quite different and misleading from the one I get when I get around to watching the tape of the game. So if fantasy shifts our consumption shifts more and more towards individual players and their highlight moments, we lose a certain aspect of what the primary, real game is about.

I don’t have the space to fully flesh this out, but one response to this spectator corruption argument is that fantasy is not the cause of this trend, but an effect. That is, fantasy might just be popular because it is tapping into a pre-existing desire to watch football in this manner. It might be that the only reason we sat and watched one team for the whole game and watched that team week in week out is that prior to satellite, one just didn’t have any other options. Now one has a myriad of consumption options, and this has opened up fandom in new ways. That seems to be a good thing for fans.

Fantasy as Gambling

A second group of concerns about fantasy sports is that it is just a kind of gambling. It is not, according to these objections, based on superior skill, effort, or knowledge but luck. First, even if this is true—and I don’t think it is—it’s not clear that this is an objection to fantasy without a second argument that gambling is itself wrong. Second, while a fantasy player does not have as much agency or ability to affect the fantasy game outcome as the running back or the coach does in real football, the fantasy player does have to draft well, adjust his or her line up, and make other important changes that will bear on the outcome. A fantasy player’s skill and knowledge at doing this affects their chances of winning. Much like words with friends (a scrabble-like game), you have reduced agency. You can only play the letter tiles you are dealt. It doesn’t really matter how good you are, if all you draw is vowels, you are not going to do well. Nevertheless, you still have some ability by employing one’s skill and knowledge to affect the outcome.

In-Game Fantasy Ethics

An area of fantasy sports ethics that I am very interested in is the ethics of playing fantasy. By this, I mean how should fantasy players play? Are there ethical issues here? Let me suggest a few.

One is the potential conflict of interest when the commissioner of a league is also a player in the league. This is usually the case, and it opens up the potential for the commissioner to set the game in his or her favor. I don’t know how often this occurs, but the potential conflict is something that one needs to be aware of.

Another is the potential for more knowledgeable players to take advantage of newbies in terms of trades or staking out the waiver wires. This seems unfair and it can lead to a lack of competitive balance.

A frequent problem in fantasy leagues is the ghost team. This is the team owner that, because of extended absence or lack of attentiveness, fails to set their line-ups properly, starts injured players, or starts guys in their bye week. This tends to upset the balance of leagues and undermines the playfulness of the game. Failing to keep one’s team up-to-date and the lineups set is a failure to meet one’s obligations as a fantasy player.

One of my friends had drafted Adrian Peterson for his team last year. He was outraged, like most people, at the stories being reported about Peterson’s overly aggressive physical punishments–even abuse–of his children. He faced a dilemma: should he still start Peterson? Should he hold onto Peterson in case he came back that year? This was not special to my friend or Peterson. In discussing the Peterson case with my friend, I realized I had the Carolina defense which starred, at the time, Greg Hardy who was accused of domestic violence. I faced the same dilemma, should I start that defense?

This is an interesting question for fandom in general. When the players we root for get into trouble—legally or morally—how should we respond? Do we withdraw our support immediately and completely? Which offenses go too far? In terms of being a fan, rooting for the player does seem to impart some approval or at least sanction to the player. So the issue of fan support is somewhat clearer: if a player has done something that you can’t support or be a part of as a fan, you should withdraw your support.

But, in regards to fantasy, how much does drafting and starting a player constitute sanctioning or condoning the athlete’s behavior? Should one refuse to draft any players from the Washington Redskins? What about a Michael Vick or a Ray Rice? I don’t have a clear idea of what the right answers are to these questions.

Too often, conversations about ethics are all negative. They focus too much on when people step over the line or violate norms. But ethics should also be about the positive, the aspirational, the ideals we shoot for as we attempt to live a flourishing and good life. So I want to close my comments by focusing on three positives of fantasy sport.

