Monthly Archives: August 2012

The 700 Club: NFL Roster Cuts

By this evening (Friday, August 31, 2012), NFL teams have to cut their rosters down to 53 players. For NFL fans, this is an exciting time: debates over who will make the team and who will not; the impatience for the start of the season; and the eagerness to see what the make-up of your team is going to be.

The often unseen, darker side of this deadline is the more than 700 athletes who will be out of job by the end of the day. Of course, for many of these guys, this is only a temporary situation. Other teams will pick up them, either for their rosters or for the practice squad. But for many, both veterans and rookies, the end of this preseason is the end of their professional football career.

As fans, we often get caught up in the specifics of the games and in the performances of the players. We get upset at poor play; call up radio stations to call for a player to be benched or cut. Or, maybe, we call for a coach to be fired. And maybe we are right to do so.

But we can easily forget that these are individual human beings. They have mortgages and families to support. They have dreams and goals in their professional and personal lives. They are working and training harder than most of us can even imagine—and have been doing so their whole adult lives and for a good chunk of their childhood.

For the veteran, the dreams of one last chance, of one more year in a long career, come to an unceremonious end. For the rookie, it is the realization that the dream of stepping onto an NFL field during a real game is just that: a dream. (This article by a former NFL player provides an account from the player’s perspective)

This is a sad moment; and ought to be acknowledged as such. The end of a career is the end of something of great value. The loss of that value should be mourned.

Nevertheless, it is good that it is like this. The rookie and the veteran get a chance to compete for positions. They got further along than most aspiring athletes. And many do make it, at least for a little while. More than that, the extraordinarily competitive environment of the NFL preseason allows for the best, most able players to emerge. Rookies don’t make it just because they were high draft picks, and veterans don’t make the team because of what they have done in the past. The primary test is of one’s ability and capacity to perform in the here and now. This is to the advantage to all: fans, teams, and players alike. It is even to the advantage of the players that get cut: for them it offers a system that allows them to compete and have a chance to prove themselves.

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Violence and Football

In a recent column, George Will attacks football (of the American egg-shaped variety). He opens the column with the quip: “Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?” This is a direct reference to the recent suicides of former NFL players which many believe—with increasing evidence—are linked to the damage done to the athletes’ brains from playing football. (An article discussing research of chronic brain trauma in football)

Will regards the dangers of football as beyond fixing. He does not make an outright call for banning the game, but his disdain for the gridiron is clear. Calling it a “mistake,” Will regards the game as too violent, the players as too big, and the risk of long-term damage and death as too high. The fans that delight in the sport do not come off much better in Will’s view. (Ironically, since Will is a huge baseball fan, a recent study of player mortality finds that baseball players die at a more frequent rate).

Football is indeed a dangerous sport. Today we are most focused on concussions, but the violence of the sport does damage beyond the brain. Other organs in the athlete’s body are banged around by the same forces that damage the brain. The consequences for the internal organs are less known, but it is not an extraordinary leap that long-term damage to livers and kidneys is sustained by the repeated, brutal physical hits in football. The long-term and often irreparable damage to the knees and other joints of football players is well-known. Sadly, every few years we hear of someone being paralyzed while playing football. Most experts believe it is only a matter of time before there is a death on the field.

Moreover, as Will correctly states, the dangerousness of football cannot be removed without destroying the game. A non-violent, risk-free, or safe football is a contradiction. But Will is wrong to regard the game of football as a mistake.

We cannot take the violence or danger out of football, nor should we. We ought to make sure that the risks are understood by those playing or considering playing. We ought to take reasonable precautions to reduce the worst of the dangers. But the game itself is dangerous and that is part of its virtue.

As philosopher of sport John Russell puts it:

“Dangerous sport in its best exemplars, particularly in which substantial bodily danger is an immediate and ever-present risk, represents an opportunity for confronting and pressing beyond certain apparent limits of personal, and indeed human, physical and psychological capacities in ways not afforded by other normally available human activity” (3).

