New Feature: Ask The Sports Ethicist

Do you have a question about an ethical or philosophical issue in sport? Ask The Sports Ethicist!

In this regular feature of The Sports Ethicist blog, I will post and respond to readers’ questions. Each answer will explain the different takes on the issue from standard viewpoints in the philosophy literature, as well as more common-sense approaches (when appropriate). Lastly, I will weigh in with my own take.

For more on submitting questions, click here.

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Santayana on the Value of Sport

Apologies! Rockford College Radio is replaying Psychology of Mental Toughness show. You can still get the podcast for the Santayana show here right now: http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/the-sports-ethicist-santayana-on-the-value-of-sport/

The Sports Ethicist Show airs this Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

George Santayana is one of the great American Philosophers and his essay “Philosophy on the Bleachers” he argues for the value of athletics for both participants and spectators. In this episode of The Sports Ethicist Show, Shawn Klein and Matt Flamm discuss Santayana’s essay and his ideas. Profs. Klein and Flamm cover a wide range of themes from the connection between athlete and spectator to role of the martial virtues in human life to the effect of industrial revolution on human existence.

Related/Discussed Links:

Prof. Flamm’s articles in the Bulletin:

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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IAPS at Central APA: A Worthy Conception of Virtue for Sport

The International Association for the Philosophy of Sport (IAPS) is holding a group session at the American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting in Chicago, IL.

February 27, 2014; 5:30 – 7:30pm

Chair: Shawn E. Klein (Rockford University/SportsEthicist.com)

Speaker: Mary Gwin (Oklahoma State University)

Commentators: Craig Carley (Phoenix College) & Shawn E. Klein

Dr. Gwin will present her paper: “A Worthy Conception of Virtue for Sport”

The following is the introductory paragraph from Dr. Gwin’s paper.

My goal in this paper is to discuss a particular conception of virtue for sport that I think is more apt than competing conceptions of virtue found in the virtue epistemology and virtue ethics literature.  While we often talk about virtues in sport, as far as I can tell from the literature on virtue and sport there has been little or no discussion of the particular conception of virtue that is most apt for sport.  For example, Michael Austin (2009) develops a neo-Aristotelian notion of magnanimity for sport to argue that a magnanimous athlete will use sport to develop her own moral character.  Heather Reid (2012), as another example, uses a Mengzian/Aristotelian notion of honesty to argue that the virtue of honesty in sport should be understood as accurate self-assessment of one’s own abilities.  As someone who is sympathetic to both projects of virtue epistemology and virtue ethics, I applaud these efforts, and I do not think that anyone can deny that virtue plays an important role in the philosophical analysis of sport, whether it is ethical or epistemological.  In this paper, I begin with a brief discussion of two competing conceptions of virtue—reliabilism and responsibilism—found in the virtue epistemology and (and somewhat arguably) virtue ethics literature.  Then, I turn to Baehr’s alternative, though responsibilist aligned conception of virtue, the personal worth conception.  Finally, I argue that practical wisdom and honesty, two goals central to an athlete’s achievement of the lusory goal of sport, are best understood on this conception.  As a consequence of my view, I argue, possessing these virtues makes the athlete better qua person and athlete.  If I am right about a personal worth conception of virtue being an apt conception of virtue for sport, then we may be able to further the discussion of virtue in sport in general.

 

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Sportsmanship at the Olympics

One week in and I am enjoying these Winter Games. Plenty of exciting moments! (Warning: clear US bias in what follows)

There have been some disappointing moments for many heralded US athletes. Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller all failed to medal in events in which they were expected to medal (even win Gold). Hannah Kearney won a bronze in the moguls but she was clearly gunning for Gold. What I found heartening about all these cases was although these athletes were visibly dissatisfied with their results, they demonstrated great sportsmanship. In each case, the athlete congratulated and in many cases hugged the winning athletes. These moments seemed to be quite sincere. Each knew they had been bested on this day and acknowledged their competitor’s victory.

