Guest Post: Fantasy Football, Metaphysics, and Value

The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.

In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.

Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.

Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!

Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”

I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.

As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.

I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.

I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.

However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.

After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.

I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.

Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.

Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.

But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.

Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.

But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”

Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…

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Filed under Fandom, Fantasy, games

NFL, Domestic Violence, and the Law

Roger Goodell is rightly under siege for his mishandling (at best) of the Ray Rice domestic violence case. The focus right now is on whether Goodell will lose his job (he will), but the bigger story here is the widespread problem of domestic violence in the NFL. Since 2000 there have been more than 80 domestic violence arrests and there are at least 14 currently active players who have a history of domestic violence (accusations or charges).

Before we tarnish all NFL players with one brush, it is important to note that arrest rates (for all crimes) for NFL players is much lower than the national average for men in their age range. According to this 538 article it is just 13% of the national average. That said, the article points out that domestic violence accounts for nearly half of the violent crime arrests for NFL players. So even though vast majority of NFL players are not getting into any kind of trouble, the NFL does have a domestic violence problem.

Of course, this is a much broader problem than the NFL or sport more generally. It is a societal problem. Goodell and the NFL have failed to take it seriously enough and for that they deserve moral blame. But why do we find that our professional sport leagues are the ones meting out the punishment? Because our legal system is failing to respond appropriately to domestic violence. Ray Rice got probation; the prosecutor publicly stating that even with the now public graphic video showing Rice punch his then fiancé in the face, Rice would not have gone to jail. And in case after case, we see the same: probations and suspended sentences.

It is right to criticize the NFL (and the other leagues). They have acted wrongly, or at least, negligently. But I think we are missing a deeper problem. Our legal system is not taking domestic violence seriously enough. These cases are most often prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses and not felonies. And as the prosecutor in Rice’s case said, probation is the typical result. Moreover, this is not special treatment for professional athletes. This is, apparently, the norm for such cases.

There is a real and interesting debate to be had about what the responsibilities of a private institution like the NFL are. To what extent should the NFL be policing its members and employers for behavior that is only indirectly connected to the NFL’s mission? This is an important question to ask. And many are now thinking about this and related questions of institutional responsibility.

But whatever one’s answer is to the above question, most of us agree that the state and its justice system do have responsibilities for policing the kind of behavior that we call domestic violence. One of the primary roles (maybe even the only role) of the state and the justice system is to protect individuals against the violent attacks of others. But in regard to domestic violence, the state is failing woefully.

We are rightly angry and disgusted by the NFL’s failing to do the right thing regarding these cases. But we wouldn’t be relying on the NFL to punish these players if the legal system was doing its job. We ought to be directing more of our outrage at the feet of the prosecutors, judges, and lawmakers (and ultimately ourselves as the voters putting these people in power) who have been coddling these violent abusers for years.

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Call for Commentators/Chair: IAPS Group Meeting at Central Division APA

Interested in being a commentator for the IAPS group meeting at the Central Division APA? The session is focused on Aaron Harper’s paper: “‘You’re the Best Around’: Reconsidering Athletic Excellence in Seasons and Playoffs.”

The following is an excerpt from Aaron’s abstract:

“My primary argument proceeds in two parts. First, I contend that regular season championships depend on questionable assumptions about their relative success. For example, a season-long system implicitly preferences team depth and consistency. Moreover, the season is of arbitrary length and format, and we routinely identify excellence in part of one season or over the course of many. No single-season format exhausts athletic excellence. Second, I elucidate some excellences captured best by playoff systems. Most importantly, the playoff focus allows a team to develop, to integrate new players, and to peak at the right time, all of which are widely valued in sport. Also, playoffs allow teams to position their best players for success (e.g. lineup matchups, pitching rotations). In playoff series, the teams develop familiarity, prompting strategic responses to a specific opponent. In summary, I argue that seasons and playoffs each highlight distinct excellences characteristic of a sport. I then consider an alternative; a hybrid system employs a playoff tournament with added weight given to regular season success, through benefits like byes or home field advantage.”