One, playing fantasy sports is a great way to build community: it’s a way of staying connected to old friends and making new ones. In one league, I stay connected to friends from grad school that I probably would have lost touch with a long time ago. Matthew Berry, best known as the Talented Mr. Roto, said in his book on fantasy:

“…the truth is it’s all about the people. It’s not the draft, it’s not the trash talk or the punishments, it’s not even the winning (okay, maybe it’s a little bit the winning). It’s the people. It’s the people who make the draft and the trash talk and the punishments and the winning what it is.”[3]

In an age when friends and family can live far apart from each other, fantasy is one way to build, maintain, and deepen that community and connection with our friends and family.

Another important value from fantasy is knowledge. Fantasy requires one to learn more about the real game. To do well at fantasy requires one have a good understanding of the game and the players. You can’t draft a left guard, but you better know if the QB you drafted has a good offensive line to protect him. Learning new skills and gaining knowledge is an important part of the good life and to the extent that fantasy does this, it too is part of the good life.

Lastly, playing fantasy is fun! That’s no small thing. Enjoyment and pleasure are, as Aristotle argued in the 4th century BCE, important parts of a flourishing life. So, other things being equal, an activity like fantasy that is fun and provides satisfaction and joy is something that should be praised as a good thing. I’ll end with a quote from Ayn Rand on the goodness of joy:

“Joy is an end in itself. My pattern of enjoyment is: I’m good, and if this thing has given me enjoyment, then it is good.”[4]

Thank You.

[1] Chad Carlson (2013): “The Reality of Fantasy Sports: A Metaphysical and Ethical Analysis,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport

[2] Billings and Ruihley (2014) The Fantasy Sport Industry, p 108. [My review of this book]

[3] Matthew Berry. (2013). Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It. [My review of this book]

[4] Ayn Rand. (1999). The Journals of Ayn Rand. P. 604.

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2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium

On Thursday, September 10th, I will be attending Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law & Ethics 2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium. I am part of a panel on Fantasy Sports. I will be speaking about ethics and fantasy sports, namely looking at some ethical concerns raised by fantasy sports as well as some positives.

The whole day-long conference looks to be very interesting featuring academics, lawyers, and professionals on major topics in sports law and ethics. The schedule is posted at the ISLE website.

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Arian Foster, Atheism, and Sport

In the August issue of ESPN The Magazine, Texans RB Arian Foster goes public with his atheism. As Keown puts it, “Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.”

Sport and Religion have a long history of being intertwined. The ancient Panhellenic Games of which the Olympics was one were, after all, religious festivals. There are many interesting issues regarding the intersection of sport and religion: what ought to be the mix? Is it wrong to pray for the other team to lose? Is it a form of cheating to pray for divine intervention? Foster’s public announcement brings another issue to the fore: will sport communities accept an open atheist?

Foster is the first active professional athlete to give public voice to his lack of religious belief. And he does so in a sport that seems the most religious (though I think baseball is darn close). Foster’s interview shows that he is intelligent, sensitive, and reflective. He is not seeking affirmation or looking for a fight. He is just explaining a part of himself and his view of the world.

The two obvious comparisons to Foster’s announcement that jump out are Tim Tebow and Michael Sam. Tebow, because of his outspoken Christianity, and Sam because he was the first openly gay active professional football player. However, these comparisons are not quite fitting.

The comparison to Tebow really only comes up because this is about religion. Otherwise, there are not many parallels. Tebow never had to ‘come out.’ He never had to feel that he had to hide who he was out of fear for being ostracized by his teammates, community, or fans. I am sure Tebow didn’t always feel entirely welcomed or free to speak his mind in full because he was so much more outwardly intense in his religious views, but not feeling entirely welcomed is not quite the same as being ostracized or treated as a pariah. Some might claim Tebow didn’t get a fair shake in the NFL because of his outspoken religious views. But the Tebow circus was more about his lack of NFL QB ability, not his religion. (Foster, on the other hand, doesn’t face that issue; he is unquestionably one of the top RBs in the NFL).