Olympics athletes work their whole lives often for one moment, one chance to medal. This is a tremendous investment of one’s resources, efforts, time, and emotion. The moment comes and for many it doesn’t pan out as they hoped. The pain, sadness, frustration, and disappointment, I have to guess, are unimaginable. And yet, most of these athletes face these moments with grace and honor, as White, Davis, Miller, and Kearney did.

Other positive examples that come to mind are figure skaters Jeremy Abbott and Evgeni Plushenko. Abbott took a devastating fall in his short program. Lying on the ice for several seconds, everyone assumed that his performance was done. Abbott got up, however, and finished his routine in excellent fashion. Plushenko aggravated a back injury during warm-ups. The Russian gold medalist realized he was not going to be able to compete and told the official he was withdrawing. Though in obvious pain (physically and emotionally), Plushenko handled this unfortunate moment with grace. He acknowledged the audience and took his final Olympic bow.

This is the core of what sportsmanship is: the virtuous balance and control of one’s emotion and action in challenging conditions. Whether in the middle of game or at the conclusion, whether the victor or the defeated, the individual who displays good sportsmanship is one maintains the appropriate balance and control of him or herself.

This doesn’t mean the absence of emotion. Hannah Kearney was near tears, but I don’t think that is inappropriate or bad sportsmanship in the least. Her emotion and tears are appropriate for the context (in the mix here is that she is retiring after these games). Similarly with Plushenko, the visible disappointment at not being able to compete one last time for an Olympic medal is entirely appropriate for the moment. The ability to maintain both the honest expression of one’s disappointment and the composure of a professional is what is so admirable about the sportsmanship of these athletes.

 

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Ethics of High School Athletic Transfers

I was recently interviewed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the issue of high school athletic transfers. My basic position is that a policy that allows transfers is better than one that restricts them. More choice for students and families gives them more opportunity and limiting choices does little to advance legitimate ends.

If you are a subscriber to AJC, you can read the full article here: http://www.ajc.com/news/sports/high-school/first-person-shawn-e-klein/nc84f/

Others can see a scanned PDF here.

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Boycotts and the Sochi Olympics

The Winter Olympics start February 6. I love the Olympics, both the summer and winter games offer excitement and inspiration. I learn about new sports and see athletes perform feats I never dreamed possible. The games are beautiful and fun. They give us a space to see heroes and achievements from all walks of life and from all over the globe.

But as my friend Craig and I discussed on The Sports Ethicist Podcast a few weeks ago, the Olympics always seem to come with controversy. These Sochi Olympics are no different. There are many controversies surrounding these winter games: security concerns, preparation worries, cost overruns. One of the biggest controversies, though, is the increasing legal discrimination and persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. In the run up to the games, Russia has signed into law many restrictions against homosexuals and homosexuality: including prohibitions on adoption and even on appearing ‘pro-gay.’ This prompted many to call for a boycott.

The boycott never materialized. While I vehemently disagree with the anti-gay legislation, I don’t think a boycott was the way to go. First, I am skeptical that boycotts in general are effective. In this case, I do not think that a boycott of the Sochi Games would have done anything to change the laws in Russia or make the situation for gays and lesbians better. Second, boycotts harm the athletes and spectators the most. A boycott wouldn’t affect Putin and his autocratic regime. But it would mean that men and women who have trained and worked their whole lives to get to the Olympics would miss out on potentially a once in a lifetime chance.

One response to this is that while the boycott wouldn’t be directly effective at changing the law, it would be important in terms of withdrawing our moral sanction of the rights-violating regime. By taking part in the Olympics, we give legitimacy to such a regime. The leaders of despotic regimes use this implicit acceptance to embolden and extend their power. By withdrawing from participation, we signal our refusal to take part of this charade of legitimacy.

I have strong sympathy for this view. It is a dangerous thing to give these regimes an air of acceptability. At the same time, I think it can be far more powerful to engage while expressing disagreement. For example, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany was a situation where the moral legitimacy argument held a lot of sway. Hilter certainly was using the Berlin Olympics both to legitimize his power and to display the Nazi racial supremacist ideals. Many at the time called for a boycott, though it doesn’t seem to have been ever seriously considered by the US Olympic committee. As I mentioned in the podcast, I think Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in Berlin sent a more powerful and longer lasting symbol (both home and abroad) against Nazism and racism than any boycott would have. It is not too much of a stretch to draw a line from Owens to Jackie Robinson to Brown vs. Board of Education.