If you are interested in commenting on this paper or acting as the session chair, please contact me at sklein@rockford.edu no later than September 26, 2015. Please include a brief bio (your institution affiliation, position, recent relevant work, etc.) or a CV.

The group meeting takes place as part of the Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association which will be held February 18-21, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. Please note commentators and chair must be members of both IAPS and APA.

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Sports Ethics Fall 2014

The semester has started up at Rockford University and I am teaching Sports Ethics again. I thought I would post the syllabus for anyone who was interested:

PHI 223 Sports Ethics Fall 2014

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Filed under Classes, Rockford College, Sports Ethics

Ray Rice, the NFL, and Theories of Punishment

Update Sept 8, 2014: After a new video was released to the public, Rice was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and then suspended indefinitely by the NFL. ESPN story.

Let me join my voice to the cacophony of criticism crashing into the NFL regarding the Ray Rice suspension.

Rice, a running back with the Baltimore Ravens, received a two game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He allegedly hit his fiancée (now wife) in an Atlantic City hotel in February. The incident was caught on video and Rice was arrested for assault. He avoided trial by entering an intervention program.

Since the league announced its suspension last week, there has been near unanimity in opinion that the suspension was too light and that it sends the wrong kind of message. Like most, I was surprised that Rice was only suspended for two games. I expected at least four.

I don’t have much to add to what has been said all over the internet and airwaves. Like all decent human beings, I abhor this kind of violence and think Rice deserved a harsher punishment (both from our legal system and from the NFL). The first fault lies with our justice system which allows one to avoid justice through so-called intervention programs. The second fault lies with the NFL system of administrating violations of its personal conduct policy. It is arbitrary, lacks consistency, and has little transparency. Both of these need serious reform.

I decided to write a post on this because there is a philosophically issue worth pointing out. It might help explain the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of the country (but it might not!).

What is punishment for? Is the point of punishment to give wrongdoers what they deserve? Is the point of punishment to deter other like behaviors? Is punishment about giving something back to the victim? Many of the ways people respond to cases like Rice’s depends in part on how they answer these questions.

There is a long philosophically history to these questions that, like all interesting and worthwhile philosophical questions, traces back to the Ancient Greeks. I don’t intend to answer them here (I refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia and the Internet Encyclopedia for good summations of various theories and views).

Most of the public response to the Ray Rice case centers on the question of sending a message about domestic violence. The perception is that the NFL went light on Rice and so is implicitly saying to the world, especially to its players, that domestic violence isn’t all that bad. The league has wide discretion in cases like this and so it could have suspended Rice for much longer. In not doing so, it looks like it doesn’t take domestic violence as serious as the rest of think it should. It isn’t so much about Rice, his actions, and what he deserves; it is about the perception and impact of the punishment on society. (Call this the ‘message’ view.)

On the other hand, the NFL might not be thinking about punishment as a message. It may be that they are looking at specifically what Rice deserves in this particular case. (Call this the ‘desert’ view.) Rice was a first-time offender. He has a good reputation for community work and as a teammate. His wife, the victim, went to the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, to plead for leniency in Rice’s case. In his meeting with Goodell, we have to assume (based on Goodell’s comments) that Rice was contrite, that he took responsibility for his actions, and that he outlined the steps he is taking (counseling and what not) to make sure he doesn’t screw up again.

If Goodell’s thinking on punishment is primarily about what the wrongdoer deserves (as opposed to the message sent or the broader consequences for society), then maybe Goodell looked at all of this and determined that Rice didn’t deserve in this case a harsher punishment.  (I don’t think this; I am only suggestion a possible way to interpret Goodell’s decision.)

