As one might imagine there is a decent-sized literature in the philosophy of sport on cheating, rule-violations, and tactical fouls. (Two good papers reviewing the positions: Fraleigh, Water. “Intentional Rule Violations—One More Time” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2003, XXX, 166-176; and Simon, Robert. “The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraliegh” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2005, XXXII, 87-95)
Roughly the distinctions between these three categories are the following:
- Rule-violations: The general category of actions where one violates in some manner the accepted rules of the game. These can be accidental (one is pushed out of bounds by an opposing team member) or intentional (one holds a wide receiver to prevent a catch resulting in touchdown).
- Cheating: an intentional rule violation done for an advantage in a contest that typically involves deception and attempts at avoidance of the penalty for the violation. For example, the use of a prohibited performance-enhancing substance. This is done in secrecy with the goal of keeping the use secret.
- Tactical foul (also strategic, good, or professional fouls): an intentional rule violation done for an advantage in a contest (or to prevent/mitigate a disadvantage) that is typically done in the open with the goal of the foul being called or acceptance of penalty as price worth paying to prevent a worse outcome. The paradigmatic example is the time-stopping foul near the end of a basketball game. This is done quickly and obviously in order to stop the clock with the hope of closing the point gap.
I am interested in identifying a class of actions that while they might in some ways be rule violations do not seem to fit into the categories of the literature on intentional rule violations.
Here is an example of the kind of action about which I am thinking. During the Texans-Lions NFL matchup on Thanksgiving 2012, Texans’ running back, Justin Forsett, is down by contact. However, there is no whistle by the officials and Forsett proceeds to run 81 yards for a Texans’ touchdown. To a layman’s eye, it looked obvious and clear that Forsett was down and that the play should have been over. (Due to a quirk of the NFL instant replay rules, this play was not reviewable.)
In this case, it seems that Forsett knew he was down and thus knew the play, by rule, was over and that he did not actually score a touchdown. While this is not a rule violation of the sort involved in the commission of a foul or penalty, it is (or at least appears to be) a case where the rules that govern what count as a runner being down or scoring a touchdown are ignored. Forsett, and the Texans as a team, appeared willing to accept a touchdown that by the rules really wasn’t a touchdown.
Similar cases that fit into this category are where a player clearly steps out of bounds but continues to play as if he did not or where a baseball player “traps” the ball and proceeds as if it is a catch. A soccer player who knows she touched the ball with her hand but plays as if she did not. These are all cases where the player appears to have knowledge that he or she has done some action X (that would result in some negative result for him or his side) but continues as if he or she had not (resulting in some advantage for his or her side).
I call these “Playing As If” (I’m not crazy about this name) since one is playing as if they have done one thing while they have in fact done something else. I think these cases are very common in most sports at all levels. Evaluating them, however, is not an easy or clear matter.
It seems, at first glance, that the honorable thing to do in all these cases is to acknowledge the action done. So Forsett should not have run for a touchdown. The baseball play that traps the ball ought not to field the ball as an out. The player who runs out of bounds ought not to continue the play. If this is true, then athletes playing as if, like Forsett, ought to be criticized.
There are two related reasons, however, that moderates against such a judgment.
First, all these cases involve officiating error(s). The officials are charged with ending the play after a player runs out of bounds or is down in football. They have failed to make the correct call and the players continue to play based on the officiating crew’s application of the rules to the game. Many athletes that I have spoken with about such cases put the onus on the officials to make the call. Their responsibility as players is to play, not to officiate. Many have gone further, claiming it would be wrong on the player’s part to engage in self-officiating. In Forsett’s case, his job is to run with the football until the officials blow the whistle signifying the end of the play. It is not his responsibility to determine if he was down or not and he would be wrongly encroaching on the officials’ job were he to do so.
Second, there is an epistemic issue here. In describing these cases, I have been presuming that the player knows that he is down, out of bounds, trapping the ball, etc. The player, though, is not likely to be in a position to know this (or to know with enough certainty). This is part of the reason we have officials. Officials are there to offer an unbiased application of the rules, but also to be responsible for paying attention to these kinds of situations. The player is more likely to be focused on other game situations.
Returning to Forsett’s case, it is not fair to assume that Forsett knows he is down. In conversations with several football players, they shared that in similar situations they couldn’t tell whether they made contact with the ground or another player. If the latter is the case, they are not down and so ought to keep going with the play. Maybe the athlete suspects he is out or down, but to make the further step of making such a call against himself and his team, he needs, I think, more certainty than is typically available to him.
While I think there are cases where a player knows full-well that he is down or out of bounds, etc., in most cases of this sort the athlete deserves the benefit of the doubt. This combined with the well-defined role of the officials as the keeper and adjudicator of the rules mitigates against a straightforward negative moral judgment against athletes in these cases.