Michael Sam’s coming out moment was, I think, of much more historically significance. Homosexuals still face odious persecution and violent treatment in this country and much worse elsewhere in the world. Religion (or one’s lack of it) is of course controversial, but when you get to things like sexuality, gender, or race that’s a whole different level of controversy. So many just don’t seem able to talk rationally or deal with these subjects in direct and candid ways. So coming out as gay puts much more at stake than announcing one is an atheist. Another disanalogy here is that Sam came out at the start of his career and his professional football capability is still yet to be established. Foster is at the peak (maybe just past the peak) of a great career in the NFL.

Nevertheless, the parallels between Sam and Foster are worth pointing out.

Atheism is still widely misunderstood and feared. People confuse it with Satanism or immorality. There is wide distrust of Atheists: “In Atheists We Distrust”  and “Study: Atheists distrusted as much as rapists

Atheists are still persecuted and singled out. In parts of the world, atheists are still put to death. And persecution happens here in the States as well, as attested by this story about a 7-year old punished in a public school for telling one of his classmates that he didn’t believe in god.

Atheism and homosexuality also pose similar challenges to aspects of the dominant cultural norms of the NFL locker rooms and its public image.

Michael Sam and Arian Foster both face rejection by their teammates, community, and fans. The potential backlash or rejection of Sam is probably more significant than Foster, for many reasons: Foster is already established, Sam’s announcement was near the draft and got a lot more attention, sexuality issues are more salacious and get more media attention, etc.

I don’t want to overplay the parallels here, but I do think Foster’s public announcement is significant. It opens the door for others—both in and out of sport—to be more open about their lack of religion. It can help raise awareness about atheism and undo many of the stereotypes and misunderstandings. Sport can be a powerful force for social change, and it is often at the forefront of such changes. I hope Foster’s announcement can be a part—even if just a small part—of that positive historical pattern for sport.

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New Olympic Event: Host Dodging

It was announced last Monday that the USOC will not be continuing with the Boston 2024 Olympic bid. I think this a good thing, a very good thing.

First, though, I want to put all my cards on the table. I love the Olympics. There is almost no greater moment in our public lives for witnessing and celebrating excellence and achievement on such a grand and universal scale. I love all the pageantry, the exposure to athletes from all over the globe, and the excitement of discovering new sports I’d never heard of before. I even love Bob Costas’s cheesy human interest stories.

I also love Boston. Readers of the blog know that I am a fan of all things Boston sports. (Indeed, I am fan of most things from Boston: e.g. Cheers, Steven Wright, Boston (band), and Spenser.)

So one might think I’d be excited to see the Olympics in Boston. In the abstract, I would be. Boston is a great city and one worthy of hosting the games. But, as the clichéd saying goes, the devil is in the details.

As a member of the Boston Diaspora, I was not personally all that worried about the traffic problems that this event would have caused. This is much more about (1) the bid process and (2) the financing.

The IOC bid process is well-known for its corruption; maybe not quite at FIFA and Seth Blatter levels, but corrupt nonetheless. There is a long train of accusations from bribes to kickbacks. Boston is not exactly known for its transparent government (it’s not Chicago, but not from a lack of trying). Mix these two together and you have a recipe for a disastrous scandal.

The bigger concern, though, is the manner in which the games are financed. The public financing and taxpayer guarantees for cost overruns make the Olympics a loser for cities. Economists have shown for decades that public financing of stadiums and Olympic facilitates almost always lose money. Moreover, there is no greater economic gain for the city/region as whole that offsets these loses. There is little evidence that these public investments provide net increases in tourism, jobs, or business revenue in general. (Many sources: but here is a good review of the literature: “Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Subsidies for Sports Franchises, Stadiums, and Mega-Events?”  )

This should make intuitive sense. If the Olympics were such a great way of building the local/regional economy, why not propose Detroit? Instead, what we see is that cities are starting to wise up and pull their bids. What are left are mostly autocratic regimes (Russia, China, Qatar) that are more than glad to overpay for the moral sanction offered by the Olympics (and the World Cup). That is, by being chosen to the host the Olympics or World Cup these regimes can pass themselves off as civilized and worthy members of the world community. Boycotts won’t change this. But the dwindling market for acceptable host cities might.