If this is the case, then it helps to explain (maybe) the disconnect between the NFL and the rest of us. We are looking for the message, the consequences for society. We want to see a powerful institution like the NFL tell the world that domestic violence is intolerable under all circumstances. Goodell and the NFL, on the other hand, might just be looking at the specific circumstances of Ray Rice and what his case of assault deserves independent of any social message.

This leaves open the question on both theories of punishment of what the appropriate punishment ought to be.  What amount games would have been appropriate for the ‘message’ view? Four? Eight? The whole season? And for the ‘desert’ view, is two games really what Rice deserved? I don’t envy judges or commissioners who have to make these determinations. But it is essential to be clear on what standards one uses and what justifies those standards.

Furthermore, it is an interesting ethical question about which standard ought to be in play here. Should the NFL make its disciplinary process one primarily about the message it sends? That seems like a recipe for injustice in cases where the message demands a drastically different penalty (either harsher or more lenient) than what the individual really deserves. On the other hand, treating each case as only about what the wrongdoer deserves misses the potential impact (positive or negative ) of such discipline.

In the end, though, I don’t actually think Goodell and the NFL were taking what I have called the ‘desert’ view. The NFL is always concerned about the message. The conduct policy is there, as we hear so often, to protect the shield. That is, to keep the image of the NFL pristine. Since that is its primary concern, the NFL missed the uprights wide right.

 

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Filed under NFL, Philosophy, violence

Are Fantasy Sports Irresponsible?

Fantasy Football season is just starting to spin up and millions of football fans are beginning to think about their top draft prospects or clever names for their teams. As big as it is, it is not surprising that it has started to get more and more scholarly attention. Chad Carlson and I discussed philosophical questions arising in fantasy in a podcast back in December (Mike and I also talked fantasy last August).

Scott Aikin joins the fray with his relatively recent article in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy entitled “Responsible Sports Spectatorship and the Problem of Fantasy Leagues”. Aikin says Fantasy Sports can bring about “a unique form of distortion of proper spectator performance” (195). In sum, his argument is that those who watch sporting events for the purpose of participating in a fantasy league are failing to be what he calls “responsible spectators”.

Using several different kinds of cases where a spectator intuitively appears to fall short of spectator norms, Aikin presents a “norm of responsible spectatorship” (199):

Responsible spectators (a) strive to make sense of the individual games they watch in terms of the objectives of the game, (b) pull for properly sporting actions in the game, and (c) pursue these ends in ways that appropriately fit with their wider ethical obligations (199-200).

Fantasy players fail, according to Aikin, to satisfy these norms.  They fail on (a) and (b) because they don’t watch a game as an integrated whole. They watch and root for specific actions by specific players irrespective of the consequence of those actions on the actual game played. For example, rooting for a team to go for a touchdown in a situation where the game-situation calls for running down the clock and kicking a game-clinching field goal (a ‘b’ failure). Moreover, fantasy players fail to see the game as a whole: it’s not Patriots vs. Jets; it’s whether Brady throws enough TDs (an ‘a’ failure).

Aikin also argues that fantasy players fail on (c) because of they are concerned only with “the greedy self-gratification of collecting further points for a team consisting of bytes and bits in cyberspace” (201-2).  All these failures, argues Aikin, show us that fantasy players fail to make sense of the game as the game it is; there is a “failure to properly attend to games” (202).

There are a number of issues I have with Aikin’s paper and I won’t tackle them all here. The primary one is that I don’t think he takes seriously enough just what fantasy sports are; or rather, what it is that fantasy players are doing when they watch the sporting events upon which the fantasy games is based.

Aikin’s claim is that fantasy players are improper spectators of the sport. They should be watching the game as it is but instead are watching particular players or actions in various games. Moreover, they ought to be concerned with the narrative or structure of the game they are watching but fantasy players are not primarily concerned about the particular game and its unfolding action. They are concerned with a range of actions across many games.

In this description, Aikin is correct: fantasy player qua fantasy player is not watching the sport event qua sporting event. But this fact doesn’t establish that the fantasy player is doing something irresponsible or improper.

