Rule Violations and Playing As If

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.



Filed under Football, Officiating, rule-violations

3 responses to “Rule Violations and Playing As If

  1. I wonder if there isn’t an implicit deontological assumption in this line of argument that could be unpacked. If we take an individualist approach to ethics in general, we could adopt a similar approach in the ethics of sport. We could apply the same methodology we use generally to evaluate the agent-relative morality of an actor when we examine the agent-relative morality of an athlete. Within the context of sport, we would evaluate that morality vis-a-vis its compatibility with a hierarchy of values, of which the fundamental value is To Win. (The particular sport and the organization of competition will define the specific objective, whether that is an at bat, a game, a series, a championship, or a qualification).

    The virtues of sports ethics would naturally diverge slightly from general ethics in this approach as the competitor’s ultimate value in any particular context is the achievement of a particular goal, rather than the maintenance or improvement of a general state. In particular, the virtue of Honesty may be necessarily circumscribed. In life, we treasure both personal honesty (the honest identification of reality) as well as social honesty (dealing with others forthrightly) because we stand to gain so much from both. In the context of a particular sporting match, the consequential value of social honesty drops considerably–our opponents are not potential trading partners, but rather direct competitors. Indeed, in most situations (especially team sports), cooperation with a competitor is fundamentally antagonistic to the pursuit of the primary value.

    In this sense, Forsett is simply pursuing his values within the context of the sport. He is not playing “As If,” he is simply playing. Indeed, it may be impossible in this kind of analyses to rightly condemn an athlete for any action not specifically singled out by the designated officials as a rule violation. Indeed, we could go so far as to say that many rule-violations are praise worthy and that in the absence of a official’s whistle, we can make no condemnation as we can not even say for sure that a rule was indeed violated. There are some odd cases like Golf that we would need to account for, but I think even there we can say that a violation only occurs if it is called. If no violation is called, there is no violation at all: only the proper pursuit of value.

    • Thanks Pat for your great feedback. A lot of interesting ideas here. First, I am tempted to agree with the idea that if no violation is called, there is no violation. At the same time, I am also uncomfortable with aspects of it. It is something I want to think about more but at the core, it smacks a little too much of subjectivism for me. The ump may call it a strike and everyone has to act like as if it is a strike, but we can also see that it is not a strike.

      Another point to call out in your response is the idea that the fundamental and primary value of sport is to win. Again, I am sympathetic to this view, but at the same time, I am not so sure it is THE primary value. I am, I think, more of a pluralist on this and think there are likely several values that coalesce as the set of values at the top of the hierarchy.

      Much food for though!

      • I know this is a late reply, but a couple of thoughts…

        Speaking of the subjectivism in sport as regards rule violations: Within the context of the competition, a pitch called a strike by the umpire is, in fact, a strike regardless of what anyone else asserts. It is only outside the context of the game — a position the participants cannot enjoy — that we see the pitch as a ball. Imagine if the umpire’s voice held a mystical power such that he could literally shape reality with his utterances. For the players, nothing would change. They could dispute the call, take issue with umpire’s rewriting of realty and kick as much dirt as they like — but their tantrum would have as little effect in that world as it does in this. If within that context, everyone has to act like it was a strike then within that context, it was a strike. It’s not subjectivism, but rather an objective recognition of the context. Perhaps this could be the beginning of a general theory of ethical relativity? : )

        I do think you’re probably right that the fundamental and primary value of sport is not to win. In most cases, winning is actually an instrumental value to the participant in so far as it affects his life outside of sport. Within the context of sport, perhaps it is better to say that the ultimate purpose is participation itself? Of course, then we may need to untangle whether the goal is continuation or excellence. Do we aim to be an active participant for as long as possible (implying that excellence is a means to that end), or do we aim for excellence in our participation above all else (implying that continuation allows us the time to grow into excellence)?

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