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CFP (Reason Papers): Philosophy of Play

Reason Papers: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies (of which I am a co-editor) is soliciting contributions for a Spring 2016 symposium on normative issues in play. The journal invites submissions that explore the nature of play; its developmental importance; and its role in human lives, values, and societies. We are also interested in explorations of the relationship between play and other human activities (such as other recreational activities, education, or work), structured vs. unstructured play, and children’s play vs. adult play.  Submissions are due by February 1, 2016.

The CFP at Reason Papers.

Information on Submitting.

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Correlations, Structured Sport, and Play

A recent study about early participation in organized sport is getting some attention (at least on my twitter feed). The study claims to find a link between participation in organized sport in kindergarten and future class room behavior. They first measured the levels of participation in structured physical activities and self-regulation of children in kindergarten (indicated by teacher/parent reported classroom behavior). They then measured these again when these children where fourth graders. What they found was a correlation between those students who participated in sport as kindergarteners and those with better reported classroom behavior in the fourth grade.

These results are quite interesting; and I’m sympathetic to them. It seems like conventional wisdom that a child who at age four participates in organized sport will develop and learn effective ways of controlling his behavior—self-regulating—in ways that will be reflected in positive and healthy behaviors as the child grows into adolescence and beyond. It is one of the common reasons one hears for the value of sport; the character development argument. I think there is a lot of truth in this—as a fan of sport I certainly want it to be true.

I have, however, two worries about accepting the study’s conclusions.

1) Overstates the results

Anyone with a passing familiarity with social science knows to always keep in mind that correlation is not causality. The fact that the Boston Celtics might seem to always lose when the Van Allen radiation belt is in flux is a correlation; there is no causal relation, so I wouldn’t bet on it. {For this admittedly obscure reference check out this Cheers episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxodytcYD9s (scan to 3:30)}.

The authors acknowledge this: “the correlational design of this study prevents us from inferring causality.”

The concern with correlation is that something else other than the indicated variables explains the outcomes. That is, is there something else besides the participation in sport that explains the later good behavior? Now social scientists have many tools at their disposal to deal with this kind of problem and to isolate the relationship between the studied variables.  The authors did “control for child sex, body mass index, locomotion, object control, cognitive ability, family configuration, maternal education, and family functioning.” In other words, these other variables do not appear to impact the association found, providing a high confidence that the association is something real. And, unlike the Celtics and the Van Allen belt, there are good reasons to think that physical activity and behavior are connected.

Nevertheless, I do think the study is missing (or at least didn’t pay enough attention to in the published article) the possibility of some kind of self-selection bias.

It might be that the kids that are involved in team sports in kindergarten are already good self-regulators or already have predispositions to be good self-regulators. The kids that aren’t as good self-regulators or lack a strong disposition for such behaviors probably didn’t participate in sport in the first place (or end up not participating for long). In other words, they select themselves out of the sample.

If this is the case (to be clear, I am not asserting that is), then the later good self-regulation might just be following from that predisposition, not from structured sport participation per se. If we are starting with a sample that is already predisposed to be good self-regulators, then it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that they become good self-regulators. And it hasn’t been shown that structured sport participation is doing anything to create that situation.

Though the authors control for many potential confounding variables, it was not clear how they controlled for this potential self-selection. To be fair, they do say they “included baseline measures of physical activity and self-regulation.” My complaint is that they don’t explain those baselines or discuss how they measured them, making it impossible to evaluate these controls.

One factor, however, that might point the way is that the study didn’t find the same level of association between later good behavior and participation in non-physical structured activities (e.g. music lessons or chess). There isn’t an obvious reason to think that children predisposed to be good self-regulators would be more attracted to physical activities, so this suggests there is something about the structured physical activity that is, at the very least, amplifying the self-regulator dispositions.

2) Policy Implications

The authors argue that their findings support policies that encourage and increase participation in structured sport (physical activities) in kindergarten. While I think it is, all things considered, better to have more participation in sport than less, I worry about policies (especially governmental ones) that would push more children in to sport.