Dangerous sports, such as football, enable participants to learn about themselves in ways not available in normal mundane life. How hard can I push myself? Can I take repeated physical abuse and still get up and try just as hard, even harder? How much am I willing to give to reach a goal? Can I stand in the pocket, get the ball off, knowing that I will be hit hard by someone with 100 pounds on me? Can my teammates trust me in the trenches? Can I trust myself? Dangerous sports give one a unique opportunity to learn the answers to these questions.

Dangerous sports require the athletes to put their whole being to the test. It is not just a physical test, but a mental and emotional test. Dangerous sport, because one is risking life and limb (in some more than others) makes these tests more profound. The potential danger clarifies and brings to the surface responses to circumstances that otherwise may not have been revealed. As Russell tells us, participating in dangerous sports “can incorporate a challenge to capacities for judgment and choice that involves all of ourselves—our body, will, emotions, and ingenuity—under conditions of physical duress and danger at the limits of our being” (14).

Moreover, engaging in dangerous sport, unlike say climbing Mount Everest, is a public test of one’s being. Other athletes and spectators are witnesses to one’s failure or success. The affirmation of one’s capacities in public is an added danger. It takes a special kind of courage and confidence to put one’s whole self on display, especially when failure is a possibility.

Granted, Russell is speaking of football and other dangerous sports at their best. People have many motives for participating in dangerous sports like football that may have nothing to do with exercising and expanding capacities integral to human flourishing. Nevertheless, Russell points to the significant and deep value that engaging in dangerous sports can have.

Though Russell does not delve into the fan side of dangerous sport, there are important values for the fans of dangerous sports. It is not mere bloodlust.  It is psychologically important for us to witness the pursuit and achievement of values by others. It signals to us that the world is such that values are possible and achievable. This gives us inspiration and fuel to pursue our goals and values. Witnessing athletes in dangerous sports put their lives on the line for their values heightens for the fan the importance of values in one’s life and the fact that one must work to achieve them. Moreover, it reminds us that the pursuit of values can fail or involve great pain and suffering; but that, if we are to live well, we must continue the pursuit. Like the players on the field, we must, if we want to win, get back up for the next play, the next game, or the next season.

One of the other interesting points that Will argues in his column is that biggest challenge facing the future of football is that parents will prevent their children from playing football. That very well may be true. As a father, I would be reluctant for my son to play football. While I will not forbid him from playing, I will encourage, instead, other sports. I am a huge NFL fan and see the value in dangerous sports like football, and yet I am going to steer my child away from playing football. I am not alone in this. And that probably does mean trouble for the future of the NFL.

Reference:
J.S. Russell (2005): “The Value of Dangerous Sport,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 32:1, 1-19

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Sports Ethics: Five Years Running

School starts up again this week, and for the fifth Fall Semester in a row, I am offering my course on Sports Ethics. This semester, I have two sections totaling almost 50 students! By rough guesstimation, 200 students have taken my Sports Ethics class while at Rockford College. I thought I’d post a little bit about the course.

I like to start the course with Heather Reid’s article “Socrates at the Ballpark” from Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box
. It is a fun, quick introduction to philosophic thinking by way of comparing it to baseball (though much of what she says is applicable to sport in general).

From there I usually have gone directly into a definitional exercise of what sport is and then into the concept of sportsmanship. This semester, I am shaking things up a bit and moving up to the front the unit on how sports affect society. Through Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and Nelson Mandela (ESPN Films 30 for 30: The Sixteenth Man
), we discuss many of the positive ways sport has influenced society. I think this helps get the students thinking about the moral and social implications of sports. After that, we move into the nature of sports and sportsmanship.

Then we discuss sportsmanship in action: is running up the score unsportsmanlike? What about intentional or strategic fouls? Students tend to get the most engaged in these units because many of them have direct and personal experience with the subject matter. Every athlete (and fan) has been on both sides of a blowout. The unit on intentional fouls is always fun because it is the first time in the semester that I typically see the students begin to think outside of their own experiences. The athletes have experience with strategic fouls, especially if they play basketball. But they have not usually asked whether these kinds of fouls are ethical; merely accepting them as part of the game. Watching many of the students begin to rethink aspects of their own play and life is what teaching is all about.