I think participating in the Olympics while expressing our concern and outrage at the anti-gay policies in Russia is the better strategy. It calls attention to the issue and forces Russian politicians to be on the defensive which often leads to the exposure of their hypocrisy and irrationality on this matter (as when the mayor of Sochi claimed there were no gays in Sochi). It allows openly gay athletes to compete (and win) which can help undermine homophobia. And many of the western nations are engaging in a protest of sort: several heads of state (including President Obama) are skipping out on the opening and closing ceremonies. This sends the signal of disapproval while not denying the athletes a chance at competing.

I, for one, look forward to seeing the USA Hockey Team standing on the medal platform wearing both Olympic Gold and rainbow ribbons.

 

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Brief Review: The Sports Gene

I recently finished David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. It is excellent and well-worth the read. Below is a brief review I wrote for my Goodreads page.

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Is elite athletic performance the result of nature (our genes) or nurture (environment and training)? Yes, according to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. This engaging and illuminating work is a pleasure to read. The anecdotes are amazing and humanize the scientific questions and issues raised by the role of genes in sport. Epstein does a great job of reporting the science without getting too technical, but without dumbing it down or sensationalizing it. He clears away the misunderstandings and misuse of the effect of genes. We often, he shows, misascribe the influence of genes: over-attributing them in some cases while failing to see their role where there is a significant influence.

Part of the story here is that genes play significant and important roles in athletic performance, but Epstein is careful not to overplay this. First, the target of his work here is extraordinary and elite performances. These are athletes that are already well off the curve. What he finds here isn’t going to necessarily translate back to the rest of us who live in the heart of the bell curve. Second, Epstein doesn’t want to disrespect or downplay the importance of the effort and hard work of these elite athletes. Yes, they often have amazing genetic gifts, but without the effort and practice, these gifts won’t amount to anything. (At the same time, the book looks at the genetic contributions for effort-taking and practicing.)

Another important theme of the book is that a better understanding of the genetic roots of performance can help us improve performance. The differences in our genetic propensities (our genotype) require, in many cases, different kinds of training and practice. Our bodies react to training and practice differently and so, to understand better how to improve our skills and outcomes, we have to understand better how we respond to the environment and training. One person’s strenuous cardio workout might be overkill (tragically quite literally in rare cases) for another.

Epstein doesn’t tackle the issue of genetic manipulation (or gene-doping) head on, but it certainly lurks throughout the book. Over the last century, the scientific and technological influence on training for athletic performance has increased immensely. As our knowledge of the human genome and genetic technology increases, will we see this influence extend beyond training into the athlete’s genetic makeup? Epstein’s tentative response is that, given the state of the science, there is just too much unknown at this point to do this in any extensive or effective way.

But that knowledge is coming; it is more of a when than an if. I am fairly certain that as the knowledge increases, so will the use of this knowledge to improve performance. Epstein is agnostic, ultimately, on the wisdom or morality of doing this. That wasn’t the point of the book, so it is no fault. But his work suggests much about this possible future. Personally, I think that, as with most scientific and technological advances, this will generally be a boon for human civilization and for sport.  I am not utopian, though, and recognize that it will come with some harms and dangers. This is in part why it is important to get a better understanding of the science and learn more about how nature and nurture interact.

Another moral question not raised by Epstein, but suggested by his book, is how our understanding of the influence of our genes on performance affects our evaluation of doping. If some people have natural advantages conferred by their genotype, then is it really unfair for someone without those genetic advantages to use a drug to produce a similar effect? For example, Finnish athlete Eero Ma/ntyranta has a genetic variation that makes his red blood count as much as 65 percent higher than that of an average man (274). His body is able to move oxygen to muscles much better than most and this (all other things being equal) gives him an advantage in endurance sport. This is quite similar to the effect of taking EPO as a performance-enhancer. If one of the goals in athletic competitions is a level starting point for athletes, then maybe we ought not ban EPO. That is, maybe, allowing EPO would level the field for athletes that do not have the benefit of genetic advantages. Is there a moral difference (putting aside for the moment the wrongness of the rule-violation) between someone who has a performance advantage from their genotype and someone who has a performance advantage from taking a substance? In more fundamentally, it begins to challenge the traditional concepts and evaluations of doping and performance enhancing.