This is where my concern about the potential self-selection bias has a practical side. If self-selection explains a significant amount of the link here, then pushing more children into structured sport won’t result in increases in positive behavior later on. Many children would be ‘encouraged’ to participate even though they would rather do something else (like chess, art, etc.). Further, there are possible negative effects of doing this. If the new participators are not good self-regulators and the sport itself, ex hypothesis, doesn’t lead them to be, then they might end up getting into trouble, getting labeled as problem kids, or seeing themselves as failures. Whereas, it might have been the case that they would have flourished if they had engaged in the activity of their preference.

Moreover, even if the worry about self-selection here is overblown, I am still not sure it is a good idea to encourage more participation merely to produce better behaviors later on. The children ought to be encouraged to pursue activities that they find intrinsic joy in doing. I would think any positive effects would diminish if the children do not enjoy the structured physical activity.

I am also concerned that these policy recommendations run the risk of reducing—even more than our culture already has—the opportunities for unstructured play. Such activities may or may not be correlated with better self-regulation, but they are important for other developmental needs (Cognitive Benefits of Play). For example, the capacities for imagination and creativity and the character trait of independence are developed or amplified in free, unstructured play. Certainly, they need structured, organized activities (both physical and non-physical) as well. But the trend of childhood in the US seems to be towards more and more structure at the expense free play.

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CFP: Studies in Philosophy of Sport

Call for Book Proposals for new series: Studies in Philosophy of Sport

The Studies in Philosophy of Sport series from Lexington Books encourages scholars from all disciplines to inquire into the nature, importance, and qualities of sport and related activities. The series aims to encourage new voices and methods for the philosophic study of sport while also inspiring established scholars to consider new questions and approaches in this field.

The series encourages scholars new to the philosophy of sport to bring their expertise to this growing field. These new voices bring innovative methods and different questions to the standard issues in the philosophy of sport. Well-trodden topics in the literature will be reexamined with fresh takes and new questions and issues will be explored to advance the field beyond traditional positions.

Proposal Information

The series publishes both monographs and edited volumes. The “philosophy of sport” should be construed broadly to include many different methodological approaches, historical traditions, and academic disciplines. I am especially interested in proposals from scholars new to the discipline of philosophy of sport (either because they are from a discipline other than philosophy or they are philosophers new to the study of sport). Click here for proposal guidelines.

If you have an idea for a book but are not ready to submit a complete proposal at this time, please still email me (sportsethicist@gmail.com) to discuss your idea.

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All Is Not Well: Responding to the Wells Report on Deflategate

Opening Statement

Let me get this out of the way. I am a life-long Patriots fan. Many will surely dismiss anything I have to say based on this. (See ad hominem). But as a sports fan, as a philosopher of sport, I take this issue quite seriously. I read the Wells’ report closely. I endeavored, as always, to read it objectively, fairly, and charitably. If you know me, you know that I mean that and that I would never try to defend something I didn’t think I had good reason to believe. If you are going to dismiss my thoughts on the basis of my fandom, let me suggest that you are the one failing to be objective.

Overall Response to the Report

I read the Well’s report except for the more detailed scientific appendices. I think the report provides convincing evidence that (1) something more than natural processes affected the inflation of the footballs and (2) that Jim McNally and John Jastremski are the likely culprits for that something.

This is a change for me. Before the report, I didn’t think there was any intentional tampering. But I am now convinced that McNally and Jastremski did tamper. (I should note that some are challenging the validity of the scientific claims or at least the credentials of the scientists used by the NFL. I am not in position to evaluate these claims and so I leave it aside.)

What Brady Knew

I am, however, rather surprised by the report’s hasty conclusion that is more probable than not that Tom Brady was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.” The evidence in the report, while not inconsistent with such a conclusion, doesn’t establish this as the most plausible and probable conclusion. It rests on the following claims (in no particular order):

  1. McNally and Jastremski mention Brady in their texts while seemingly discussing matters of football inflation. In Wells’ words “Brady is a constant reference point” (127)
  2. Brady and Jastremski had several phone and in-person meetings following the AFC Championship game. Wells says there was “a material increase in the frequency of telephone and text communications” (127).
  3. McNally received various autographed materials.
  4. Brady didn’t turn over his phone or emails to investigators.
  5. The investigators assumption that McNally and Jastremski would not act alone. (128)
  6. Brady claimed that “he did not know McNally’s name or anything about McNally’s game-day responsibilities” (129). Wells thinks this claim is contradicted by McNally and Jastremski.

