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.



Filed under Classes, Rockford College

7 responses to “Sports Ethics: Five Years Running

  1. linda Klein

    Interesting and well done!!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Joe Danker

    I wish I had this course in college 😉

  3. Joe Danker

    I’ve heard it said that Ali vs. Holmes fight did a terrible amount of damage to Ali. I recall watching it and noticing the slowed reaction time and slurred speach even before the fight. Hard to see him like that compared to the grace, speed, beauty of Ali in his prime.

  4. What readings do you use or suggest for discussing the ethics of fandom?

  5. Rob P.

    I would love to see a copy of your syllabus and curriculum. I will be teaching an Ethics in Sport class on the high school level for the very firs time this year as an elective credit.

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