On one hand, Aikin’s argument amounts to a trivial claim: People watching fantasy sports are not watching a sporting event as a sporting event. But that’s just saying that A and non-A are not identical.  On the other hand, he seems to be saying something much more substantial: Watching sporting events in a way that is not watching it as a sporting event is wrong (or improper or irresponsible). But this seems clearly wrong without a substantial argument to support it and Aikin’s argument doesn’t get the job done.

He has to show that (1) his vision of proper spectatorship is superior to others and (2) that these norms of spectatorship apply to the fantasy player. I think Aikin falls short on both accounts (but I’m only going to deal with (2) in this post).

He attempts to address (2) within his Fourth Objection. This is the “just another game objection” (204).  The objection says that fantasy players are not sport spectators; they are watching a different game altogether. That is, in watching the Bears take on the Rams, the fantasy player isn’t watching a football match qua football match. He is watching the game to see how it impacts his fantasy team as well learn about other the athletes for future moves and fantasy games. So the fact that he doesn’t fit the norms of the responsible spectatorship is not a problem because these norms don’t actually apply to him in this context.

Aikin’s response is that the fantasy player is nonetheless watching the game. He is not merely checking the stats; he is watching the game and so ought to abide by the appropriate norms of watching.  But this is to miss the objection almost in its entirety.

Fantasy sports, as Chad Carlson articulates, are second-order games. There are games built of off other games in which others are directly engaged. They are also not reducible to these first-order games: they are different games with different rules and ends.

In playing the second-order game, one is attending to and concerned with the actions at the first-level. But the context and intent of their attention and concern is different. The watching of the sport is not watching the sport qua sport. It is watching the sport qua playing the second-order game. The requisite norms that apply have to do with playing the second-order game. The fact that one may not thereby be complying with the norms of watching the first-order game is not then baldly a deficiency.

It can be a deficiency if one intends to be watching the first-order game qua game but then doesn’t live up to those relevant norms. This is a deficiency of hypocrisy. But that’s not the issue that Aikin is taking up.

It can also be deficient if the first-order game has a privileged status. This seems to be what Aikin believes, but it is never argued for. The privileged status is not automatic merely because it is first-order.

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I’ll concede that fantasy players are deficiently watching the games from Aikin’s standard of responsible spectatorship. However, if they are doing something else by their watching then it is not obvious or necessary that this standard applies.

An appreciator of great art walks through the Louvre. She stops at the classic paintings that exemplify the standards and purposes of great art. She attends to them as she learned to do as an Art History major. She is, let’s say, a responsible appreciator of paintings.

Another patron is walking through the Louvre. He stops at paintings with no discernable pattern from the perspective of the standards of great works. He doesn’t pay attention to some paintings that from the norms of a responsible appreciator of paintings he ought. After each viewing, he checks a few things off on his computer tablet and moves on. He seems deficient in his art appreciation. And maybe if his intent was to appreciate the paintings as the previous patron, he would be. But he is actually engaged in an online game with patrons at art museums all over the world.  He is checking off that, for example, he found a painting of a farmhouse or one that doesn’t include the color red. He is attending to very different kinds of things about the paintings than the Art Historian because his goals are different. It is unreasonable to hold him to the Art Historian standard of appreciation. It’s just not what he is engaged in even if it looks similar.

He is engaged in a second-order game. It is built off of the first-order activity of art appreciation, but it is not the same thing. Like many second-order games, it can run counter to the goals and aims of art appreciation (e.g. the painting of the farmhouse that the game players are hunting down might barely be museum-worthy) and so the norms for each activity will be different (though not necessarily at odds or mutually exclusive).

The point is that insofar as the art scavenger hunt game-player is trying to appreciate art, he may be falling short. But since that is not what he is doing, then it is a mistake to apply that standard to him.