After this, we examine the nature of competition and winning itself. This raises important questions about the relationship of cooperation and competition, and on the moral value of winning and achieving.

Next in line is a new unit on violence in sport. I have long planned to include a unit on violence, but with “Bounty-gate” and concussions in the news so much, it seemed the right time. We are going to watch ESPN Films 30 for 30: Muhammad & Larry
which is about the controversial Muhammed Ali and Larry Holmes title fight in 1980. This raises important questions about the propriety and value of dangerous, violent sports (Note: I am going to be posting a blog on that very subject in a few days).

It wouldn’t be a sports ethics class without a discussion of PEDs; and so, we will spend some time discussing the various arguments for and against PED prohibition in sport. This is followed by a discussion, focused on Oscar Pistorius, about disabled athletes competing against able-bodied. I find this juxtaposition worthwhile because many of the arguments against PEDs seem like they could apply to Oscar. This encourages a more critical analysis of these arguments.

Then one of my favorite units: the ethics of fandom. I am not an athlete. I am a fan (Go Patriots!!), so I connect most personally to the questions here. The main question we focus on is whether partisan fandom—your typical die-hard fan of a team (Go Red Sox!!)—is morally acceptable. Since most people, including myself (Go Bruins!!), are partisan fans this discussion is usually fairly heated (Go Celtics!!).

We close out the semester with several discussions on ethical issues that arise around economics and sports. We discuss the ethical justifications of salary caps in professional sports leagues as well as the high salaries of elite professional athletes. And, if time, we discuss the issue of paying elite college athletes.

Below is a short video produced in 2008 for promoting the first version of Sports Ethics. I mention some topics here that I no longer directly include, but thought people might still find it interesting.

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Olympics: Morality and Rule-breaking

As I said in this NY Times article, “Shades Of Gray On Way To Podium” by Karen Crouse, this Olympics has several incidents that raise important and interesting moral questions. Most often when we think of the Olympics and unethical behavior, doping is the first thing comes to mind. But this year, we have several examples of a different sort of ethical breakdown: not clear cut cases of rule breaking, but ones of stretching the rules or taking advantage of vagueness in the interpretation or application of the rules.

As noted in the article, here are several examples: badminton and soccer teams trying to lose or draw to set up more favorable seeding in the next round of play; a cyclist allegedly crashing on purpose to get a race restart; a goal keeper in soccer holding the ball too long to burn out the clock and the opponent player counting out the time to get the referee to make the call on a rule not often enforced; and a swimmer who openly admitted to taking illegal extra kicks in his world-record, gold medal race.

In the article, I am quoted as saying “It is a kind of naïvete to think all medal winners are moral saints. We might have grown up thinking the athletes we were watching were all upstanding and abiding by the rules in every way. There’s so many eyeballs on the athletes now, we see things we didn’t see a long time ago.”

I then go on to say “that in some way, sport is probably cleaner today because there are so many more people watching.”

There is this sense that since we hear about these scandals so much more than we did in previous decades that the athletes today are less scrupulous and are so much more willing to flout and violate the rules in order to win. Many seem to harken back to a bygone era of the Olympics that were purer and where the athletes were more honorable. I don’t think such an era ever existed. We see more today because there are more officials, reporters, and spectators watching every match, every competition. And with 24hr news stations and the internet, we hear about every transgression in detail.  Back in the 40s and 50s, for example, this kind of stuff was not reported, maybe not even looked for, but that does not mean it was not going on. As the old saying goes: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. More likely, as I say above, the fact that there are so many more people watching, the competitions are probably cleaner today than they ever were.

The author of the article and I had a good conversation about these incidents and what they mean for the ethics of sport. While most of it understandably didn’t make it into the article, it did spark for me several ideas on these issues.

