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.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Sport Studies Symposium 2015

The 4th annual Sport Studies Symposium was held April 24, 2015. In this episode, the symposium participants discuss the ideas raised by the papers given at the symposium. In the first part of the episode, Mike Perry and Shawn E. Klein talk with Matt Adamson, Stephen Mosher, and Synthia Syndor about the nature of sport studies,its past, and its future. In the second part, Shawn and Mike talk with Aaron Harper, Stephanie Quinn, and Zach Smith about legal realism and sport, sport in the ancient world, and theology of sport.

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The Sports Ethics Show: Reviewing The Matheny Manifesto

In The Matheny Manifesto, Mike Matheny, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, lays out his diagnosis and solution for youth sports. Mike Perry, a long-term Cardinals fan and frequent Sports Ethics Show guest, joins Sports Ethicist Shawn E. Klein for a discussion of some of the books main themes. They discuss the problem of over-involved parents, the lack of adult-free play spaces, and Matheny’s view of leadership, authority, and faith in the context of coaching and sport.

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4th Annual Sport Studies Symposium: Sport Studies: The State of the Art

Sport Studies Symposium 2015
Rockford University is hosting the Fourth Annual Sport Studies Symposium on Friday, April 24, 2015 from 1:00pm to 5:00pm (CT) in Severson Auditorium, Scarborough Hall. The conference is free to attend and light refreshments will be served.

Panel One: The Study of Sport

“Breaking Down Binaries: Considering the Possibilities of a Dialogue Between Science Studies and Play Studies”
– Matthew Adamson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

“The Long, Slow, Tortured Death of Sport Studies in American Colleges (And the Possible Path Toward Resurrection)”
– Stephen D. Mosher, Ph.D. (Ithaca College)

“Conceptualizing the Nature of Sport”
– Synthia Sydnor, Ph.D. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Panel Two: Sport Studies as Interdisciplinary

“Interpreting Interpretivism: A Legal Realist Account of Cheating in Sport”
-Aaron Harper, Ph.D. (West Liberty University)

“Then and Now:  Sport and Spectacle in Ancient Greece and Rome”
– Stephanie Quinn, Ph.D. (Rockford University)

“’Theology of Sport: Mapping the Field”
– Zach Smith (United States Sports Academy)

Symposium Flyer (PDF)

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Guest Post: The Top 10 Principle

The author of this guest post is Christopher Robinson. Dr. Robinson is a professor at the Ringling College of Art + Design (FL).

Baseball encourages a certain delusion present in all groups that breed fanatics: the belief in the best. This error is reasonable. We can, after all, count the times a player bats and the number of times they hit and compute a simple “batting average” and then objectively rank players. It makes sense to conclude that including more traits will continue to produce objective rankings. This, however, is a fallacy. While including multiple traits may get us better rankings, they typically produce multiple valid rankings.

For this post, I will focus on a single sport: baseball. I will present what we can call the Top 10 Principle: While there are better or worse Top 10 lists, there can be no authoritative ranking of baseball’s best players. Indeed, when we rank entities along more than one dimension, we will often be able to produce more than one valid ranking.

As we construct our list of 10 Men, there are certain names that are obvious candidates, such as Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson. As we refine our lists, we will have to move beyond “a player’s hitting skills matter” to quantifying what it means to be a good batter; we won’t just say someone is good, we will count the number of hits or home runs. We will also judge each player by position specific statistics, including catches, throws, or ERA. We will break players down into statistics and then select specific players with the best mix of statistics.

A Top 10 based on the number of home runs would differ from one based on batting average; one based on stolen bases differs from one based on fielding percentage; each attempt to combine traits would produce a different Top 10 list. Indeed, this is a general rule: when we rank entities on more than one trait, we will produce more than one valid ranking of entities.

It is quite common to phrase ethical choices as “either/or,” as absolutism or relativism, as if something had to be universally, necessarily, and certainly good or it was no good at all. In this case, people might argue that there must be one authoritative Top 10 list or any list is valid. This is a false alternative. Even if there is not a single authoritative ranking, some rankings will be better than others. A Top 10 list based on the number of home runs would be more valid than one based on who happened to play in the first game I saw as a child. In a similar way, while I cannot say with certainty who will be in someone’s list of Top 10, I can reasonably predict that it will not be Ray Chapman or Fred Merkle. The world is full of uncertainties, such as whether Babe Ruth called his shot or whether Pete Rose or Mark McGuire will ever be elected to the Hall of Fame, but some explanations and predictions are more reasonable than others.

In life, as in sports, we are constantly ranking entities, ranking options, ranking people, ranking ideas along multiple value dimensions. Not only will there not be an authoritative list of values, but different values will often conflict. A good pitcher will not usually be a good batter. We value clean air and water, but we also value economic growth; we value novelty and stability; we value justice but we also value mercy. When we value all these things, it is impossible to arrive at a single authoritative ranking of people, economic policies, countries, or religions that embody those values. We should expect some conflict and tension as we determine what solutions resolve the various conflicts between values. It is a measure of how far we have come that owners conspiring to keep blacks out of baseball is as offensive as people used to think it was justified.

While there are some universal truths, they appear to be more in mathematics than in ethics. In ranking values in the world, some lists are more reasonable than others, even if there is no authoritative ranking. With this, we are aware that there are many possible Top 10 lists, and this encourages us to ask, “How should one determine a Top 10 list,” before we pick 10 people and then justify those choices.

By discussing the reasons for their decisions, people can have a more reasonable discussion and disagree without ill will. The “Top 10 problem” encourages people to think about the reasonableness of the reasons one gives, and whether one would accept those reasons from other people. It also encourages us to see our limitations, such as in an implicit bias among people to ignore players like Satchel Paige who didn’t play in the white major leagues during his prime years.

Any Top 10 list will contain choices based on objective data, personal preference, and one’s sense of how to integrate the relevant variables. While there’s not one objectively correct one, it is worth taking the effort to understand the principles involved in selecting one’s top choices.

[Sports Ethicist: I would love to see people’s attempts at a Top 10 baseball player list. Please post in the comments. I will get it started with my own list and explanation.]

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