Claim (1): Referencing Brady
This is the more salacious aspect of the report and the one most are jumping on. It is also, I think, entirely ignorant of texting norms. It treats texts as sequential and linear conversations. Anyone who regularly texts knows this is not true. Texts are often out of order and can refer to various conversations. I regularly have text sessions with friends and family that can contain 3 to 4 different ‘conversations’ concurrently. In addition, texting is more like casual conversation where people use a lot of hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, etc. It is a little scary to image how the texts my friends and I have sent could be interpreted. Although Wells’ acknowledges that many of the texts where attempts at humor, he doesn’t think this affects the conclusion. But if McNally and Jastremski are referencing Brady in a joking, hyperbolic, or farcical manner, then Wells interpretation utterly fails. Wells doesn’t offer independent reasons or evidence for his view that these should be taken the way he takes him.

But even on Wells’ treatment of the texts, there is nothing in there that implicates Brady or suggests that he knew anything about McNally’s monkeying with the footballs after the officials’ review. The one getting the most attention is Jastremski’s text “Talked to him last night. He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done…” (126). This is a smoking gun? Jastremski denies that the ‘him’ is Brady, but even if we go with Wells view that the ‘him’ is Brady: this does not support a claim that Brady knew that McNally and Jastremski were engaging in anything untoward or against the rules. Wells suggests that the text “attributes to Brady knowledge of McNally’s efforts to get the footballs ‘done’ and the stress involved” (127). Ignoring the difficulties of attributing to Brady knowledge because of something Jastremski refers to in a text, it can easily and plausibly be understood as Brady referring to the legitimate work in preparing the footballs. This is not evidence that Brady was aware that anyone was violating the rules.

As whole, the texts do not provide evidence that Brady had some general awareness of the wrongdoing. Should it be surprising that two guys who work at Gillette and work with Brady’s footballs often reference Brady? Most the texts seem to be referring and reacting to a time when the footballs were over-inflated. The ones referring at all to deflation do not reference Brady or suggest Brady awareness of the wrongdoing.

Claim (2): Increased Communication
I am not clear why this is at all damning or suspicious. So the Patriots and Brady get accused of deflation and Brady has several conversations with the guy who takes care of Brady’s footballs. Isn’t that what one would expect? Wells writes that the increased communication “suggest that Brady was closely monitoring Jastremski” (127). Well, of course, wouldn’t you? Why is this suspicious? If I were Brady, I would have called Jastremski to find out what happened, what was going to happen in the future, making sure preparations were all on the up and up going forward, etc.

Claim (3): Autographs
Why is this suspicious? It would be suspicious if Wells provided evidence that Brady didn’t provide such materials to various staff members. In fact, quite the opposite is implied in several places (83, 88). By all accounts, Brady seems like a generous guy to the staff at Gillette, so that McNally received some items is not in itself suspicious. The texts between McNally and Jastremski might suggest a quid pro quo arrangement; however, it just as probably that this putative arrangement was solely between McNally and Jastremski with no knowledge on Brady’s part that the items were some kind of payment. The report provides no evidence to rule this out.

Claim (4): Not turning over cell phone
This is by far the most unsettling. To many, this looks like a tacit admission of guilt or having something to hide. At the same time, I don’t think that conclusion is fair or just. Brady has a right to privacy and am I sure that his lawyers said no way! [A constitutional protected right by the way] And when one sees the hash Wells makes of the texts he does get, I suspect Brady was right not to turn over this phone and emails. (Add to this the apparent suspicion on the part of the Patriots organization that the NFL was targeting them: would you think it best to turn over your personal effects to an investigation you thought was out to get you?) Wells sees this as being uncooperative; however, he does acknowledge Brady’s extensive cooperation in other areas of the investigation.