One of the main points of the article was the idea that athletic excellence is not the same as moral evidence. I agree with that fully. Just because one is athletically excellent does not mean they are also morally excellent. That is the ideal, of course, for which to strive, but one does not necessarily follow from the other. Nevertheless, many of the same qualities and capacities that lead to athletic excellence are a part of moral excellence: self-discipline, goal-setting, the hard work of putting theory/principles into consistent action, attention to context, awareness of others, and so on. The practice of one set of excellences can help improve the other set of excellences.

There are two important points I want to make here that were not mentioned in the article. First, incentives matter. A lot! Second, moral sainthood should not  be the goal.

Incentives

Humans have free will. We are not determined to act by our environment, our genes, our culture, our god or gods. Though each individual makes his own choices, this fact does not mean that we are not influenced by or shaped in various ways by external forces. The incentives set up by the rules and structures of the institutions or practices in which we partake are one such influence. In sport, as in other domains, the rules create an incentive structure that encourages certain actions, while discouraging others.

Take for example, the badminton teams expelled from the Games. The structure of the tournament led to matches where at least some teams had nothing to gain, in terms of advancing towards the medal rounds, by winning such matches. Moreover, given the way the seeding for the next round was set up, such teams could actually worsen their chances by winning this match in the first round. This set up an incentive for the teams with reasonable chances at medaling to try and lose these matches to better their seeding—and that is exactly what happened. Though there is no specific rule they violated, they were expelled for so obviously flaunting the spirit of the Games.

Similarly, the rules of swimming set up incentives that unintentionally encouraged rule violations. South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted openly that he took extra and illegal kicks. But because the rules offer little in the way of enforcement, this practice of extra kicking is, according to van der Burgh and others, widespread. The swimmers are incentivized by the inconsistency in the enforcement of the rules to cheat (though of course not all swimmers do).

This is not to absolve the athletes in these cases of their moral failings. But these incentives that end up, unintentionally, leading to less than honorable actions are an important part of the story. The committees and associations that lay out the rules need to pay attention to how the rules are going to incentivize certain kinds of actions. They deserve as much moral approbation because they are the ones that have, intentionally or not, put the athletes in the profoundly immoral position of having to choose between winning and integrity.

Moral Sainthood vs. Moral Excellence

This leads me to another key take-away from these cases. We ought not to be creating rules and sporting structures that require the athletes to be moral saints. By a moral saint I mean one who goes far beyond what is and ought to be reasonably and morally expected and required. The moral saint is not the equivalent of the morally excellent individual. That is, each of us ought to be and has the power to be a morally excellent individual (within the limits of one’s abilities). Few of us can be moral saints—moreover, I am not sure any of us should be.

In the context of sporting rules, we need to find the balance between moral sainthood and rigorous legalism: we want athletes who can develop and exercise their moral capacities and judgment in sport (and life). Rigorous legalism is where we try to legislate for every possible situation and define as precisely as we can what one ought to do. But, if the rules are trying to cover every eventuality and circumstance, they cut off the individual’s need for moral capacities. Moreover, they lead athletes to think that they only need to follow the specific rules and do no more. It encourages the attitude that so long as one has followed the letter of the law, there is nothing more required of them. This does not leave room for the kind of noble actions taken by Dana Torres in the Beijing Olympics (she got all the swimmers in her race to step off the blocks until one of the competitors could get a new suit after a “wardrobe malfunction”). Rigorous legalism encourages athletes to find loopholes and gaps in the rules to gain unfair advantages.

On the other side, we don’t want rules that require the athletes, in order to play with honor and integrity, to sacrifice their goals and ambitions in the sport. These athletes train their entire lives for a chance at an Olympic medal. It strikes me as grossly unfair and immoral to then force them to choose between this life-long, worthy goal and their honor. Athletes should not have to be moral saints, but they should strive for moral as well as athletic excellence: that is, we need to work to create rules that make it so playing with honor and integrity is the best way to win, to achieve their goals, and to be excellent in the sport.

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