The same goes for the fantasy sport player. He might be in various ways failing short of the standards of spectatorship as Aikin presents it, but since that’s not the activity he is primarily engaged in, we shouldn’t be holding him to that standard.

That said, there is nothing inherently incompatible here. The art scavenger hunt game-player can at the same time conform to the art appreciation standards as he plays his game. And maybe he can learn more about these standards and art itself by playing the scavenger game.

Similarly, the fantasy player can uphold the standards of good spectatorship while also engaging in fantasy. I don’t take these as mutually exclusive activities and, though they can at times be at odds, they are more often, I think, reinforcing of each other. (One learns more about the athletes, the game, its intricacies and strategies, etc. and through this can appreciate the first-order game more. Much like the art scavenger hunt is probably a great way to learn about art.)

So while there is a bit of a concession here (the fantasy player is not watching sport as one ought to be watching sport qua watching sport); this concession doesn’t undermine the counter to Aikin’s argument against fantasy. The fantasy player is not being an irresponsible spectator nor is he failing short of an obligation of spectatorship. He is not, when he is playing fantasy, being a spectator and so the norms just don’t apply.

This leaves open an important question, one that is probably more philosophically important. Does Aikin get the norms of spectatorship correct? That’ll have to be a discussion for a future post.

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Emily Ryall on Philosophy of Sport

The University of Gloucestershire Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics website has several good short videos about the Philosophy of Sport with Dr. Emily Ryall. Dr. Ryall is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Gloucestershire.

I don’t agree with every take, of course, but the videos are nice introductions to some interesting questions and important issues in Philosophy of Sport.

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Filed under art, Philosophy, Sports Ethics, Sports Studies

What Crying Brazilians Tells Us About Fandom

In the wake of the devastating shellacking of Brazil at the feet of German side, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of crying and tearful Brazilians. Many sports fan empathized with these pictures. Part of being a fan is suffering through bad losses. Every true sports fan has been on the losing side at one time or another. We know how those Brazilian fans felt.

Others raised the ridiculousness of crying over a game, especially a game one didn’t even participate in. It is one thing if you played in a game, gave your proverbial all, and then were overcome with emotion (such as Columbia’s James Rodriguez). But for fans in the stands or out on street to cry strikes many as silly. Something must be really out of whack.

There are really two questions here. One: is crying an appropriate emotional response to a sporting event? Two: is it appropriate to have one’s identity so connected to a sporting event/team?

The second question arises because of what I think the correct answer is to the first question. Sports fan invest a lot of themselves into their teams. This is not just a financial thing (tickets, merchandise, etc.), but a connection to one’s identity. For a die-hard sports fans, the game isn’t something we watch as entertainment the way one might watch and be fans of Games of Thrones(*). One’s sense of self: who they are, where they are from, what they value; is wrapped up in their sports fandom. Fandom is a mode of self-expression. To say one is a Boston Red Sox fan tells the world a little something about who one is.

It is apt that sports fans speak of having their hearts broken by their teams: there is something analogous between close personal relationships and sports fandom. The relationship takes time to build and develop. Whatever you think about ‘love at first sight’, the relationship – its meaning and role in one’s life—takes time. And one doesn’t just become a Red Sox fan. You have to grow into it; you have to earn the ability to say you are a true fan.  (Side note: this is why I don’t call myself a Liverpool fan. I follow them. I root for them. But I haven’t earned the title of fan yet. To stretch the analogy here: we are dating and having fun; seeing where it might go.)

Much more could and needs to be said about the connections between identity and fandom. However, if we can see that many die-hard sports fans, like many Brazilian futbol fans, have a deep identity connection to their team, it makes sense that such a devastation loss (especially in a World Cup on your home soil where you were one of the favorites to win) would lead to tears.

This is where the second question comes in to play. Is it rational or moral to have one’s identity so profoundly connected to a sports team?

My short answer is yes. While, as with anything, one can go too far here, by and large, I think deep fandom is a healthy and fun way of being one’s self. The longer answer still needs to be worked out and developed but let me suggest a few points.