Claim (5): Wouldn’t Act Alone
This is a flatly ridiculous claim. There are no grounds to think the McNally and Jastremski wouldn’t act alone unless you are already believed Brady was involved. It seems quite credible and plausible that McNally and Jastremski, wanting to please Brady so badly (especially after how pissed Brady seemed to be over the 16 psi Jets game), went too far without Brady’s direction or knowledge. The fact that these guys come off as schnooks makes it more likely, in my eyes, that they would do something this stupid.

Many also claim that because Brady is very particular and meticulous about the footballs he uses and his preparation process in general that he had to have known about the tampering. I don’t think this follows. It seems reasonable to conclude based on the evidence available that Brady made clear his preferences for the condition of the football and that he knew that Jastremski and others handled making sure they fit his preferences (rubbing the footballs down, expressing his preference for the low end of the psi spectrum, etc..) But, where is the evidence that he knew they were tampering with the footballs after the officials’ inspection? That is what is at issue and for which we have no evidence.

Claim (6): Brady and McNally
A good chunk of the report is directed at showing that McNally and Jastremski were intentionally and knowingly violating the inflation rule and lying to investigators to cover it up. Yet, it is the statements of these two that are then provided as the evidence that contradicts Brady’s claim. This would be convincing if someone else provided testimony that Brady knew McNally’s name and responsibilities. But as it is, we are asked to take as credible statements by those, if we believe Wells, we ought to think are no longer credible.

So, what do we have that contradicts Brady’s claim? McNally tells an NFL Security that “Brady personally told McNally of his preference” for psi (129). First, this is not inconsistent at all with Brady not knowing McNally’s name or that he knew that the guy he told about this preference was McNally. It is reasonable that Brady told someone he knew to handle footballs his preference without knowing or remembering his name. Second, given the portrayal of McNally in the report, it seems plausible that he could be misrepresenting a relationship with Brady. Wells doesn’t even consider this possibility and just takes McNally’s word.

Then we have the Jastremski text above suggesting that Brady referred to McNally suggesting that Brady knew McNally, his name, and his responsibilities. We have the same issues here. First, the text is ambiguous as to whether Brady brought up McNally by name. It is just as plausible that what Brady said to Jastremski was something like: “you guys are working hard to get the footballs right for me, thanks.” Second, Jastremski could be exaggerating his relationship with Brady by leading McNally to think that Jastremski and Brady were tight (akin to a sort of humble brag). There is evidence for this kind of exaggeration in regards to Jastremski’s misrepresentation of the 50,000 yard autographed ball, yet Wells doesn’t consider this possibility.

It is unclear why Wells takes Jastremski and McNally as credible on these claims. Here are two guys who already seem to be lying about other things and have something to gain by playing up a relationship with Brady. What is Brady’s motive in lying about knowing McNally? What could he gain? Knowing McNally or not is irrelevant to the question of Brady’s awareness of wrongdoing.

In any case, this is a flimsy reed on which to rest a claim of general knowledge of the actions of McNally and Jastremski to circumvent the rule. If I were Brady I would be exploring a defamation lawsuit.

I know many will say I am grasping at straws here or that I am reading these in the most positive and charitable light (which in general seems fairer to me anyway). But let me be clear. I am not suggesting my reading or account is the only one, the right one, or that is “more probably than not” to be the right one. What I am suggesting is that Wells doesn’t meet his own stated standard. His preferred account is as probable as the ones I suggest here. But if this is the case then the preponderance of evidence does not support his conclusion—or rather, it does not support his conclusion better than other plausible conclusions. He rejects these others as “not credible” but doesn’t provide independent reasons for this. That is, these other accounts are, he claims, not credible because they don’t fit his account. But that begs the question. He needs first to establish his account before he can use it to reject the others. But he can’t establish it without rejecting these other ones. But that rejection is based on his account. And we come full circle.

Most in the media seem to have made up their minds (often it seems without having read the report) that Brady lied. I’ve looked at the evidence in the Wells report and see no reasonable basis for such a conclusion.


Filed under Cheating, Football, NFL, Patriots