While Epstein doesn’t deal with these issues, the book is good place to learn (in a non-technical way) about the scientific foundation for answering these kinds of moral and philosophical questions. For that reason alone it worth a read. But it is also quite interesting on its own terms.

 

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Filed under Genetics, PEDs, Reviews

The Sports Ethicist Show: Psychology of Mental Toughness and Resilience in Sport

The next episode of The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday, January 27, 2014 at 6 pm CT on Rockford College Radio.

Dr. Shaine Henert of Rock Valley College joins the program to discuss what mental toughness and resilience are and how they affect performance in sport. We discuss the components of resilience such as confidence and control, and also ways to improve and develop resilience.

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

The show was original supposed to air on January 20, but due to scheduling mix up it will air January 27.

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Sochi Winter Olympics and Boycotts

The Sports Ethicist Show airs this Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

The XXII Winter Olympics start in Sochi, Russia in a few weeks. The Olympics can be exciting and inspirational, but they always seem to come with controversy. The Sochi Games are no different. One of the most disturbing controversies for these games is the increasing discrimination and legal persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. This has prompted many to call for a boycott. But are Olympic boycotts effective or justified? Craig Carley, a philosopher at Phoenix College, Arizona, joins Shawn Klein in discussing these questions. They also discuss predictions for the Ice Hockey Gold, the Stanley Cup, and the Super Bowl.

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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Will Soccer over take the NHL and NBA?

Probably not anytime soon, but the attendance numbers are interesting.

A friend of mine posted a link to an article about how the NHL is selling out more markets than the NBA this year. This prompted me to look at average attendance numbers in the NHL and NBA. But I also thought I’d compare them to MLS numbers. I think the results are intriguing.

  • MLS: 18,807 (2012)
  • NHL: 17,721 (2011-12)
  • NBA: 17,274 (2011-12)

To really do anything with these numbers (or any statistic) would require digging into them more. For example, what happens if you take the Seattle Sounders out of the MLS average?  The Sounders drew an average of 43,144 in 2012 (that beats most MLB team averages). The next highest was the LA Galaxy, but they drew a much lower, but respectable 23,136. Take out the outlier Sounders and the MLS average falls to 17,455. There is obviously something weird going on in Seattle.

But even the adjusted average is interesting. MLS draws about the same, then, as the NHL and NBA. The latter have many more home games, so total attendance is higher. They also have TV contracts that give them a much wider audience (and much greater revenue).

I think these numbers support the growth of soccer the US, and the likely continuing growth (the ratings for EPL games on NBC also seem to support this). I am not sure we’ll see the MLS garner the kind of TV contract that the NHL and NBA have, but I think they are moving in that direction.

One counter to this is to claim that the NHL and NBA numbers only look similar to MLS now because most fans NHL/NBA fans watch on TV and so fewer fans go to games. Their respective attendance numbers would be much higher if watching them on TV wasn’t so easy. I am not sure this is true; that is, how many more fans would go to games if they weren’t on TV? In the bigger markets, these arenas are already sold out. In markets where there are not sellouts, it is not clear that attendance would increase. This would depend on the weak attendance being dependent on the broadcast availability instead of lack of a deeper interest in the team. If the teams aren’t selling out because the fan-base isn’t there, lack of TV coverage isn’t going to translate into increased attendance. I suspect it would actually decrease interest in the team and thus lead to decreased attendance. Carrying over this speculation to the MLS, more TV coverage would probably increase interest and thus translate into higher live attendance. This suggests a brighter and bigger future for soccer in the US.

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Filed under basketball, Hockey, soccer