The fun part is mostly self-explanatory. It provides moments of joy and excitement. Still, there are times that it doesn’t feel very fun (that’s what all the crying is about after all). But, overall, in the bigger picture of a being a fan, it is fun and thrilling.

Sports Fandom is also by and large healthy. Fandom is an expression of choice and commitment. It is part of a process of self-definition. We define ourselves by the choices and commitments we make and this includes which sports and teams we choose to follow.

Fandom ties one into a community, providing feelings of connectedness to a region, city, or tradition. It is a way of being with others and sharing values with others.

Being a fan of a sport team or club is better than something more insidious like seeking the sense of community from a gang or looking for greatness in pushes for national conquests. Better that nationalism gets expressed in a sporting event than in geo-politics. The former might unfortunately lead to some fist fights in the stands, but the latter leads to wars.

Go ahead and cry Brazil. Let it all out.

(*)Update clarification: I don’t mean to imply or suggest that non-sport fandoms can’t or don’t invest part of their identity in their fandom. (As a Browncoat I wouldn’t want to make that mistake.) I only mean to say that sports fandom is not just about entertainment. I am not trying to say anything about other kinds of fandoms.
 

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Filed under Fandom, soccer, World Cup

Defining Sport Abstracts: Deadline July 11

Thank you to everyone who submitted abstracts.  The deadline has passed and I won’t be accepting any further abstracts for this proposal. But check back in the future for other opportunities.


Call for Papers: Book Chapters

  • Working Title: “Defining Sport: Contemporary Explorations”
  • Publisher: Proposal will be submitted to Lexington Books
  • Editor: Shawn E. Klein, PhD; sklein@rockford.edu

The focus of the book is to bring new scholarly attention to the issues and questions involved in defining and explaining the nature of sport. There are several classic works that treat these issues, but with the growth of the philosophy of sport a renewed focus on how to define and conceptualize sport is needed.

Chapter ideas:

  • Analyses of common approaches to defining sport (or related concepts such as competition or athlete) in the philosophy of sport literature. (E.g. Bernard Suits, essentialism, formalism, interpretivism, and externalism.)
  • New approaches to defining sport (and related concepts).
  • Examination of borderline cases  (e.g. Motor Sports; Animal Sports, cyber-sports, fantasy sports)
  • Analysis of problematic cases ( e.g violent/blood sports)
  • Discussions of methodological differences between philosophy and other disciplines in terms of defining sport and related concepts.
    • E.g. Are there differences between philosophical approaches and sociological approaches? How might these differences affect how sport is studied or discussed in these disciplines and across disciplines?

If you are interested in contributing a book chapter to this volume, please send a tentative title, a brief abstract for review (500 words) and C.V or short bio, to the book editor: Shawn E. Klein: sklein@rockford.edu

  • Abstract deadline: July 11, 2014
  • Notification of abstract acceptance by July 25, 2014 (Update 7/29: I am still working through abstracts, so don’t fret if you haven’t heard from me yet)
  • Chapter Manuscript Deadline: December 12, 2014
    • Length: 6000-10,000 words (inclusive of references and notes).
    • Manuscripts should conform to Chicago style.

PDF: Call for Papers Defining Sport

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Filed under CFP, Sports Studies

Sportsmanship, MMA, and Sacrificing Victory

In his weekly blog, Jack Bowen of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics discusses a recent MMA incident.  Mike Pantangco submitted to Jeremy Rasner in an amateur bout. (Watch it here) The remarkable thing is that Pantangco was beating Rasner rather soundly. In Pantangco’s word’s:

“I just feel that there’s no point fighting him because he didn’t train against me and I didn’t train for him and I just feel like we’re amateur fighters…We don’t get money, we don’t get paid, and I know that the only thing I’m going to finish the fight is him to go in the hospital or get hurt. I just feel terrible so I’m just going to give him the win.” (Source)

In his blog, Bowen praised Pantangco’s action as exceptionally good sportsmanship and a gesture of compassion. Other bloggers and writers similarly praised Pantangco.

While I acknowledge his submission was an act of kindness, I do not agree that this was an act of good sportsmanship. Or, rather, I don’t think that claim is as obvious or as clear as my fellow sports ethicist seem to think.

I do not think Pantangco’s decision to submit was wrong or disrespectful. But I also don’t think it was necessary. Given the circumstances around the fight (Bowen explains), Pantangco and Rasner probably shouldn’t have been competing against each other in the first place. Once the fight is under way, Pantangco and Rasner, as a matter of good sportsmanship, ought to fight to win within the rules, norms, and expectations of their sport. Pantangco saw that Rasner was defeated and further blows would likely inflict unnecessary harm. His decision was to tap out and give the victory to Rasner. But as those more familiar with the sport than Bowen or I have suggested, there were non-sacrificial and non-(serious)-harm inflicting ways for Pantangco to bring the fight to a swift end. A friend of mine who was an MMA fighter and trainer said, “He could have taken his opponent down and ended the fight with a gentle submission”. Now, I am not sure how gentle a ‘gentle submission’ is in the context of MMA but I think it makes it clear that Pantangco’s choice wasn’t between tapping out or inflicting unnecessary and serious harm to Rasner. He had non-sacrificial options that were more in line with the norms and goals of his sport.

This discussion all hinges on a key question. What is sportsmanship? As in so many cases, a common concept we use frequently is hard to pin down. Since at least James Keating 1964 article, “Sportsmanship as a Moral Category,” philosophers of sport have been debating the question.

Without stepping too much into that tempest, I claim that sportsmanship is the embodiment of the kinds of virtues and moral dispositions that are proper for those participating in athletics and sports. I don’t think this is too controversial a claim; that is, until we start to unpack just what the claim really means (a huge project beyond the scope of a blog post).

But one important implication of this claim (one that follows from the nature of virtue) is that sportsmanship ought not to be reserved for exceptional or extraordinary actions. Sportsmanship is the manner of acting to which _all_ the participants should be held. It shouldn’t be analogous to sainthood.

Pantangco’s action of tapping out might be an exceptional act of kindness, but it is not the manner in which we ought to expect or demand MMA fighters to fight. Such dispositions would undermine the sport. The goal in combat sports, as I understand it, is to win the match by inflicting damage on your opponent through the use of a set of fighting skills (the specific kind of combat sport proscribes what is in and out of this set). A principle of tapping out when your opponent is losing or essentially defeated subverts this goal and the very idea of the sport.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that we should have a low moral standard for MMA fighters, that morality doesn’t apply, or that kindness or compassion should play no role in combat sports. I am saying the standard ought to be appropriate to human beings and to the ends of the sport.

Consider the following analogy. A man might jump in front of speeding car to save a child’s life. This is an exceptional act. One we are likely to praise. But such an action tells us nothing about how to act and live in the world. In a sense, it really has nothing to do with ethics. Ethics is about the goals and principles that guide one’s action and choices. It is about how we ought to approach each day and how to determine what actions we take in life.

Similar with Pantangco. The circumstances of the fight are (as far as I can tell) unique and his action is not generalizable to other fights. His action doesn’t tell us how MMA fighters ought to fight with dignity, honor, and virtue. In other words, it cannot serve as an exemplar of sportsmanship.

A possible objection to what I am arguing here is that while the normal circumstances of life (or a fight) don’t require jumping in front of cars or sacrificially tapping out, there are circumstances which might arise where such actions might be appropriate or called for. True enough. My point is that thinking about these as guides for how to live our lives is at best not useful (since the conditions in these situations are exceptional) and at worst it can undermine what it actually takes to live our lives or play our games well.

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Filed under MMA, sportsmanship, violence, virtue